While single-sport specialization is all the rage, it’s the well-rounded children who become more confident, curious and empathetic.
So your son wants to be a professional baseball player, and he’s pretty good for his age, too. Or maybe your daughter wants to be the next Simone Biles, and she’s begging for more gymnastics lessons. But before you go all-in on their big dreams, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) wants you to know this: Kids who specialize in one sport are at added risk of stress, burnout and overuse injuries, whereas kids who dabble in several sports are more likely to stay active throughout their lives.
The AAP’s new report shows that in the world of athletics, there’s a long-term benefit to being well-rounded. But the same is true off the mat or away from the field. College admissions officers look for applicants with a mix of extracurricular activities, and more and more hiring managers are looking for well-rounded candidates in an age where many companies have to do more with less. But what does being well-rounded really mean for kids?
“Think about well-rounded as moms and dads developing both sides of the report card,” explains Dr. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and author of “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.” In school, kids learn reading and math and develop cognitive abilities. But away from the books, they learn people skills, empathy and character, and they are exposed to different experiences, Borba says. “Put those two together, and that’s what you need to navigate the world.”
Borba breaks down five things parents should do to walk the fine line of raising a well-rounded child.
Push, but not too hard
“We are pushing our kids so fast, so soon that we’re pushing the love of the topic or subject or sport right out of them,” Borba says. “By 13, the most talented kids are giving up because of us and the way we’re pushing.”
And it’s so important to hold onto that love, because it can remain with them forever, Borba says. “It becomes a source of resilience — their hobby. They may not be playing baseball at age 42, but they’re going to the game,” she adds. She encourages parents to consider whether their child is pulling the parent or whether the parent is pushing the child. If it’s the latter, it may not be worth the push, Borba says.
Let them quit … sometimes
The kind of experience kids have while engaged in a sport or activity is key. They may not love it or even be very good at it, but they’re hopefully learning other things, like how to get along, be a good sport, encourage others, stick it out and handle failure. “Those are amazing experiences, and if you do it right, it isn’t just that you’re helping the kid learn to hit the ball, but you’re helping him learn an important thing called character, which seems to be going by the wayside,” Borba says.
While there’s something to be said about sticking to commitments and seeing things through, what if your kid is truly miserable in an activity? And what if you shelled out big bucks for a soccer uniform or a trumpet, and after three practices your kid hates it? Is it OK to let them quit?
Borba says 83 percent of kids ages 6 to 17 are involved in some kind of extracurricular activity, so sooner or later most parents will be faced with a child wanting to quit something. And whether or not to let them depends on several things.
- The child’s age: If you have a younger child, you’re trying to expose them to different things so you can figure out what’s a good match, Borba says. With these kids, it’s probably fine to quit and try something else.
- The financial situation: If you’re paying for pricey ballet lessons hoping your little girl will become the next Misty Copeland, but she’s just not having it, then stop. There’s no reason to hurt yourself financially while forcing your child to do something she doesn’t enjoy.
- The reason: Why do they want to quit, Borba asks. Are they sick? Do they have a mean coach? Is the teacher not child-oriented? Borba says studies have shown that kids grow to love challenges as long as they have nurturing teachers early in their lives.
“As a child gets older, you can set up a premise ahead of time: You stay for three times, or if it’s a team sport, you stay for the team’s season,” Borba says. She offers these tricks to keep up your sleeve: “If he does want to quit, make the child tell the coach. All of a sudden it’s a different forte. Or say, ‘I’m sorry, this was the deal that we made beforehand, and you gotta stick it out because that’s the deal.’ At this point it’s not just about you — it’s about them.”
“Curiosity is core to creativity, and it’s plummeting in kids at much earlier ages. We’ve made everything so regimented these days, and if you’re afraid of failure or not doing it perfectly, your curiosity will not open,” she warns. Instead, create an “I wonder” home and model the behavior yourself, she suggests. Say things like, “I’m really curious about that!” or “I don’t know. What a great question!” “The child begins to realize you don’t know everything, but you can go figure it out,” Borba says.
Also, make time to sit outside and just look at the clouds or turn rocks over and see what you find. Let kids know “it’s OK to explore and get your feet dirty and wonder about things you didn’t know about before,” she says.
Praise the right way
Don’t praise kids by lavishing them with material things, Borba advises. “We’ve misinterpreted giving your kids stuff or things as praise, and the value of that is lopsided. Kids above all else want our approval. But the approval shouldn’t be in materialism, it should be your love — with your face, your high fives, your hugs. All of these can be enormously powerful, as well as your words.”
Instead, she says, “praise his efforts: ‘Gosh, you hung in there’ or ‘You’re getting better.’ And praise the effort made along the way: ‘You didn’t give up! It looks easier this week!’ You’ll stretch your child’s persistence,” Borba says.
She reminds parents to praise the other kids or team as well. If you point out the teamwork and camaraderie, your kid will see that matters to you, she says. Don’t always praise the win — praise how they played the game. “Those little things you’re praising the right way — you’re focusing on the character traits of your child,” Borba says.
“Empathy and a well-balanced kid go hand in hand,” Borba says. Researchers have found that popular, well-liked kids have higher levels of empathy and can take the perspective of other kids. “Empathy gives your kids an edge in terms of being able to get along on a team, getting out of their comfort zone and getting into the shoes of other people. It’s the benchmark for the relationship so you can understand what your coach or teammate really wants,” she says.
Plus, it’ll give them an employment edge later on in life. As the Wall Street Journal reports:
Individuals who master listening and responding to others are the most successful leaders, and this skill outranks all others, concluded a study released this year by human-resources consultancy Development Dimensions International. … About 20% of U.S. employers offer empathy training as part of management development, up significantly from a decade ago, estimates Richard S. Wellins, a DDI senior vice president. He expects that percentage will double in 10 years.
When you’re empathetic, “you’re constantly working to make things fair — it’s an enormous advantage,” Borba says.