Every day I work with amazing kids! They have often reached near-expert status in an extracurricular activity such as music, debate, dance, or athletics. They have invested years in their chosen field and parents have often spent a great deal of time and money to help them reach those heights. Sometimes families choose to homeschool specifically to give their children time to pursue these adventures. However, somewhere along the way the lines get blurry and we can tend to forget why we are doing what.
I have often seen education suffer so a student can pursue their passion, even in cocurricular activities like debate. The student gets so involved in the “doing” – polishing cases, going to tournaments, or coaching younger students, that in the windup, they get a lousy education. They might know how to argue. They might be an expert at flowing their opponent’s position. They might even win tournaments. But if they don’t know math and cannot hold their own in an upper level English class, they aren’t going to a good college. I will agree that advanced debaters learn valuable skills, but parents tend to forget that those skills are very limited and that kids need a much wider range of abilities to be successful in this world.
So is debate a future career path or a hobby? If a kid can argue or is articulate, folks automatically think law school is in their future. Maybe it is, but the association is not as tight as most think it is. To go to law school, you need to get into a good college, which means you need a rigorous high school program (in all subjects, not just debate). Lawyers in the know will tell you that to recoup the expenses incurred through law school, you usually need to matriculate to one of the top five law schools. Most people I know that have the law degree have gone on to other things (finding law not what they thought it would be) or are actively talking to younger students and discouraging them from going into debt for something that rarely pans out and works new attorneys into the ground. There are some kids that should pursue law and politics, but that should be a prayerful and thoughtful choice made after many questions and much investigation, not a knee-jerk reaction because we are too lazy to do our homework.
Perhaps you have a musician. These students spend even more hours per day in practice and quickly loose skill if they don’t. Education can also take a back seat for these kids and they can get to the end of high school with no options but to go to conservatory or major in music.
When my daughter was making the decision about conservatory (she was practicing 5 hours a day as a 12-year-old), she talked to another musician, who chose, in her words “to keep music for love.” This woman got a good education, had a great career, and enjoyed her music on the side. After years of soul searching, Natalie eventually realized that to give her all to her art as a teen would destroy her options to do anything else. She also realized that spending 6 hours a day practicing in college, going through juries, etc. would have eventually killed her love for her violin.
So, while Natalie chose engineering in college, she purposefully decided to continue to take lessons because she knew that one hard hour a week in lessons would keep her from losing skills (her goal). Most of her friends who were musicians in high school took one of two tracks. They went to conservatory or they completely lost their music in college because they quit practicing. Since she had purposefully chosen music as a hobby and loved it so much, she actually made a bit of progress in college. As a young professional woman, she is now in a lucrative job, plays in a chamber group, and has a life and ministry.
There is nothing wrong with choosing a music major or conservatory. Some kids are called to be professional musicians, but again, this is too often a default position and not a conscientious choice.
As you are making decisions about the role of an extracurricular activity in your teen’s life, here are a few things to think about:
1. Very few athletes, dancers, musicians “make it” as far as financially supporting themselves. The largest share of them reach middle age as a part of a herd of supporting folks even though they’ve devoted their lives to their art and have to work side jobs to eat. Does your child honestly have what it takes to be a star or should their activity stay a hobby?
2. How good is good enough? My daughter made the hard choice in upper high school that she was going to focus on academics to get into a great college and thus had to limit her music to 2 hours a day. She told her teacher (who was not initially happy) that she would give him everything she had in those 2 hours, but that was all she could give. She decided what level was good enough. She could continue to grow and love her art form, but on a limited basis so that she would have many options later in life.
3. Will this activity be a source of joy throughout life? I don’t personally know any 50-year-old ballerinas or quarterbacks, but I know of plenty of 60, 70-year old musicians and runners.
Recently a very wise father looked at his daughter’s life-consuming activity and asked her, “To what end?” and “At what price?” In other words, where was this activity headed both in high school, college, and the rest of life? What was the end goal of all this extreme sacrifice? Was she really willing to continue to give up so much? If your student is participating in a life-consuming activity, here is a question to ask:
4. In the scheme of life, are you willing to give up family, friends, academic opportunity, other activities, ministry opportunities, breathing room, and fun for this one activity that may or may not turn out like you think? If you come down on the side of keeping an activity for love, it is imperative to balance that with rigorous high school academics. If your student is truly gifted and can flourish on the national scene with their activity, you might need to re-think college. That shocks people because in this country we think every student should go to college, but that is just not the case. There are many wonderful apprenticeship programs, conservatories, art schools, and institutes that cater to talented young people. Make sure what your goals are and why you have those goals in the first place.
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