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  • Dr Anita Collins

Five answers to if you should keep or kibosh your kids' activities

This article was written in response to Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon's piece in the Sydney Morning Herald published on June 19, 2020.


On June 19, an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald by Money Contributor Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon discussed the situation parents are in after the COVID lockdown – more time on our hands with our kids. Some loved it, some hated it, and some rediscovered and reimagined parenting and associated priorities. But now we are mostly back to school and, in some cases, back to a mild case of mania ferrying our children to and from school and extra-curricular activities.

Enter Ms Pedersens-McKinnon's world view of cost versus benefit parenting. Five questions were posed that could help parents re-evaluate extra-curricular activities. Unfortunately, these questions and their answers represent a very singular view of their true value.

Let's look at some alternate answers that focus on the benefits for the development of the whole child.

1. Does your kid enjoy it?

Could it be that your child may enjoy the activity itself, but in amongst seven other extra-curricular activities, it is the straw that breaks the camel's back?

Could a more productive question be, "Looking at the range of activities and free time, how does this activity balance out my child's development?"

Adults don't get to give up some activities because we don't enjoy them; we work through frustrations to reach new heights, stretch goals, and new understandings. Are we teaching children the skills they will need in adulthood by saying, "Well, if you don't enjoy it, don't do it."

2. Do they practise if they need to?

As a young musician's parent, I understand the frustration of paying every week for music lessons and, in some weeks, feeling like the only time my child plays is in her lesson. However, I am also a music educator who studies and works with the brain development research that has found that music learning is cognitively beneficial far beyond the music concerts and exams. Learning music is not a linear progression - it goes up and down with breakthroughs and plateaus.

Those 30 minutes a week at the age of seven heighten her neural connectivity, synaptic synchronisation, memory process, and analytical skills. In fact, at this age, her music learning has the most significant impact on her language development. This impact will really start to matter when she is eight and beginning to "read to learn."

A better question might be "Knowing that music learning is so beneficial for my child's cognitive development, how can I have appropriate expectations for my child's home practise (five minutes a day is great at this age) and how can I work with her teacher to develop this habit which I know will be very useful (including dealing with homework which is the same process of internal motivation based on habit building)."

3. Could it make you rich?

Ms Pedersens-McKinnon begins with: "I jest but there is a return-on-investment equation… could they become elite?"

Is this a measure of parenting that we want to use? Extra-curricular activities, whether music, chess, or soccer, are disciplines that research has shown to have significant impacts on brain development, which can be correlated with earning capacity.

Extra-curricular activities should be seen as ways of enhancing a person to be more successful in life, whether that be measured by strong relationships, robust mental and physical health, or earning capacity.

4. Does it give them a usable life skill?

Ms Pedersens-McKinnon sees extra-curricular activities as a means to find happiness and fullness, which will open social doors in the future. She is missing all the other life skills that come from learning a discipline which requires consistent training and learning to master. This develops "grit" which Dr Angel Duckworth defines as "passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way." Extra-curricular activities teach children persistence, grit, and resilience. What is the monetary value of that?

5. Is it worth the effort for everybody?

If the COVID lockdown has taught us anything, there are many qualities of life, and time without kids is incredibly valuable. With all the extra time and money gained from pulling our children out of extra-curricular activities, what will be the challenging and enhancing activities we will be doing every week with our kids?

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© 2020 by Dr Anita Collins.