I confess that I was a little refusenik: I wouldn’t learn an instrument, I wouldn’t play a sport, I wouldn’t join the Boy Scouts, etc. As an adult, sure, I think it would be great to know how to play the piano. But that’s not who I was at that time, and no one forced it on me.
I have no way of knowing whether I’d be better off if my parents (or my school) had been more prescriptive about how I spent my time, but I don’t think we should be too quick to dismiss kids’ own judgments about what to pursue. For all our data, growing up remains a mysterious thing. When I was young, I spent a lot of time very much in my own world, a lot of time by myself, and a lot of time doing things of no apparent value. I watched enormous quantities of television. I didn’t participate in any organized after-school activities. I read magazines and comic books but almost no “real” books, except what few were assigned in school. Nobody intervened. My parents had five other kids and bigger things to worry about. Those were the days.
Eventually, though—fifteen? sixteen?—I got tired of TV and suddenly became interested in the outside world. By the end of high school I was an aspiring politician and the go-to volunteer on local Democratic party campaigns—ringing doorbells, staffing phone banks, bonding with the local party regulars, and plotting my own future runs for office. No one could have been more surprised than my parents.
Anecdotal, yes. But does the prevailing way of thinking about kids leave room for that kind of anecdote?