Let children dabble

There’s a “Let Children Fail” movement growing. The idea is that parents nowadays, particularly upper-middle class parents, refuse to let their children fail. Parents run the forgotten homework to school. They finish the science project after their child goes to bed. Childhood is supposed to be the time for failing, the time when failure carries less weight than it does in adulthood. I’m onboard with that.

I’d like to start another movement. I’m calling it the “Let Children Dabble” movement.

Eleanor turns six today, which among other things, means that she will move up to a higher gymnastics class. This is when children start to be divided into the competitors and the left-behinds. The competitive group has multiple practices each week, though the kids will not compete for a few more years. The rest of the students continue taking an hour-long class each week. You can see the difference in the groups. The competitive children tend to be petite and get more rigorous training. The others are often tall or less coordinated and are doing gymnastics only slightly more difficult than what Eleanor does now.

The gymnastics school selects the students for the competitive group. I think this is based largely on how many classes a student has been taking per week so seems partly a contest of how much money and time parents can spend. I could probably enroll Eleanor in two or three classes each week and get her moved into the competitive group. I hesitate.

I don’t like that my daughter is about to be left behind. Gymnastics is one of the few sports she really likes, and given her tiny proportions, it’s a good fit for her. We’re not aiming for the Olympics. I just want her to have a chance at being good, at being able to join a gymnastics team in middle school or high school if she wants. That’s a choice that we have to make now — in kindergarten.

In talking with my friends, this has become the norm for sports. I know of 6- and 7-year-olds who spend six or eight hours a week swimming or dancing. They are already on competitive teams. There is no time to dabble.

Kids used to be divided by ability in middle school or high school, which meant the best and worst were on the same teams for years. The best were a motivation for those beneath them, and everyone received the same training. Now kids — or, more likely, their parents — commit to all or nothing in early elementary school. I don’t know how we got to this point. I suppose a few parents got to this point, and the rest of us felt we had to follow.

I would like for Eleanor to try out different activities, to succeed and to fail, and to learn about herself in the process. I would like for her to have a childhood, to not be expected to commit the way an adult would. She doesn’t care about college scholarships. She’s a 6-year-old who wants to do a backflip.


5 thoughts on “Let children dabble

  1. I agree! When (and how) did it all get so serious, so soon? You have to pick an all-or-nothing approach before they’re out of elementary school in almost every activity.

  2. I feel so much pressure for them. And my oldest (ehm, living) is barely three. We put in a lottery for his preschool next year. He’s in “two-year-old” preschool right now, but apparently next year, preschool is a big deal. He’s been in gymnastics and swim lessons and another tumbling class and is now in Spanish. I am already thinking ahead to Spanish immersion Kindergarten and … and… and… it’s so much more of a deal that things used to be.

    As a teacher on the other side of this, I personally wrote notes on papers written (literally, in their handwriting at 4th/5th grade) about allowing their child to complete the work themselves. If they don’t, they won’t fail out of 4th grade. But not allowing them to “fail” isn’t helping either. It’s showing them that they will always have the lead. And that’s not entirely true.

    I like dabble. I like that a lot.

  3. That photo is the cutest! Yes…let them dabble! I agree wholeheartedly. Although I will say that we haven’t done a very good job at that, because we’ve stuck to only 1 or 2 afterschool activities and my kid has wanted to do the same thing. I held my kid back in playing organized sports because I thought it was silly when I knew he wasn’t developmentally ready to understand the game. Hey, we even need to dabble as adults!

  4. This really resonates with me. I have a friend who didn’t put her kids in any extra-curriculars until age 5 and then they choose one activity per week, so everything they do is very dabbling and her kids love it.

    But-but-but… I worry about falling behind since, as you mention, kids seem to specialize so early. I’m afraid too early to even know what they would like! There’s part of me that wants to give my daughter an opportunity to TRY everything–team sports, dance, ice skating, tennis, music lessons–but that seems crazy. I definitely dabbled as a kid (and had zero interest in team sports) but my husband specialized in baseball (of his own volition but with encouragement from his mom) starting in third grade. So, yeah. I have no answers but the same concerns.

  5. Judging by your photo, my almost 6-year-old daughter goes to the same gym (and hey, I have a computer geek photography loving husband, too), and she actually switched to the competitive class. She hated it! She just wants to have fun and get some exercise, and she loves gymnastics. I’m so sad that her options to enjoy it are disappearing. I want to continue to expose her to different activities but it’s becoming harder and harder to find things for her to try out. I’ll join your movement.

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