Earlier focus was on the shift from family to friendship and reference groups. Here focus is on extracurricular and other organized activities from the perspective of the motivations, advantages, and disadvantages of participation. There are four important factors related to your child's involvement in organized activities, namely, motivation, advantages, disadvantages, and the proportion of time and energy appropriate to such activities. Letís examine these four factors individually.
With your preschooler, motivation comes initially from you. You think your preschooler should be involved in church activities, organized playground activities, nursery school or preschool groups, story groups at libraries, and so on. For your grade schooler, motivation also comes from peer pressure, school and community expectations, and from your child's own desire to be involved in the grade school community. For your adolescent, all of these sources of motivation continue, with the pull of peers, and dating relationships becoming quite intense.
Why do you want your children to become involved in organized activities? First you think your preschooler will pick up skills and attitudes which will be useful when he goes to school. You also may place value on the content of what is being learned, such as religious information and attitudes. Next, you think getting out and interacting with other children helps your preschooler's social and emotional development. Finally, you feel your child should have all the social opportunities and advantages available and participation leads to greater acceptance by others. These factors are legitimate. To ignore them is to neglect your child. To keep your children at home and avoid involvements in such activities neglects their social and emotional development and denies them the opportunity to have healthy group experiences away from home.
Do not place undue emphasis on being involved in organized activities. One or two such activities is good; beyond that they may take up too much valuable time and energy. If your preschool or grade school child is not involved in any organized or extracurricular activities, consider his becoming involved in at least one such outside activity. If he is regularly involved in play activities with other children, involvement in an organized activity may be unnecessary. Also give careful attention to how much of your child's time is invested in organized activities. For your preschooler, two or three hours a week is plenty (excluding a day care or babysitting program). For your adolescent, more than six hours a week of extracurricular or organized activities is questionable and needs careful thought with respect to the time spent with one activity in relation to other activities in which your child has (or wants) to participate, e.g., school. Between the preschool and the high school years, there is a gradual increase in the amount of time spent in extracurricular or organized activities. Yes, your high school student may be involved in a play, the marching band, the school newspaper, or an athletic team, and may need to be involved for considerably more than six hours some weeks. Over the course of a year, however, an average of about six hours a week is enough.
Participation in extracurricular or organized activities should be at least as important to your child as to you. If you have to push him to go to meetings or practices, then examine why it is more important to you than to him. If your child really wants to be involved, feels it is his idea, and is willing to invest the time and energy (and if you find the activity acceptable) then encourage him to participate. If he is reluctant to get involved, you might encourage him to try it for a while to see how it goes. Stop pushing if it seems you are more motivated than he is, or if his motivation is coming from someone else. Place limits on what kinds of activities and how much your children are involved. Carefully examine your motivations and theirs.
Do extracurricular activities build character? For instance, you hear coaches say athletic competition builds character, the implication being people who are not involved in athletic competition have less character. This is nonsense. Well-run athletic programs present many opportunities for healthy competition, fair play, hard work, camaraderie, and team effort. But so do lots of other things. Character formation primarily takes place during the preschool and early grade school years and is certainly not affected much by whether or not your child is later involved in athletic competition. No, involvement in organized or extracurricular activities does not have much to do with building character. The advantages are mostly social and educational.
The disadvantages in extracurricular or organized activities are many. Everyone involved is not successful, not all get recognition for their achievements, or derive in-group status as a result of participation. Involvement in extracurricular or organized activities may, in fact, have more disadvantages than advantages for your child. The coach says, "Everyone gets to play." By that he means if the team is way ahead or way behind even the worst player will get to play, since it makes no difference in the outcome. In this situation, getting to play may be fairly demeaning. In large schools, everyone in the band gets to play, but not everyone can be in the band. For some children, then, involvement in extracurricular or organized activities only gives emphasis to their marginal social or skill status.
Should your child be encouraged to avoid such activities? No, but just being part of the group or activity does not necessarily give her the advantages of full participation. At times, it may be appropriate to say, "If you are not going to get to play, if you are not going to be really involved in the activity, you may want to think about using your time and energy in other ways." If your child seems to be really enjoying the activity, does not seem too upset about marginal involvement, seems to be accepted by the other children and adults, and wants to continue participation, then give her your encouragement and support. Nonetheless, give her ample opportunity to use her time and talents elsewhere. Involvement in organized activities is for your child's benefit, not yours.
As a parent, be careful how you deal with the adults responsible for extracurricular programs. While most extracurricular activities are organized in terms of success, achievement, accomplishment and recognition, the activity should never become more important than the children's well being. Adults who run such programs should never place more priority on winning than on relating to and successfully working with the children. Do you judge the band director by how well the young people march or by how much they learn about music and how much fun they are having? Do you judge a recreation program at the park in terms of how many children complete their projects and how well the projects are done, or do you judge the program in terms of how the children seem to enjoy the program? It is neither one nor the other. Judge the people responsible for these programs by both the accomplishments of the program and the way they relate to children.