Friday, August 12, 2011

Excellence and Priorities

A few months ago, I took Eliza, Ashton and Isaac to an amazing concert put on by the Gifted Children's Music School in Salt Lake.  We went into a beautiful concert hall and watched children ages 8-12 perform amazing feats with their instruments.  It was breathtaking to see these small people execute extremely difficult music with stupendous skills (I played violin for many years so I could really appreciate how hard the music was that they performed).  My kids were mesmerized right along with me.

I sat there wondering whether perhaps I had a gifted musician in my family. I mean Ashton's taught himself some chords on the guitar and can play lots of songs by ear and was the star of his old school's "orffestra" when he played his own composition on the xylophone at the concert.  And Isaac's got serious rhythm.  And Eliza sings beautifully and can pick out songs on the piano by ear. Could they be amazing musicians if I took the time to get them involved in serious lessons and sat by them to practice every day?  Could I squeeze in all the time that would entail?  Should I kick other things out of our lives to make room for the kids to really develop deep skills in some areas?

After the concert, we went to a reception where we got a chance to talk to some of the brilliant young performers.  We found out that most of them practiced 4-8 hours a day.  Music was their life and they really seemed to love it.  And this intense focus seemed to work for them (and hopefully for their families).

But you know what, I don't think that would work for my kids or our family. We like to do too many different things. And there are a lot of us. With each child just participating in one or two pretty basic extra-curricular activity (the boys do Scouts weekly and play on a basketball team in the winter, Eliza has weekly dance classes, the twins do soccer plus we do some music lessons here and there), it still seems like it's hard to protect our family dinner times, the hiking and biking we love doing together most Saturdays, and the free time to read and play together that I think kids really need.  And I know it'll only get harder to protect family time and free time as the kids get older.

My mom has pointed out that people can generally be either "highly-sharpened" or "well-rounded". I guess we're going more for "well-rounded" than "highly-sharpened" in our family. And I'm OK with that.  It seems right for us. I do hope all my kids can feel the thrill of really excelling at something in their lives - and I'm pretty sure those opportunities will arise as we watch for them.  But right now, I thank my lucky stars that my kids haven't shown any really strong inclination towards the expensive, consuming talents that some children have.  I just don't know if I'd have the patience and stamina (or money) to support a truly gifted child in pursuing his or her talent for years and years.  Maybe that's why God didn't give me any of those Gifted Music School students!

I think it's important to decide what really matters most to our family and then fit other stuff around that. For some families, perhaps true excellence and "sharpening" for their talented children is an important priority and everything else can be carefully fitted into the spaces around practicing and performing.  For other families, perhaps less structure and more time for imagination and play feels like a priority that needs to be placed above the priority of excellence. For most families, certain seasons mean certain priorities while other seasons lend themselves to other priorities.  I don't think there is any one "right" set of priorities when it comes to extracurricular activities and the pursuit of excellence.

But I do think that we need to stop and really think about our priorities from time to time.  It can be so easy to assume that soccer or dance or piano lessons are just what kids are "supposed" to do - and to feel frustrated when our kids don't seem to excel at anything in particular. Maybe it's better to figure out what's most important to us as a family and let our children's interests and talents evolve - and then build out from there as far as extracurricular activities. Sure, it's great for kids to be exposed to many different possible talents and interests and to be urged to pursue excellence in ways that will be meaningful to them.  But ultimately, I think it's important to protect our highest priorities for our kids and our family as we carefully choose and generally limit the activities we make a part of our lives.

Maybe we'll just be excellent at being well-rounded in our family and leave the highly-sharpened excellence to others. I can applaud and appreciate other people's excellence and develop my own brand of excellence while encouraging my children to do the same.


kara jayne said...

love this post saren. i struggle with this everyday. i love how you said that perhaps you will be 'highly sharpened' at being 'well rounded'.

this may sound funny, but i have always felt like i was really good at appreciating others talents. i'm not sharpened at anything, but i can identify it and admire it others.

Tiffany said...

My comment seemed much shorter in the email...

I loved your article. It made me think about talent shows, which I have always disliked. Growing up, I never had a 'talent' to share. It took me until my adult years to realize that even though I didn't have a talent to display or perform, I had plenty of inward talents. So often extra-curricular activities that we are tempted to involve our children in are about skills/talents that when (and if) developed will very likely be given public praise and recognition.

But what about the inward skills and talents that may be more deserving of praise and recognition. Are we as a society putting the same amount of effort, i.e. money and time (car-pooling, practice time, etc.) to fostering in our children the ability to work hard, or being a good friend or a skilled listener, or easily and quickly recognizing the needs of others. Probably not. ALL things that are more often learned in the home--than in an extra-curricular activity.

Not everyone is excellent at something that can be 'displayed.'
Great article Saren!

Neighbor Jane Payne said...

I love the thought process you went through to determine what was best for you and yours. And frankly, I applaud it. So count me as clapping for your efforts of achievement.

Which reminds me of an old Will Rogers quote, "We can't all be heroes, someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by."

Carrie said...

First of all, thank you for sharing your thoughts on your blog...I really enjoy reading them.

If this helps, I was a bit of a teen prodigy academically and did some national competitions and went to a top college, came in the top of my class etc but when I hit 22 I was burned out and just didn't want to compete anymore. In fact, I felt I'd missed out on just being with friends and being well rounded. So for the next few years I then got a none-too-impressive job and everyone told me I was wasting my skills. I just needed time to enjoy life and not feel under so much pressure. So don't ever feel bad that you're prioritising your kids enjoying life and all it has to offer. I think you are very wise! x

Andrea said...

It's stressful to me that kids have to be in their "specialty" so young, or they've missed the chance. Although growing up I did a lot of everything and nothing great, and kind of wished I had one thing I was really good at. But for the same reasons, we're so far in the well rounded category, and I like that it gives us more family time and more time for kids to be kids.
Thanks for this post!

Kelly said...

Saran I too have struggled through the years to prioritize our extra curricular activities. I watched a family I admire with their children involved year round in sports. I thought to myself- could I do that too? Should we do that? Then the logistics of practices and games overwhelmed me and I answered NO! I decided to let my children choose one sport a year. They all so happened to pick the same sport in the same season - so for three months we lived basketball practices and games. But when it was over we had our life back. The most important priority is those precious moments together at home. Don't let anyone take those away with your permission!

amber said...

I appreciated this post because I’ve been thinking a lot about this very subject lately. The wonderful thing about motherhood is that there are so many different paths that each of us can take that will lead our children to develop those attributes we find most important.

My family did not have a piano in our home when I was very young, but something in my soul yearned to play. I feel blessed that even though I was young, my parents listened to my request, purchased a piano and started me in piano lessons. I eventually came to the point that I was practicing hours each day and did so for many years. I can honestly say that through that experience of sharpening a particular skill I developed many other attributes: hard work, self discipline, confidence, patience, determination, service, steadily progressing toward a bigger goal, experiencing the thrill of success, the joy of mastery, and gratitude are just to name a few. This personal experience also serves as a reminder that in my mothering I am trying to create another masterpiece, one that also takes time, patience, creativity, love and a lot of repetitive tasks.

So I find myself falling in the category of wanting each of my children to find a talent/skill that they love and then doing all I can to help them sharpen that skill. Now, when I sit on the piano bench each day during those early morning hours helping little fingers learn to play, I smile because I know I’m not just helping shape a musician, I’m helping to shape a child’s character one note at a time.

P.S. We sure miss you guys!

Rebecca said...

Great thoughts. I wonder what my kids will gravitate towards. I just enrolled them in Tiny Tunes, a music class, since I think they really enjoy singing. I feel like I am in the well-rounded category but sometimes I feel like "The Jack of All Trades, Master of None" and yearn to be really good at something. My parents always focused on academics and came to every school assembly where I got awards for academics, but I wish they would have supported me more with the sports I played.


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