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How to Choose the Best Afterschool Activity for Your Child

by Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D.
Photo by: Shutterstock

When people find out that I am a sociologist who studies competitive afterschool activities (afterschool math classes, chess, child beauty pageants, dance, and soccer), they want to know what my own children do. I was able to dodge the question for a number of years, replying that I don’t have children. But as I was finishing my recently released book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, I had a baby boy. The book focuses on 95 families with elementary school-age children who compete in chess, dance, and soccer.

So, will I teach my boy chess in the hopes that he’ll compete at the 2018 National Championships? Get him on a travel soccer team by age eight? Enroll him in dance classes so he can appear on a series like Dance Moms? Or decide to forgo all activities that involve trophies?

Instead of thinking of boyhood, and childhood in general, as a project—as many parents do today—I prefer to think of it as a buffet. At a buffet you can sample lots of dishes, and then go back to get a larger serving of your favorites. I plan to approach my children’s afterschool hours in the same way that I approach a buffet: children should sample a lot of different things so that they can figure out their favorites.

What parents choose to expose their kids to is ultimately shaped by a variety of individual and societal factors. To continue the buffet metaphor, not everyone will have grits or lox on their Sunday buffet, but most people will have eggs and bacon. (Some will have the free-range and organic choices, and others will not.) For example, in certain parts of the country ice hockey is popular, and in others Pop Warner football dominates. On top of regional preferences, parental background matters. More educated parents may shy away from activities they consider dangerous, like boxing, and instead push weekend math classes. And, as I have shown elsewhere, parents of boys and girls tend to favor different sorts of activities, even within the same family.

In some families mom played the violin, so she wants her daughter to as well. Or perhaps she never played a musical instrument and that is the reason she is so adamant that her kids learn to play music. Other parents might emphasize physical fitness, so participation on an athletic team will be very important. Within those categories of music and sports there are more choices. A child can play a string instrument, the piano, drums, recorder, or clarinet, and the list goes on. Athletics is even more complex: Will a child play a team sport or an individual one? Will it be a popular sport, like soccer or tennis, or a more rarefied one, like lacrosse or squash?

Of course, this isn’t an either/or enterprise. Many kids play sports and a musical instrument and do something else (drawing, Mandarin lessons, theater, or chess, and again the list goes on). One mom I met evocatively described her parenting strategy by saying she is striving to raise “little Renaissance men.”

But not all boys will grow up to be Renaissance men, and not all kids are destined to be “well-rounded.” While these are worthwhile goals, parents must also listen to their children. Based on my interactions with the Playing to Win kids, I know that children are an integral part of the process of choosing an activity. In some cases, kids will approach their parents with an activity that they would like to try out. Perhaps a friend at school is a skateboarder, or a girl saw the U.S. gymnasts win the gold in the Olympics and she wants to try gymnastics. If a child expresses interest in a particular activity it is a good idea to explore a class in that, or something very similar—perhaps biking if you do not like skateboarding, or dance or cheerleading if you do think gymnastics is safe.

Weeklong specialized camps over the summer or school breaks are also a good opportunity to try out a new activity within a months-long commitment. Many parents, for good reasons (including money invested and the message of making a commitment and following it through), insist kids finish what they started. But that can sometimes be painful when it is November or March and kids still have a month or two left of flute or tap or rock climbing—activities they thought they would like but turns out they don’t. Another option is exploring afterschool programs that try out a variety of activities weekly or monthly, often held at school.

When an activity is parent-driven and a child wants out (or even when a child requests more of a particular activity), parents should listen to their child’s desires, especially before investments of time and money get too high. What is important is that kids are exposed to a wide range of options when they are young so they can explore, be creative, and start to gain mastery. This helps ensure that kids will be intrinsically motivated and hopefully develop a genuine interest and passion in a given area. It’s that intrinsic interest and motivation that will stay with them through life, and not the specifics of serving a tennis ball or doing a pirouette.

So expose your children to a lot and listen to them—I’ll let you know in 17 years or so how this turned out for my son!

Hilary Levey Friedman is a Harvard sociologist and author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. You can learn more about the book, and hopefully meet her in person, by clicking here, or follow her on Twitter!

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