Saturday, February 7, 2009

O Brother, What Art Thou?

I started my Saturday by reading the transcript of Carolyn's live chat from yesterday. (Is there any other way to start the weekend than with a cup of coffee and an advice columnist chat transcript?)

The situation of a woman who wrote in really struck a chord with me. She had 10-year-old twin sons and it's time to decide whether or not to sign them up for baseball. They don't really like to play, she says, and show no interest in getting better. They'd rather not sign up, but their dad (who she admitted was not available to take an active role in getting them to practices, games, etc.) was insistent. The mom had mixed feelings...her biggest concern seemed to be that they'd be missing a lesson about "sticking with" things. She also said they like biking, swimming, kung fu, basketball...just not baseball.

This makes me nuts! If we had to "stick with" everything we ever tried indefinitely, I would be a dancer, baseball/softball player, gymnast, potter/artist, horseback rider, pianist, floor hockey player, black belt in karate, actress, choir member, badminton player, clarinetist AND saxophonist....etc.

Wait, scratch that. I would only be a dancer and a softball player, because those were the first two organized activities I ever tried, and there wouldn't have been room for anything else. A DANCER and a SOFTBALL PLAYER. Me. I would be miserable and not good at the activities that consumed my life--which is why I stopped doing them in the first place. Childhood and adolescence should be a time to try out a number of different skills, seeing what you're good at and what you like, and shaping yourself from there. You have to stick with it, sure...but it also has to stick a bit on its own. My brother and I always, always finished the season/session, but were never required to sign up again the next year.

(P.S., looking back at that list, it seems that I was quite a spaz. But it's not that I was signing up at random for particularly exclusive/expensive training in any of these things--horseback riding was probably the only one, and I'm grateful I had a shot to try it. Mostly they were park district things or school-sponsored activities I just wanted to find out more about, and enjoyed--but had no reason to commit to)

I did stick with band, writing, and major involvement in my church youth group and choir, and had a part-time job practically from the day I turned 16 (and stuck with the same one until I went to college, even working while home on break until the store where I worked closed). But enough about me--this issue resonated with me so much that I wanted to write in to Carolyn about it. I think my parents' flexibility in letting my brother and I choose our activities, experiment, and move in new directions was incredibly valuable. We learned self-discipline--we also learned to value our time and prioritize our passions, interests, obligations and choices because our schedules were not predetermined. So I wrote to Carolyn, in what ended up being an Ode to my Cool Brother. I think he and I did a lot of the same kind of things in terms of trying (and yes, quitting) different activities. But since the original chatter was asking about boys and about baseball, his life seemed to fit the situation better. So here's what I wrote to Carolyn:

Hi Carolyn and team,

The baseball twins from yesterday's chat remind me of my brother. When he was little he was in park district soccer and baseball and played on a church basketball team. He didn't really take to any of these things--never wanted go to practice, didn't show or develop much skill, and worst, just didn't enjoy the atmosphere of being on the team and playing the game. He was an anomaly among his friends because of this. [Forgot to include this to Carolyn, but he was also often frustrated and embarrassed. I have this really painful memory of his end-of-the-year soccer dinner where the coach played "we are the champions" on a boombox and each kid had to stand on a chair to be gazed upon, talked about by the coach, and receive a trophy. BJW either pouted through it, or hammed it up inappropriately, and got a "talking to" afterwards. Really he was just incredibly uncomfortable with the whole thing]. He got through the sports for a few years, and when he said he wanted to quit, my parents, despite possible reservations, let him make the call.

He, like the twins in the chat, took up karate and excelled at it for a number of years. He got involved in drama in junior high, and was basically the head of the tech department by his senior year of high school. He was still an anomaly, in that his individuality and creativity made him the rock star of his high school. He performed a killer Jimi Hendrix-style national anthem at the homecoming pep rally his senior year, and was voted prom king, despite (because of?) attending prom dressed as a pirate. He took up guitar lessons in third grade, with much discussion from my parents about the need to practice and stick with it. [another addendum: in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade, he performed Beatles songs with three other kids in the elementary school talent show. They were always one of the few groups to actually play and sing, not just choreograph a kickline to the pop music of their choice]. Now at 22 he's a music composition major, teaches guitar to kids and adults (works 20+ hours a week while in school full time), and runs an amateur recording studio out of his living room.

If the issue is getting exercise, he doesn't "work out" or play sports, but he does walk several miles a day from the train station to his university (he commutes). If the issue is learning to work with a team, he did that with the tech crew, and still does with his job, where they all contribute to running a small, family-owned music shop (not our family, though he's become basically part of theirs). By nature he's more of an individual worker--so am I--but he's not incapable of working with others. There are many ways to achieve the ends of physical fitness and teamwork mindset.

It drives me nuts when parents define abandoning any sport or activity as "quitting." I think making it through the season and then opting not to do it again the next year is perfectly legitimate. Of course getting to the end of the season is important for all kinds of reasons--not letting down the team and coach by disappearing, not wasting money, and simply practicing self-discipline. But if signing up for something and giving it a fair shot isn't enough for us to make a decision about whether or not to continue, how will we ever find the time to try new things?

I think the worst possible consequence would be to teach your children to hang back from trying new sports, activities, clubs, etc. because they fear they won't be able to get out of it if they don't like it or don't have the skill.

Becky in Ann Arbor


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you, Becky. I told my students all the time that, eventually, giving up activities is necessary (even healthy), but that a commitment means you stick it out to the end. Well said.

Becky said...

Thanks Ashley! Clearly this is something I feel pretty strongly about. I think my parents did a great job of allowing us to make our own decisions and select our own preferences while still expecting us to live up to our responsibilities. It seems so silly to just commit to something for the sake of committing to it. If you don't like it and it makes your life worse, and there are no ancillary benefits (like a paycheck), what are you really committing to? Throwing away your time, energy and talent? Seems pointless.