Don’t Tell Me What Comes First

March 8, 2017

When my husband was interviewing for his medical fellowship, he came to a fork in the road. He could continue at the hospital where he was a resident, and at the end of four years, he would be on his way to being a world expert on a very specific area of cardiology, or he could go to a different hospital, where he would get good basic training in lots of different aspects of cardiology. “I don’t know if I’m ready to narrow it down yet,” he said as he signed the contract with hospital #2.

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When I was a high school sophomore, my school day often looked something like this:

6:00-6:45- Seminary

7:30-1:00- School

1:00-3:00- Regional Dance Ensemble

3:00-5:00- Swim practice (or work, when swim season was over)

6:00-9:00 Play practice (or not, if the play was over)

I was also an editor for the school paper, a youth council rep, and a member of a whole bunch of school clubs.

Was I stupid busy? Yes. Was it worth it? Of course. Was I an expert at any of these things? Not really. I was a generalist.

I loved being a generalist.

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I’m now the parent of high school students, and there’s just about nothing I hate more than the way that my kids feel pressured to specialize. My son didn’t want to be the world’s greatest clarinet player; he just wanted to be a member of the band who practiced when he felt like it and had fun in pep band, but he got so much shade from the band teacher that he eventually quit clarinet. He goes to swim practice even when he’s sick or injured because swim team isn’t just an extracurricular activity, it’s also a graded school class.

My daughter is a dancer, and she gets fabulous technical training from studio dance and loves the social benefits and choreography experience she gets from her high school dance team. She really feels that both of them are important aspects in making her the best dancer she can be while giving her an identity within her high school. But both insist that “our activity comes first” and there are the occasions when they conflict. The anxiety she feels because she can’t please both masters 100% of the time has her up in the night with worry, especially since her participation on the high school team is tied to a grade that affects her GPA. For several years, she had (required) dance rehearsals on Tuesday night, which meant that she couldn’t go to Mutual, and she felt that our YW leaders judged her for her choice to prioritize dance over her weekday church activities.

If I had been a teenager in my kids’ day and age, I doubt I would have had the chance to edit the school paper, captain the swim team, star in the school play and dance in The Nutcracker. I did the best I could. If I had to miss a play practice for a swim meet, the director made it work. If I missed a month of Mutual activities for play practice, the YW leaders weren’t passive aggressive about my values and commitment. I learned, in the words of Aspiring Mormon Women to “embrace your ‘and'” and I think we are doing our children a disservice by requiring them to pick and choose activities and fit themselves into only one box. By demanding so much out of extracurricular activities, we force some kids who should be exploring lots of different things to become specialists, and we force others out of activities altogether.

What is it with the whole “my activity comes first” mentality? When did this become part of the way we raise our kids? How do you all manage it? Does anyone else resent the fact that your kids’ extracurricular activities try to tell you what your priorities are?

14 Comments

  1. M2theH

    March 8, 2017

    That is one of the reasons we opted not to pursue competitive dance. Classes twice a week, competitions every weekend? We don’t love dance that much.

    My personal feeling for my family is that church comes first, then school, then extras. I do not put my kid in classes that conflict with activity days, and will not do that with Mutual. As a leader I can see how important it is to have the girls there, and as a parent I know I need my kid to have other trusted adults as friends and role models.

    I’m a teachers aide, and last year I had a 4th grader who could never stay awake, never had his homework done, and really struggled in school. He had baseball practice 4 nights a week, no time to even consider homework, and a bedtime that was not letting him get enough rest. His dads drive for his kid to be good at baseball was getting in the way of his basic education. This poor kid could barely read. I feel sorry for how his high school years are going to go.

  2. Lisa

    March 8, 2017

    Yes! This is spot on. And completely aggravating. I don’t know the answer to the dilemma. I leave the choices to my kids and they seem to do all right. But yes, something is amiss in the general (ha!) culture.

  3. eljee

    March 8, 2017

    I completely agree with this post. I think college is time time to specialize. I teach organ and had a student who was absolutely brilliant, whom I felt was destined for greatness. Truly this kid had talent like I’d never seen in a student. He was also a busy high schooler with a myriad of interests and activities. He didn’t practice as much as I would have liked because he had so many competing activities, and I knew that many teachers would have sat him down and insisted on making organ the first priority, but I felt that he would never get to be a high-schooler again and this was his chance to dabble in lots of things. So I bit my tongue and was patient. Fast forward 8 or so years: this former student is now a doctoral student in organ performance at one of the best schools in the US for that major. When the time was right, he did specialize, and was not hurt in the least by not doing so in high school.

  4. eljee

    March 8, 2017

    Oops… I meant master’s student.

  5. Rozy

    March 8, 2017

    I have to agree with M2THEH that in the eternal scheme of things activity in the church should come first. Why else are there so many articles in the The New Era about youth makeing difficult choices about putting their commitment to God first? Youth can be exposed to many experiences and activities to explore their talents and desires, but we parents, who are older and hopefully wiser, can help them maintain a good balance between the spiritual and physical. Each family has to make it a matter of study and prayer to decide what is best for them. Youth leaders who generally pray, ponder and prepare wonderful lessons and activities can feel let down by those who choose worldly activities over church. I understand that. Our youth need all the spiritual strength and encouragement and preparation they can get to face the challenges coming .

  6. ElleK

    March 8, 2017

    I appreciate the commenters qualifying their opinions with the caveat that individuals and families should set their own priorities based on what feels right to them.

    My children are still young–young enough that these schedule conflicts aren’t an issue yet–but my current thought for us is that family will come first often, then school, then interests and church activities. I recently was a YW instructor, and I was incredibly uncomfortable with the pressure and tactics the YW president would use to get the girls to come to mutual. She would ask a girl where her absent sister was (usually doing homework) and would then guilt trip everyone present about how they should put church activities above school projects, extra curriculars, and anything else. I don’t mind if that’s how she raises her family, but there’s always trouble when we impose our own personal standards and priorities on others.

    And to the OP, I feel you. I loved being a generalist, too.

  7. James

    March 9, 2017

    My DS is in 10th grade and I’m okay with him missing mutual for sports or concerts or competitions or work. We’re not okay with him missing seminary or church on Sunday or doing any of those things on Sunday. He enjoys doing a lot of things and he won’t have the same opportunities later. I especially don’t have a problem with him missing mutual when all the boys are doing is playing basketball. However, if he doesn’t have other activities then he goes to mutual regardless of activity, even if it’s thrown together at the last second and has no point. When he works, he can’t dictate his schedule and the important thing to push for is no sundays. My personal opinion is that stressing out about mutual is looking beyond the mark. The spiritually important things are the sacrament, the rest of church, and seminary.

  8. Kristine N

    March 9, 2017

    Oh my heavens, *college* isn’t even the time to truly specialize. Yes, narrow the scope of where you’re putting your energies, but definitely not time to specialize. Grad school, post-doc, on the job training–those are more reasonable times to specialize.

    The thing about specialization, though, is that it closes off (or can close off) interaction with anything outside the specialty. Yes, we need to get good at things, to specialize to the degree necessary to produce competence, but many breakthroughs come when people look outside their immediate fields to see how others approach questions. My husband is right now working on a paper where he’s applying statistics he learned from an ecologist to a problem he has in geophysics/geochemistry.

  9. eljee

    March 9, 2017

    By “specialize”, I mean that in college you will declare a major. If it happens to be in music (and I’m sure the same is true for certain other fields), you will devote the vast majority of your time to it. You will be expected to practice 4 or more hours a day on top of your other classwork. This will not include the time you are practicing with or for choirs, orchestras, etc. Being a music major was a much more intense experience for me than being an early childhood education major.

    As far as “church comes first”, which has been mentioned above, I think it is not always as cut and dried as some might think. In our family we have a general attitude that our church responsibilities and activities are priorities over other interests. But there must be room for some flexibility. For example, should my son miss the opportunity to ever play on the high school soccer team (or any high school sport, for that matter) because it would mean that for two months out of every year he would have to miss the majority of Wednesday mutual nights? I don’t think so. Or, in my daughter’s case, we carefully planned when she would take her gymnastics class so it wouldn’t interfere with activity days. But then, once the year was half over and class times had been set for months, the branch changed the night Activity Days was held, and now she had to choose between it and gymnastics. The girl with the perfect attendance record at Activity Days for two years in a row chose to go to gymnastics, and we respected that. However, we have let her know that in the summer, when she gets a new opportunity to choose another gymnastics class, we’ll make sure it doesn’t interfere with her church activity, even if it means she has to be in a different class than her friend.

  10. Olivia

    March 11, 2017

    I find it very strange that so many people have made attendance at church ACTIVITIES mandatory, even at the expense of their children’s interest or their family’s health. Church activities and church programs were created to support members, not the other way around. My sons are involved in musicals, choirs, sports and school clubs, and this often means they have to choose between ym and musical practice or violin lessons. They always choose school or club activities. Sometimes they just don’t feel like going to church activities because their lives are so busy they need some downtime. Why should kids feel obligated to attend and “support” activities or programs that don’t appeal to them? I truly cannot believe in a God who is disappointed that a teenager didn’t go to the church for pizza making or a scavenger hunt (or even a fireside or a “spiritual” activity. God understands priories. I never attended a yw activity after age 14, I had far to much going on, and I can’t recall a leader ever expecting me to. I ever have stairs trying to guilt me into attending all rs activities when they are not interesting or appealing to me. When I was enrichment leader others would try and get me to guilt women who didn’t come, saying they needed to “support” the program. No! God cares about PEOPLE not programs. This doubling down on church social activities as mandatory is so strange.

    • Olivia

      March 11, 2017

      Even have adults, not ever have stairs…

  11. Kim

    March 12, 2017

    You don’t promise to go to mutual every week when you get baptized. Church is not the same as God. Certainly good lessons and friendships can come from mutual, but similar value can come from extracurricular activities. Kids are so over-scheduled these days. I think time for quiet, contemplative downtime is more important than mutual.

  12. Dvorah

    March 12, 2017

    I agree with Kim about overscheduling. I think there’s a real need in our culture–LDS culture but also modern culture generally–to teach the value of downtime.

    Burnout is a real danger in youth as well as in adulthood. And I’ve known both youth and adults who, while not positively burned out, continually take on (voluntary) projects and then complain about how busy they are. For a lot of us, there’s some guilt attached to the idea of time not spent working, serving, or pushing ourselves in some way. But there’s virtue in downtime, not just for rest and self-care but also to give our psyche some space, perhaps to figure out what really makes us happy.

    In my young-adult years I had a high-achieving, conscientious friend who was exceeding her physical limitations–literally making herself sick–in service to others. I told her to stop doing this, and I’ll never forget her response: “If I’m not serving, then what value does my time have?”

    It’s great if kids can thrive while pursuing a variety of extracurriculars. And, as has been said, it’s up to families and individuals to decide what and how many commitments are right for them. But I woudn’t want kids to think their time has no value if it’s not all going toward some measurable achievement or form of service. They might just find what they love most and are best at in those moments when they’re not engaged in anything particular at all.

  13. A Teacher

    March 12, 2017

    I’ve taught high school now for 17 years, and the shift from “all-around” to “only mine” can best be compared to the boiling frog story. It happened so slowly at first, and then one day I woke up and saw my students having to choose and devote themselves to one thing.

    I’ve watched two programs in particular swallow up our entire building, and some common factors I’ve found:

    –Teachers with egos that cannot be satiated. They claim they are teaching “life skills” and “dedication” but when the end result is more and bigger trophies that lead to more and bigger groups, it’s hard to see the pedagogical justification.

    –Parents who love winning. I so wish parents had raised a bit of a ruckus when our kids stopped being able to participate in everything. Instead they also made their kids choose, and, to my knowledge, didn’t talk to administrators or teachers about their concerns that their kids were zombies with sagging grades. 15 years ago when I coached speech, my team was comprised of cheerleaders, student council members, athletes, show choir kids, drum majors, marching band kids, AP kids, newspaper kids, plus all the kids whose only home was the speech team. I no longer coach speech, but the current team has almost no crossover with any activity–and that’s not the fault of the current coach. It’s the other activities.

    –Kids who are terrified to let down their teachers/have an inflated sense of their value to a program. I’ve had multiple conversations with burned-out kids who claim whatever program is running them into the ground can’t possibly go on without them. Not true. Would the program be the same? Of course not–every person brings something unique. But does the structure fall down? Nope.

    I’m a newspaper adviser, so we publish a paper and run a website and live stream sporting events and and and…but I make sure my students can do the other activities they want. It takes communication and some compassion, but it can work. But I’ve had so many kids not apply to be on my staff because of basketball or show choir or band, and it breaks my heart that they feel even two activities cannot co-exist.

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