a little boy kicking a soccer ball
(Pixabay CC0)

Why I don’t force my kids into a million extracurriculars

My 3-year-old son Harvey took a weekly soccer class this fall, and it was the cutest. He raced down the field after his ball, listened quietly and seriously as his coach explained the rules for each drill, and gleefully slapped high fives.

When his coach sent him off for a water break, he would run to me, grab the water bottle and tip his neck all the way back as he chugged. I would ask him, “Are you listening to your coach? Are you working hard?” And eyes on me, sucking water down his throat, he would nod his sweaty head yes.

As the classes drew to a close, the coach informed me that sign-ups were now open for the winter session. “Harvey’s made a lot of progress,” the coach told me. “His skills have really improved.”

The state of my 3-year-old’s ball-handling skills doesn’t much matter to me, and I cheerfully told the coach that we weren’t planning on enrolling for the next session. The coach’s next question: “Is he going to do a different sport?” Nope. Soccer was fun but now it’s done. (Parents of preschoolers will get the Daniel Tiger reference.)

I’m always interested in why people sign their kids up for extracurricular activities, and I’ve observed three main reasons, that, in their own ways, say something about a family’s parenting philosophy.

The first, and one that applies to Harvey’s adventures in soccer, is parental convenience. When I took Harvey to the park one morning a week for soccer, it wasn’t because I felt it was important for him to start developing his footwork. It was because I needed something for us to do on the one day of the week that he doesn’t have preschool so that I could hold onto my sanity, and Harvey likes to play with balls.

Same goes for when my husband and I took our older son, Nate, to music class on Sunday mornings when he was a baby. We were new parents, and weekends with a baby were long. Some parents in the class engaged the instructor in serious conversations about developing their baby’s musical awareness, but we just needed a way to get ourselves out of the house.

The second reason I see kids attending various activities is because their parents think it’s best for them. This encompasses life skills, such as swimming lessons, as well as cultural and religious activities, such as Hebrew school. We send our kids to swim lessons in the summer because we don’t want them to drown, and we attend a low-key Jewish family education program. So check, and check.

What we don’t do is sign our kids up for particular activities because we think it will grow their brains or give them specific formative experiences. A lot of kids on youth sports teams are there not because they want to be there, but because their parents sincerely believe that being on a team is an important experience for them to have. And they may be right. Likewise, there’s good evidence to suggest that playing an instrument yields academic benefits.

But at the end of the day — and this may say something about the stubbornness of my own children — I’m not going to go to the mat to convince them to do activities that they don’t naturally want to do, especially as they get older. And it’s important to me that they have plenty of unstructured time (7-year-old Nate does one or two activities a week, and Harvey does one at most), so I’m not going to stuff their afternoons full of things that they’re not enthusiastic about.

The final category is the one that’s most important in our family, which is following our kids’ interests. Nate has strong opinions about his likes and dislikes, and the things he really likes are running and art. So this summer meant art camp, and after school means running club. He might start some climbing or tumbling in January as we find it’s important to seek out extra physical activities in the winter when outdoor playtime is curtailed. On his free afternoons, we’ll do origami and drawing inside and shiver at the playground.

As for Harvey, since soccer ended he’s been spending his Mondays at IKEA and Trader Joe’s with me, and both of us are fine with it. As he gets older, he can learn to dribble with the best of them if he chooses. I’ll be waiting with his water bottle on the sidelines.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.