Tuesday, February 26, 2013


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?


Wendy Nixdorf said...

I've seen this pattern so many times with my daughter in her short 11 years. She loved, loved, loved to read until AR was introduced into her life and reading become just another thing grownups made her do. For her, being told she has to do something just sucks the joy right out of it. Piano has been the another big example. She had 2 years of formal lessons and we went through all the agony of demanding, bribing.....whatever to get her to practice. In the end we were all miserable so we just stopped. We sold the piano but kept the keyboard. Two years later with no input on our part she started playing again. She started by watching videos on Youtube that show you how to play popular songs but after awhile she found that she could pretty much listen to a song and figure out how to play it. That is something we NEVER would have discovered with formal lessons. My experience with school is that there is never room for a kid to just explore what they find interesting or express themselves in a way that makes sense for them. It's play by this set of rules or you will be punished by a bad grade. I do take some comfort that at least at home I can provide space for her to figure out what she likes, doesn't like with no grownup telling her she "has to".

Anonymous said...

I think that the unfortunate thing is that we've begun to gravitate towards making school itself something that consumes students. My life could simply be studying and a few extra-curriculars, and I would be applauded for that. It's very difficult to be a "great" student and at the same time do "great" things outside of school. Students are expected to follow the rules and in a sense lay low, then once they leave the system they can begin to think about actually doing something on their own initiative.

Karen W said...

Same here. High school guidance counselor insisted we couldn't get into college without National Honor Society and lots of other extra-curriculars. I refused to apply for NHS and stuck to just theater. Turns out the guidance counselor was wrong (as I had suspected).

I come from a large family too--we had to be committed enough to activities to arrange our own rides to them. Parents were too busy to force activities on us and I think we all turned out all right. I suppose I might say, I wish my parents had made it easier for me to participate in a particular activity, but I'd never say that I wish they had forced me to participate.