I recently had a fascinating conversation with an extremely successful engineer. When queried, he explained to me how he acquired such a stunning skill set. As a young professional, he always volunteered for the tough jobs, the new experiences, while many of his co-workers settled into the routine (and rut) of the same thing every day. He commented that, at the end of a decade, instead of having 10 years of experience, they had 1 year of experience 10 times. Read that again. Now think about it.
As a college consultant, I often see high school profiles with exactly the same problem – students with a consuming activity that runs along unchanged and shallow throughout the high school career. A similar problem happens when students take a shotgun approach and attempt tons of activities without doing anything very well, again staying superficial. Both problems can be solved by going deeper. It is always better to do less and do it very well. But even the less needs to go deep.
Some consuming activities, by their very nature, demand inordinate amounts of time and resources. To be successful, students must invest countless hours on a daily basis. Some examples that come to mind are music, where the top flight performers spend 4-6 hours in the practice room daily; debate, in which students are constantly researching and refining their cases, traveling to weekly meetings and frequent tournaments; sports, where athletes have multiple practices, training sessions, and games per week.
Don’t get me wrong. These are all good things if they are held in the proper balance with academics, family commitments, and the rest of life. But there are problems if we continue on year after year with just a new piece of music to learn or a new debate topic to research. These students are, in essence, repeating the same experience they had last year.
My first area of concern in the scenario is lack of personal growth. Being human, it is all too easy to run on the well-greased skids of the familiar. Finding our strength and sticking with it is efficient and comfortable. But it is also boring in a life or in an application to a top college. From a college admissions standpoint, if you’ve seen one debater, you’ve usually seen them all.
I am not advocating a new set of activities every year. We do not want to encourage our children to be Serial Joiners – students who randomly join a whole new group of activities each year and drop their old ones like last year’s fashions. Rather we want to encourage intensity – to take our student’s interests or passions to a deeper level with each passing year. We want to stretch them in new ways, open up new possibilities, perhaps find a new vision or an unknown talent.
Being a Parent
It has often been my job as a parent to make life uncomfortable in order to train my student to embrace the unknown, accept the difficult, or create the new. I firmly believe that this is a habit that can be trained and cultivated.
As a Youth Development Specialist, then a parent/teacher, now a consultant, I have always wanted my students to do more than just participate, blindly following the lead of others. Not much soul-searching happens when you are just a part of a crowd. Repeatedly over the years, I have watched a magical transformation take place when the young person attempted to create something totally new. The miracle happens within the creative act itself. I have never been able to predict the outcome of this risk-taking, but I always see students walking taller, developing a quiet confidence, learning to take ownership of their lives. In this undertaking there is always the possibility of failure, but if they are not failing or encountering difficulties on occasion, they aren’t stretching far enough. Set the bar too low and they’ll never discover who they could have been.
Brainstorming the Possibilities
I encourage you to set aside an uninterrupted afternoon and take a hard look at your child’s activity schedule and brainstorm together for ways to go deeper. Perhaps it is time for the musician to open his own teaching studio and share his joy with other youngsters. Let him job shadow a music teacher or professional musician. You will be amazed (and surprised) at what he will learn. Perhaps your musician loves the elderly or has a grandparent at a nursing home. Why not play routinely for these shut-ins or, better yet, organize other friends and have a whole program once a month? Your student might enjoy the other end of the age continuum better – how about taking his instrument into elementary classrooms, explaining it, giving its history and playing for tiny children? He could present programs in music history to local civics groups. Another idea would be to use his talents to organize a fundraiser or take an entrepreneurial path and create a chamber music group to play for profit. He could learn to conduct or compose, write for a music magazine, or take classes in pedagogy or music history.
What if you have an athlete? We must be honest and realize that very few athletes will ever make it to the big leagues, so we need to think ahead. If your child is totally sold on sports, let him job shadow any and every profession that might be tied to sports – coaches, trainers, sports managers, physical therapists, maybe even a doctor specializing in sports medicine. Take AP classes in chemistry, biology, and math and work hard in them. Maybe he could work summers in a PT clinic or volunteer in a sports camp for inner city kids.
Many debaters have aspirations in politics or law, yet are so busy they let their school work slide, making it impossible to get into schools that would prepare them well for these fields. This type of student needs to write well. Period. And please be aware that debate briefs are only one, very limited, type of writing. They need to excel at all types of written communication as well as verbal communication. They should be taking tough classes in English, history, economics, political science. Think about job shadowing attorneys, economists, politicians. Summers could be spent in law offices or working in political campaigns. Perhaps this type of student could volunteer to do research for think tanks, professors, or lawyers. They can write thought pieces for local newspapers or Public Service Announcements for local radio stations. They could organize Get Out the Vote drives, campaign fundraisers, and literature distributions. Many teens are quite capable of holding precinct chairmanships or being in charge of large events. Debaters can teach others about their passion through coaching or taking the responsibility of organizing a new tournament (coordinating other students or adults to help). As you can see, the possibilities are endless.
Speaking Vision into their Lives
There are a few students who will naturally take the lead in challenging themselves and expanding their world, but more often it will take the wisdom of adulthood to speak vision into the lives of our young charges. We can paint, with broad brush strokes, a picture of what the future might look like, as well as explain the skills it will take to get there. Perhaps you have a budding scientist with weak math skills, a future congressman who is a lousy writer, a prospective professor who is afraid of public speaking, or a teacher with poor organization skills. The solution is a no-brainer. Fix it. Whether it means hiring a tutor, requiring a daily tracking of time use to fix organizational or time management problems, or jointly planning a huge event to take their skill set up a level (or two or three).
As we begin to think through all the possibilities, we want to follow our student’s heart (their intense passions or interests), but we also want to challenge their pre-conceived ideas of who they are and what they have to offer the world. Going deeper will help accomplish this. Perhaps your science geek unexpectedly finds that he is also a capable administrator. This opens up all kinds of potential careers. On the flip side, if he discovers that his personality is not at ALL suited to administration, he can save himself a lot of heartache in midlife by pursuing other options that are more in keeping with who he was created to be (think Peter Principle). Either discovery is a valuable one.
When we encourage these stretching experiences, we are giving our child the rare gift of insight into themselves. They might find holes that need fixing, unexpected strengths, a new way of thinking, possibly a new career direction, or deepened empathy. Whatever they discover, good or bad, they will come away enriched.
Kids on Loan
I encourage you to see them, not as children, but as soon-to-be adults on loan to us briefly from God. We have so little time to equip and empower them. Give your student a life filled with experiences, not one experience repeated throughout their lifetime.
I have personally found this type of mentoring to be an intense job, but one filled with daily delight as I watch understanding begin to dawn, skills improve, or a personal vision snap into sharp focus for the young adult walking beside me on the journey. Activities of depth give me the opportunity to train in the midst of the activity and share insight accumulated through the years. Quite honestly, this season of taking them deeper was one of the highlights of my parenting experience. Don’t miss out on the fun!
Copyright 2010 Home Life, Inc., PO Box 1190, Fenton, MO 63026-1190, (800) 346-6322, www.home-school.com. Originally published in Practical Homeschooling # 92. A Practical Homeschooling subscription is $19.95 for six issues. Used by permission.
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