Thursday, March 25, 2010

Is There Anything Better than Watching Kids Excel?

I love watching kids excel. Initially because of the smile on their face and the excitement I know they are experiencing, but also because I know they have learned so much from the process of achieving excellence. I’ve always believed that all children need to excel at something, and that all children WILL excel at something if given a wide range of opportunities and experiences to find what they love to do. How does a child benefit from doing something well?

A sense of accomplishment
Motivation to continue the activity
Developing passion for an activity
Learning to set goals and be a progressive thinker
Learning the process of accomplishment
Recognition from parents, family and friends
Determining a career path (depending on the activity)
Friendships with other children who share common interests
It’s fun to do something well
This list could become very large, so I’ll stop here.

Parents should provide their young children opportunities to participate in a variety of activities. Exposure to sports, arts, academics, mechanics, building things, tearing things down, music, etc. will help children find activities they enjoy, most likely leading to excellence in one or more of those activities. Listen to your children talk about the things they do. Listen for reasons why they choose some activities over others. Find the activities they choose for the intrinsic rewards (the joy of participating, the thrill of meeting a challenge, etc.) and provide more opportunities to do those. Choosing activities for the extrinsic rewards isn’t a bad thing, but parents should ask themselves this question, “will my child continue the activity when the extrinsic rewards are no longer there?” If the answer is no, then parents have a few options. You can let them continue until the extrinsic rewards are gone and then let them move on to something else. This will happen a lot with children and isn’t bad at all, particularly if they have other interests that are intrinsically motivating. The second choice is to make sure the extrinsic rewards never go away (and increase in value). You guessed it, this isn’t a good choice. A third option would be to steer your child toward the things that appear to motivate them intrinsically or toward new activities they may enjoy.

Don't be afraid to let your child "specialize" in an activity.  Most literature you read will advise parents against allowing their children to devote their time to one primary activity.  I tend to agree, but if your child finds a sport or activity they love and are passionate about, let them pursue it whole-heartedly.  Keep them involved in other things, but if it's their choice to practice, play and compete primarily in one sport, let them.  All children will, at some point, begin to choose fewer activities and spend more time doing their favorites.  This natural funneling of activity, if not manipulated by outside forces (parents, friends, coaches, etc.), should lead a child to do what they enjoy the most. 

As children get older, peer recognition becomes a strong motivator. You can find arguments that peer recognition is an external reward.  And, you can find arguments that it is internally motivating. I tend to believe that recognition by others that you do something well leans a little more toward the intrinsic side of motivation than the extrinsic. A more accurate explanation would be this; although peer recognition is external, it comes after the activity was chosen and excellence achieved, meaning it’s just “icing on the cake” of a well motivated accomplishment.

Teenagers will choose activities based on what their friends are doing.  That's okay as long as the activities are appropriate.  A healthy mix of "doing what my friends do" and "doing what I love" is best.  Because friends tend to have common interests, those are often the same thing.  Encourage your children to continue doing the things they love even if their friends don't enjoy those activities.

All children will excel at something if given plenty of opportunities to experience a variety of activities.  Seeing the benefits of achieving excellence, we owe it to our kids to create (or at least not limit) those opportunities.  If we look hard enough, we will find excellence in every child and that is worth the effort.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post.

I linked to it from Gymnastics Coaching: