Thursday, October 18, 2007


(News-Herald, October 18)It’s a tough job to steer one’s child through the world of activities. Sports programs, music programs, dance studios, general activity programs—we’re loaded with them in Venangoland, both in and out of schools. The challenge as a parent is to figure out which provide good use of time and money.

Part depends on the goal of involvement. Some people with a talent seek ways to enrich and develop it. Some people simply want to have their wonderfulness confirmed.

Confirmation is easy. Give the young persons constant praise. Always tell them (and their parents) how wonderful they are; never critique or criticize them. Of course, feedback that would interrupt this unending praise is also feedback that would allow them to grow and develop their talents.

There are often perks. There will be a super-special trip to the East Podunk Arts Festival as featured performers, or a spot in the line-up of the Outer Bogwomp Intraleague Playoffs. But all these “exclusive” events require of participants is the ability to write a check that won’t bounce.

These types of programs can be fine. They create some great childhood memories and as an adult, the young person can reminisce about the talent that he never really developed.

For those who do want to grow, there’s another type of balance to strike, and that’s the balance between the needs of the student and the needs of the program.

Drift too far to either end of the scale and things get ugly. There are parents who think, for instance, that schools sports exist only to provide a platform for their Little Johnny to take his next step toward Awesome Sports Success. Other players, the teams, the school, even Little Johnny’s own education—all of that is inconsequential next to Little Johnny’s need to Be the Biggest Star.

This approach is not particularly character-building, and Little Johnny either grows up to be a colossal self-centered jerk, or he finally gets fed up and tells his hard-driving parents to take a flying leap off the top of the Oil City sign.

Neither leads to great success. And the number of great sports legends to come from Venangoland is not something you need a lot of extra hands to count. You can try to get everything possible for your sports prodigy, but if your child doesn’t come out of the program with some character, the rest is meaningless.

An important part of character is the ability to devote time and effort to something larger than yourself. But on the other ugly end of the scale we find coaches and directors who believe that students exist only as fodder for The Program.

There’s no question that in the arts and sports, you ask students to make sacrifices now to pay off down the road. You practice till it hurts because later you’ll be better. You take one for the team because that’s part of being a member of a team.

But if you are always taking one for the team, and the team never takes one for you, something’s wrong. It’s like being a renter instead of an owner—you pay and pay and pay and still the result never belongs to you, but is always the property of the real owner. His band, his team, his show. His pride and success.

Parents whose child is charting this world need to watch out for the best interests of that child, and they have a right, and perhaps an obligation, to walk away from a leader who does not have the best interests of the student in mind.

Yes, these sorts of endeavors require time and effort and sacrifice. But if the student is being asked to give up a sizeable chunk of his life, and the return on that investment is supposed to be the satisfaction of making his Glorious Leader successful, something is out of whack.

No fair answering, “But Janey loves practicing her accordion sixty hours a week” if you’ve taught her since birth that she has to love it or you will be Very Disappointed. If you’ve created an atmosphere at home where your child can’t tell you the truth, you have another problem.

Because in the end, your child is your guide. The average shmoe can tell the team’s winning and still not be sure whether it’s any good. Audiences can take in a performance and not know whether it required virtuoso skills or was so easy that trained chimps could have managed it. They have to take someone’s word for it. But the final measure of the worth of a program is whether it enriches your child’s life, or makes it miserable; whether it helps her grow up or merely makes her wish she could be old enough to quit on her own.

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