Days Like These

Dimming the Friday Night Lights

From musical theater to martial arts, the art of balancing your children’s extracurricular activities and interests is a rarefied parenting skill

By Katie Cantrell

While I was visiting my parents in eastern Washington earlier this year, I ran into Jill, the cool older sister of one of my childhood friends. We weren’t in high school at the same time, so although we were loosely connected on social media, we didn’t know that much about each other’s lives.

“Are your kids into sports?” she asked, then paused before reformatting the question. “What I mean to say is, how do you spend your weekends?” 

If you aren’t yet to the stage of parenting where your kids’ activities suck up most of your free time, know that it is probably coming for you. Jill led with sports because we grew up in a small eastern Washington farm town where sports were the main extracurriculars. When she started high school, it was actually more like sport: one choice per season per gender. By the time I graduated, our school had added cross-country to volleyball and football for the fall, and wrestling as an alternative to basketball (though the handful of girl wrestlers competed against the boys).

There was one girl, closer to Jill’s age than mine, who was known to be both a ballet dancer and violinist, two impossibly exotic activities that only took place in Spokane and seemed as accessible to me as astronaut training. I raised sheep with the FFA and practiced my free throws outside the garage. Those were the readily available options, so that’s what I did.  

Kid activities are a different thing altogether now. Even in the seemingly-remote Flathead Valley, where many people can still summon memories of life BT (Before Target), there’s no end to the smorgasbord of extracurriculars to capture your kids’ energy and your nights and weekends. Sports, dance, martial arts, scouting, theater, music, animals … the list goes on and on. 

I rarely offer parenting advice—I feel like I’m working really hard to maintain a B+ average, so I’m generally looking to absorb wisdom, not dispense it—but I think this is a pretty solid nugget: Be thoughtful about your yeses. 

Chances are, your young kids could potentially fall in love with a wide variety of activities. If they have a true passion for one thing, you’ll know. Trust me. But most kids start out with a renaissance mindset: Let’s try it all. Ours have expressed interest in everything from musical theater to martial arts, horses to football to gymnastics to painting lessons. It’s good to listen to their interests, but it’s also wise to take a look at the big picture and make sure you’re okay with what’s involved if this becomes the thing they really love. How often are practices/rehearsals/competitions and where are they? Sure, first grade basketball is one hour a week in town. But fast-forward to a basketball-loving 12-year-old and you could easily find yourself driving icy death highways all winter for travel ball. Which is fine, as long as you’re fine with it.

It’s relatively easy to redirect young kids, whose interests can be swayed by every enticing flyer that comes home from school. Once their identity and their friend group get enmeshed with a particular activity, though, you’re probably in it for the long haul. Declining an activity doesn’t make you a bad parent, especially if signing up for it will make you a resentful parent. Remember that there is a good no, and also a bad yes. You’re the one with the fully-developed decision-making frontal lobe; don’t be afraid to use it.

P. S. Here’s another pro tip I’ve picked up along the way: theater doesn’t travel. Thanks to the outstanding options that are available from early elementary through high school, your child can have a full, rich life as a theater kid without you ever having to drive out of the valley to watch them perform. Just something to keep in mind before you find yourself in Las Vegas watching youth baseball and wondering when you’ll have a vacation that doesn’t take place on a sideline. 

Katie Cantrell has three kids and owns outdoor clothing for every occasion—so she can cheer from the sidelines in any weather—as well as a minivan with approximately 100 million miles. She’s wondering what it would take to get them all to give up sports for the stage.  

Find more of Katie Cantrell’s thoughts on parenting and life at www.katiecantrellwrites.com or on social media @katiecantrellwrites. 

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