My 3rd grader just completed a “practicing contest,” in which all the kids under her teacher’s purview had to track their “minutes practiced” each day, record them on a calendar, and compete for prizes for the most practice. It was at least temporarily effective. She sat down and practiced without being asked for a month straight – though there were complaints if family activities occasionally made it difficult to both practice and, say, complete the latest Percy Jackson novel.
Altogether, I thought, it was an OK thing.
But then this week, on the same day, she came home with the read-a-thon – that venerable fundraiser that both has students track their books read and raise pledges for the school – and the Presidential Fitness project, in which every student is supposed to get 60 minutes of “physicial activity” a day, five days a week. Of course, they have to keep track of their minutes of activity.
I haven’t even mentioned the “k tracker,” administered by her ski club, where kids can track the number of kilometers they are cross country skiing this winter.
As a musician and a runner myself, I understand that one huge key to improvement is just putting in the time. Consistent practice at anything, day after day, is the way you go from struggling to proficient. What frustrates me as a parent, however, is that my child, even in third grade, is starting to feel that all these goals-- and good goals they are -- are all competing with one another.
The math is pretty simple, if you listen to the experts. A healthy third grader should be getting 60 minutes of exercise – at least some of it outdoors, nine or ten hours of sleep, and plenty of time sitting down with books. To make any progress in piano she ought to be doing at least 30 minutes of practice a day, and the school guidelines allow for thirty minutes of homework in addition to at least twenty minutes of reading. The most academically successful children also sit down and have a family dinner several times a week. In any given day, my daughter spends seven hours at school or traveling to and from school, and as a family we expect that she’ll spend about an hour interacting with us at dinner and helping with cooking and/or clean-up.
I know, you can do the math and see that there ‘s still wiggle room in this schedule – but I haven’t mentioned family chores, going to said music lessons, and the inevitable “enrichment” activities the school always schedules on a weeknight and runs until 8:30. It’s no wonder my child frequently complains that there isn’t enough time in the day.
A third grader. Pressed for time. Let me emphasize that we do not do traveling sports, we stay home more weeknights than not, we have no TV and no video games. My children are not riding in the car or playing on the computer when they are not doing “recordable” activities. Mostly, in fact, they are reading, playing, singing or making up some crazy imaginative game involving dolls and sticks and tongue depressors or something.
Call me a pussycat Mom, but I worry that all the well-intentioned efforts in our public life to promote health and literacy and All Things Good is that we are turning some of the most natural pleasures of life – play, reading, music – into “shoulds” – or, worse, into matters of competition. Yes, some kids love numbers and are motivated by them, but some kids will actually grow to hate activities that become competitions, just because of the competition. And other kids will play the game until it’s over, and then look for the next thing that the Powers That Be are rewarding, without ever figuring out if THEY really love the activity.
One of the hardest aspects of young adulthood for me was figuring out how to organize myself without the gold stars that life in school afforded. It took me awhile –maybe too long – to learn that happiness which relies on the approval of others is tenuous – even if you happen to be pretty good at getting the gold star.
I now know that I love learning something new, that I can enjoy it even when I’m NOT good at it, and that the happiest times in my life are when I’m not looking at the clock. I hope my kids can learn to love something – reading, music, a sport – so much that they forget what time it is, and they don’t care who’s watching.