Mistakes to avoid when choosing an activity
5 mistakes parents make when choosing an extra-curricular activity
It’s a given – parents want what’s best for their child and if you’re reading this, you’re probably among the majority and want the absolute best for your child. It’s been proven many times over that extra-curricular activities have the ability to help children reach key social, emotional and developmental milestones. Now more than ever, parents are signing their child up for any and every lesson imaginable, hoping that they’ll find that key mix of activities that sets their child on the path to success. The truth is, just like most things, the right combination is key because the wrong combination can be detrimental. So, what is the right mix? How can parents choose what is best for their child?
Extra-curricular activities can help a child develop specific skills and character traits which may eventually set them on a path of improved performance at home, school, work and in life. Over the last 10-15 years, extra-curricular activities have become a monstrous industry which makes it even more challenging for parents to figure out what is best. The choices seem endless, and as a result of all these choices, there is an even greater chance that children will be enrolled in an activity that may actually slow their development rather than accelerate it.
When I was a kid, I could choose from a list of three activities: hockey, baseball and/or swimming. I’m not saying there weren’t other options (I even took some pottery classes when I was 6 or 7), but they were far from as popular as they are now. Now, every day children and parents are choosing to fill their free time with ‘stuff’ such as TV (the ‘idiot-box’ as my mom used to call it), iPads, video games, sports and lessons such as art, dance, gymnastics, swimming, cooking, climbing, music, language and much, much more. It’s no wonder that parents struggle to choose an activity and children jump from one to the next.
So, what does all this mean? Well, I believe that given the right tools you and your child (that’s right, they’re going to play a role in this) can choose extra-curricular activities in a smarter fashion to meet your individual needs.
In order to determine what to look for when enrolling your children in an activity, it’s helpful to understand some common pitfalls and things you should avoid…
Pitfall #1: Having no understanding of what your child needs to get out of the activity.
Let’s consider this. Your child wakes up in the morning and right away begins running, climbing, jumping and generally moves through every environment like the Tasmanian Devil. Do you know what to do? I know you don’t sign them up for pottery class – at least maybe not yet. When you’re choosing an activity, you know your child best, so tap into this knowledge to really think through their needs. Consider what skills they need to develop, and which activity will provide them with the opportunity to learn those skills. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
- Let’s say that your child has a tough time making friends and working with others. That skill is crucial to a person’s success in life. You see the value in developing personal relationships, you understand it’s a life skill that takes some practice, and you think it would be a benefit to your child. If that’s the case, then maybe a solo sport like tennis or golf isn’t for them. Perhaps a team sport, where they would get to learn how work with others and make friends may be a better choice.
- What if your child has a tough time paying attention, and they struggle with focus. Well then maybe martial arts is a good choice for them. The martial arts have a systematic series of goals that are linked with specific skill development, and is an excellent activity that helps children develop focus and uses goal setting techniques (as well as many other character traits).
- A child that matches the Tasmanian Devil example earlier has energy to spare, so why enrol them in violin lessons? Focus that energy in a constructive way by enrolling them in a program that promotes dynamic, high intensity exercise.
Pitfall #2: Choosing too many activities.
This is a tricky one because, how much is too much? Well, let’s say too much is when it begins to excessively infringe upon other family members’ time, school work suffers, it leaves the child with too little time to play and spend time with their friends or it leaves them with too little time to do nothing…yes, doing nothing is a great activity and we’ll come back to that.
Again, this is all subjective, but we’ve all seen the family with kids who run from one activity to the next, doing homework and eating dinner (read: fast food) in the car while they’re shuttled to their next activity. Being busy is good, but it’s been shown that sitting down and eating dinner as a family is linked to healthier lifestyle choices, better grades and lower rates of depression. In our quest to make kids healthy by enrolling them in an excessive amount of activities, we could actually be taking away the things that help the whole family improve. Ironic.
So, how do we know where the balance lies? Well, each family is unique, but it seems fair that each family member’s needs should be met by attending activities some nights out of the week, balancing that with other nights that are deemed as sacred family time together.
Pitfall #3: Choosing an activity JUST because your child’s friends are doing it.
One time I had a parent tell me that they had to sign their child up for hockey because “…all his friends play it…” to which I asked “What do you think he’ll get out of hockey?” and she couldn’t give me an answer. I find this pretty simple – it’s your child, do what’s best for them, even if they don’t always like it (you make them eat vegetables, right?). Another activity may be perfect for all of your child’s friends, but might not be suitable for your family because your child:
- Has different tendencies – perhaps they’re anxious, aggressive, shy, passive, can’t sit still, work best when they are sitting still, etc.
- Learns differently – maybe they’re an auditory learner, a kinaesthetic learner or a visual learner.
- Acts differently – maybe your child is comfortable in groups or maybe he/she struggles in groups.
- Is better behaved when she/he is not around their group of friends
- In general, has different needs than their peer group.
You know what’s best for your child so make your choices for an extra-curricular activity based on that knowledge, not what everybody else is doing.
Pitfall #4: Participating in a single activity at the expense of other things.
A friend of mine is a doctor and one day we got talking about his life once he had finished medical school. He talked about his lifestyle, which was financially stable, but what he lacked was friends. In his words, he had been so focussed and committed to becoming a doctor (which is a very noble thing) that he had lost the majority of his friends. I could tell that this affected him.
Throughout my years in the martial arts industry, I’ve been fortunate to train with some very elite athletes. They’ve committed their entire lives to attaining the level that they’ve achieved and they’ve done this at the expense of a lot of things like family, friends, their health, their finances and much more. And in the end, they’ve got some great work ethic but are good at only one thing. Given the odds of becoming an elite athlete, I’d rather have my child try many activities, be good at some stuff and have fun doing it. Don’t mistake this attitude as being against high-level competition. If your child is great at doing the Polka, that’s fantastic, but I don’t think that it should be the only thing that they do. And I’ve seen a pattern – really competitive activities for kids now require 4, 5, 6 and even 7 days a week of commitment and can run year-round. I think kids that participate in a variety of activities will be better-rounded people that will be able to adjust, relate and deal with a wider variety of situations.
Pitfall #5: Letting the child solely decide if they’ll participate.
This is a big one for me. When asked whether they want to enrol their child, I often see parents turn to their kids and say, “What do you want to do?”. Sir, your child is five, just finished school and is hungry. He wants to sit down, eat a snack and relax for a moment and I don’t blame him but asking him to make a decision is not a good plan right now. The reality is that kids don’t have a good grasp of what is good for them and what isn’t good for them at any given time. If I asked my daughter if she wanted ice cream for breakfast every day of the week, she would tell me ‘yes’ for sure. Every day. Without fail.
Letting your child choose what activity they’re going to do moving forward depends on a number of factors including time commitments, cost, the benefits that the child will experience AND their age. My three year old doesn’t get to pick her sole activity yet. Each season, we tell her “…here is what you are doing…” and then we take her. It doesn’t always go well, but that’s also why we don’t eat ice cream for breakfast everyday.
I don’t think that there’s a magical age when kids can start choosing what they do, but asking your five year old what they want to do and leaving it open isn’t effective. Once you’ve determined a group of activities that may meet your child’s needs (and we’re going to look at how to do that later in this book), provide them with some options, phrased as in “You need to do one activity so you can pick from guitar lessons, art class or robotics school”. Now your child has some boundaries that they can pick from and whatever they choose, it should work for your family.
So, how do I choose an activity?
There are a number of factors to consider when choosing an activity and different people will tell you different things, but here is what I believe should be your primary factors:
The first thing that I caution against is equating cost with value. As with everything else, you don’t always get what you pay for and other times you get the deal of the century. The best way to decide the value of the program is to look for reviews of the program and speak to other parents that are involved. This will give you the best idea of the quality of the program and what you’ll be paying for.
Aside from the regular fee required to participate, there can be a number of additional fees involved in your program. These can include:
- Uniforms or costumes,
- Test fees,
- Recital fees,
- Additional equipment required,
- Private lessons, as required,
- Travel expenses and more.
Figure out what your budget is and then keep that in mind as you shop around.
When you’re choosing an activity, consider whether this is an activity that your child could do for a long period of their life or is it something that will pass over time. I think it’s best if a child takes on an activity that they can carry into their teens and possibly their adult years. It teaches them to embrace a specific lifestyle and long-term commitment to something. Those are two traits or skills that will benefit them for years, versus weeks or months.
- Time requirements
We all seem to be a little bit busier and time has become a major commodity in our lives. Because of this, it’s really important to realize that if you’re going to be investing your time into something, that you invest it wisely. To get the most bang for you’re your buck when you’re choosing an activity, consider:
- How often do you need to participate in the activity? Two or three days a week may be something that you can fit into your schedule, but more than that may be difficult.
- In addition to the weekly commitment, how long is each class? My six year old may be able to handle an hour-long class, but my three year old definitely can’t.
- Are the class times flexible or strict? Some individual sports (such as martial arts) allow you to attend any day of the week, while team sports have a stricter schedule.
- Do you know ahead of time when your class/game is or does it change each week? This could be a major factor for families that are juggling multiple schedules and don’t have the flexibility that would be required for an always changing schedule.
- Commitment – 6 months, 1 year etc.
No matter what, if you’re looking to help your child develop a skill, a character trait or a new habit, the longer you do it, the better. They’ll become more involved and get a deeper understanding of what is involved the longer they’re doing it. This is why I can understand why some activities require you to commit to a certain length of time – let’s say 6 months. However, you also have to consider your cancellation options which can vary from activity to activity. Cancellation options could include:
- With written notice, X number of days prior to your next payment,
- On the anniversary date of your enrolment or,
- Only at the end of the program.
Whatever it is, make sure that you ask before you enrol and try a class if you’re able to.
- Family priorities – how much time do you want to spend together?
As important as extra-curricular activities are, I’ve definitely seen a movement towards families spending more time together, which is fantastic. As a parent, you have the best idea of how you want your child to develop and grow, so you don’t want activities to infringe on family time too much. That being said, you need to consider when you want to have family time – is it on the weekend, can you afford it during the week or do you just have to grab it whenever you can. Some activities for your child, depending on the level, could require you to spend weekends at tournaments, recitals or shows which could impose upon your key family time. For others, that travel time to those events is a bonding moment.
- Child’s interest – look for cues
One of the biggest mistakes that I see parents make is they fail to have an understanding of what the child wants to do. For example, when we were selecting an activity for our girls, my wife and I had no experience in the world of dance, but both of our daughters wanted to try it. We have both witnessed families who sacrifice a lot to be involved in dance on a competitive basis and that wasn’t for us. We talked about the fact that we didn’t want that lifestyle, but we knew our children would thrive in a non-competitive, recreational setting so we found a few programs that were more recreational than competitive. We also looked at the length of time we were comfortable with, and we knew we did not want to commit to a full calendar year of dancing. So, the 8 week program offered by our local Recreation Department fit the bill. We were able to balance our children’s interests with our lifestyle needs. We knew that everyone in the family will have a much better experience if the kids are participating in something that they actually want to do. Now, also take this with a warning:
No matter what your child is involved in, whether they love it or not, at some time they will probably say that they don’t want to do it.
If you go to the gym or participate in any other activity, you’ll know that you don’t always want to go. But two funny things happen in your head: you know it’s good for you/you know that you should go and second, once you’re there, you have an amazing time and are glad that you went. Your kids are no different and they will likely fight you at times. If you go into this experience acknowledging that this is bound to happen, you’ll probably handle it better as opposed to flying off the handle at the first whiny complaint! Check out the last section of this book for strategies to help minimize those battles at home before they start.
- Purpose – What do you want your child to get out of it?
If you’re looking at sports, here is a good breakdown of what you can get out of participating in a team sport:
- Attention/ focus
- Physical fitness/stamina
- Gross motor skills (running, jumping, kicking, balance, coordination)
- Social skills (team work, sportsmanship, communication, leadership)
- Behavioural skills (discipline, anger management, impulse control, how to manage e.g. their assertiveness, shyness, etc.)
It should be noted that team sports can address the same issues as individual sports for children and as children age and sports get more competitive, children may experience different improvements and benefits.
If you’re considering an individual sport (for example: gymnastics, dance, tennis, martial arts), you can expect improvements in the following areas (however noting that each child and each activity is different):
- Physical fitness/ stamina
- Gross motor skills
- Social skills (especially in competitive individual sports)
- Behavioural skills
- Self-esteem/awareness (for children who have low self- esteem, it is best to begin with non-competitive sports)
- For children who need counseling services (emotional, behavioral, and other) and are athletic, you may want to try movement therapy as an alternative or in addition to traditional “talk” therapy.
Here are some benefits to traditional clubs (for example: scouts, book clubs, religious youth groups, etc.)
- Social skills
- Behavioural skills
- Cognitive skills (learning, broadening education)
And lastly, some benefits from taking skill-specific classes (e.g. cooking, sewing, art, music, drama, etc.)
- Fine motor skills (dexterity, ability to do detail work)
- Cognitive skills (math, learning)
- Self esteem/awareness
- Behavioural skills
The arts are known for their therapeutic qualities. If you have a child who needs counseling services (emotional, behavioral, or other) and enjoys artistic activities, try art, drama or music therapy.
If you’re going to be spending hours, weeks, months or even years doing something, you’ll want to make sure that the facility is up to a standard that you feel is suitable. That should include cleanliness, light and temperature (I’ve been in facilities that are ovens in the summer and iceboxes in the winter). In addition, you may want to consider if there is free Wi-Fi, if there is a kids area (if you’re toting younger siblings along) and what the viewing arrangements are. I think an important factor is if you’re allowed to watch your child while they participate. At our daughter’s dance class, parents are asked to sit in a separate room and honestly, I don’t like that (as I mentioned earlier, the program met a number of other needs, so this is something we chose to look past). When you actively watch your child (and not your phone!), you get a better sense of the value of the program, you’ll understand how your child is progressing and if you’re the one ponying up the funds, these details are important! Plus, many children benefit from seeing the smiling face of a parent or loved one on the sidelines.
The program staff are a crucial part of whatever activity your child chooses. They’re not only a conduit for knowledge and experience, but they’re also role models, disciplinarians, friends and sometimes confidants. The staff can affect the entire experience that your child has, and make it either a positive or negative one. So how can they make the experience a positive one for your child? It’s best to ask other parents who already know the staff a series of simple questions:
- Do they treat the children with respect?
- Are they role models?
- Do they alter the activity to allow all children take part (recognizing that not all kids learn the same)?
- Do they use positive techniques to guide children’s behaviour?
- Overall, what is their attitude? Do they have an upbeat attitude that clearly reflects their enjoyment?
How do I ensure my kid will like this activity in the weeks and months to come?
Your children will inevitably show resistance when it comes to going places, and going to extra-curricular activities is no exception. You do not want to get into a power struggle with your child, so do what you can to ward off any objections before they come up. Here are some strategies for making sure that you minimize those battles:
- Kids, like adults, benefit from consistency. If your activity has a flexible schedule, still do your best to keep your kids to a schedule by maintaining regular days to attend. If they discover that it’s negotiable, they will challenge you when they don’t want to go. Also, you’re doing them some good because setting up a regular routine is a lifelong skill that will benefit them for years to come.
- Pre-frame your child in the morning of the days that they are going to class. This will give your child time to prepare mentally for class.
- Get involved! The best way to help your child succeed is to make them feel part of a group. If the activity you have chosen for them offers a kick-off BBQ, a pizza party, or movie night, bring your child so that they can feel like part of the team.
- The family that exercises together, succeeds together! If it’s a physical activity your child is involved with, watch out for opportunities to take part in Parent’s Week, parent vs. kids scrimmages, etc. Show your child the importance of physical activity; prove to your child that you can “walk the talk!”
- Power up! Provide your child with healthy snacks and water 30-60 minutes before class. Try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule.
- Avoid the temptation to compare your child’s progress to the other kids in the class. Every student advances at their own pace. However, if you have questions about your child’s progress, speak to the organizers who know your child who should objectively evaluate their development within the framework of the program, not compared to other kids.
- Empower your child with some responsibility. For example, ask your child to be responsible for their uniform by putting it in the wash regularly, ask them to store their instrument in the same spot and making sure it is packed and ready to go in the morning. They will of course need reminders, but again, this is a life skill that will take time to develop, while at the same time make it easier to get out the door for their activity.
- Talk! Any good program director will care about your child’s experience in their program. Give them feedback to let them know if there is anything that they can do to make your child’s experience even better!
Extra-curricular activities are an amazing thing as long as they’re chosen wisely. They can bring a family closer together, help a person develop the skills necessary to be a successful person and create healthy habits that will last them a lifetime. Good luck with choosing your activity, remember that as long as you start planning sooner, rather than later, you’ll have plenty of time to figure out what will fit you, your child’s and your family’s needs. If you have any questions about which activities may be best for your child, please don’t hesitate to ask me. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.