When it comes to new experiences for your children, there are trade-offs. We don't want to over-schedule our children to the point that they're stressed, but also we don't want them to miss out on exciting opportunities or the chance to develop a new passion. We don't want to provide too much pressure so that they feel like they always have to perform at a high level, but we also know that if we don't push them sometimes they might not try new things or grow to their full potential. Ultimately, we want them to be prepared for future obstacles because they have experience with challenging situations where they have persevered even when things felt tough.
Nothing you can do as a parent will be “the perfect choice”, and every family relationship is unique and different. Without being too prescriptive, we can learn from the following principles that might spark a discussion in your household and encourage your son to try new experiences.
The Right Balance
Above all else, your son should approach new activities from a place of balance. If your son is overscheduled or overburdened with homework and already has a lot of extracurricular activities, he won’t have the necessary mental space to take on new things. Dr. Shimi Kang thoroughly outlines the importance of balance in her book, The Dolphin Way. Dr. Kang shares, “If one’s life is lacking in basic balance (for example, lacking sleep, exercise, or social connection), any self-motivation that one has will be directed towards reestablishing balance first and meeting new challenges later.” This precisely illustrates why so many students (and for that matter adults!) choose to flop in front of a screen when given downtime rather than tackle a new project or hobby. It’s not out of laziness but out of a need for balance.
Boys are Designed for This
However, when approaching new experiences from a place of balance, it’s clear from research that children are designed for new sensations. Just think about the toddler placing everything in his mouth. It’s not because he is hungry, it’s because he is figuring out his world one sense at a time.
“All this scientific research points in the same direction: Childhood is designed to be a period of variability and possibility, exploration and innovation, learning and imagination.” - Alison Gopnik
In her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, Alison Gopnik focuses on reframing the role of the parent. Drawing on both developmental psychology and philosophy, Gopnik uses a central metaphor of a gardener and a carpenter to argue that rather than viewing our children as something to help build–like a carpenter would view a wood-working project–we should rather see our role as providing the fertile soil and right environment in which they can grow.
Gopnik eloquently advises, “Our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. We can’t make children learn, but we can let them learn.”
Keeping the Stakes Low
It's important to frame these new activities in a low-stakes way. Maybe you are right that your son has a lot of untapped potential, but if you add all that extra pressure, that could be a surefire way to add unneeded stress to the situation. Clearly, this is hard. Nowadays there is so much after-school programming available that parents might just enroll their son in as many camps and clubs as possible. And it’s clear that college admission standards are changing and becoming more challenging than ever, so it’s natural to worry that if we don't provide extra opportunities for our children now they're going to miss out on important opportunities in the future.
However, there is evidence that points to the benefits of being well-rounded. For example, studies in the field of athletics are showing that hyperspecialization is not the unqualified good that some think it is. In his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein describes this in detail. Epstein points out how Roger Federer didn’t even start playing competitive tennis until he was 14, and part of the reason he became so good at the sport was because he approached it from a novel perspective. It is the range of individual experiences that contribute to your son’s success as a whole.
Challenge Vs Freedom
This all sets up the central trade-off between challenge and freedom. Structured activities often provide an appropriate challenge for your son. Trying new things is often challenging and stressful–but in a good way! You can’t develop new habits and grow without starting at square one and growing through failure. However, too many activities lead to an over-scheduled boy. This lack of downtime can impact sleep schedules and create stress for parents juggling schedules and chauffeuring their children around.
On the other hand, too much free time can lead to unhealthy habits. Video games are a great way for boys to enjoy downtime and connect with friends online, but too much time in front of those screens can be destructive and interfere with responsibilities.
To put these concepts into practice, here are a few principles, in no particular order, that have served boys I've worked with as well as my own two children.
1. Give your son a lot of agency. Let him choose what to start. (e.g., “You can pick one out of these three activities.”)
2. Start small. Any exciting activities will offer trial lessons, and if they don’t, you can always ask to shadow.
3. Own your mistakes! It is very possible that your family already has habits that make some of these principles challenging to enact. If that's the case, acknowledge it and reboot the conversation.
4. Take responsibility, no matter the age of your child. A gardener would not ignore a massive weed or glaring lack of water. Likewise, as the adult in the situation you are able to see what’s going to be beneficial or prohibitive in the long term for your child.
5. Keep learning and growing yourself! Maybe one of the ideas mentioned above has piqued your interest.
While we will always have a powerful desire to protect our children and provide for them, it’s so important to avoid acting out of fear. I suggest that whatever you do involves having a plan, slowing down your decision-making process, and anything else that helps you act more thoughtfully. I personally benefit a great deal from reading books and listening to podcasts; the authors and titles mentioned above would be a great place to start having a conversation with your partner and other parents.