For parents, time can be such a precious commodity that it seems vital to enjoy whatever takes up our time and give it our full effort. That’s why I devote so much energy to motherhood, my career and my marriage — my top three priorities.
One of the key ways I believe that we mothers can put forth our best effort with our children is to let them devote time and energy to their top priorities by helping them to “nurture their passions.” This is a phrase I have heard over and over at many lectures on raising gifted kids. It’s basically been the theme of every lecture on gifted kids I ever attended! But I think all kids are gifted in some way, even if they are not academically gifted. All kids are born with curiosity and enthusiasm, and mothers should develop those qualities rather than squash them because of our own concerns about schedules, finances and energy levels.
In my community, I constantly interact with other parents who have the same harried look on their faces as I do because they feel like every day is a race to get from school to music lesson to sports practice to scout meeting, while trying to squeeze in a healthy family dinner at home around the kitchen table and finish homework. No wonder we’re tired! We question our efforts because we feel we are running ourselves ragged, and we read about experts advising us not to overschedule our children.
But having a busy life and trying to be overachieving parents does not mean we are doing it wrong or trying to make other parents feel inadequate. We don’t wear the label of Overachieving Parent as a Badge of Honor or a Hat of Shame. We’re simply nurturing our kids’ passions the best way we know how. I believe parents putting forth that kind of effort are to be commended and not condemned, and that’s why I am creating a TV show for and about OverAchieving Moms.
Some may complain that we are spoiling our kids by signing them up for every activity their hearts desire. I disagree, especially after hearing in lectures and reading in books about the dangers of discouraging kids from trying something simply because we’re too busy or too broke — that leads to kids learning to lower their expectations of themselves and give up on trying things during the time in their life when they are discovering what their true passions are.
I believe if you BUY your kids everything their hearts desire, that is spoiling them. In fact, I think buying them presents for no reason is spoiling them too. (That’s just my opinion, and I know others think differently.) I think children should earn material possessions as a reward for accomplishment — like good grades or helping their team earn first place — or as a gift for a special occasion — like a birthday or Christmas. I also think that you spoil kids by giving them unlimited boundaries — allowing them to stay up as late as they want or eat candy whenever they want or use their electronics as long as they want.
If you let them know they can participate in any enrichment activities they choose, that is the same pure love as picking up a baby every time he cries: The old wisdom that you spoil a baby by soothing all his cries has been replaced by the modern notion that you create a happier, calmer, more well-adjusted child in the long run because the baby will have security in knowing the world is a safe place where mommy and daddy will be there for him when he needs something.
Now that doesn’t mean that offering such a wide open set of opportunities is easy. I should know. Just this past year alone, my 14-year-old son is involved in school band, jazz band, marching band, piano lessons, baseball team, an umpire job, soccer team, chess team, two high school honors classes, a school musical and a community college class; and my 12-year-old daughter is involved in school band, jazz band, piano lessons, violin lessons, voice lessons, choir, a school musical, drama club, two dance companies, chess team, scholastic bowl team, four honors classes, soccer team, girl scouts and summer gifted classes.
They also have multiple chores at home they are responsible for every day, in addition to finishing all their homework.
Many of you may think I’m pushing my kids too much. But I’m not pushing them to participate in all of this. They choose to participate. I periodically recommend to them that they should back off on some activities and recently dropped my daughter’s violin lessons. When I ask them to let go of an activity, they resist. They participate in these endeavors because they want to and because they enjoy them, and I’m thrilled they are developing the talents that will serve them throughout life as ways to stay healthy physically, mentally and emotionally.
I also know what the alternative is, and I don’t like it. During winter and spring and summer vacations from school, almost all of these activities are on hold. Sometimes we travel, but often we just stay home. What do they do all day when they have nothing scheduled? My son will play X-box, and my daughter will be on her iPod texting and posting on Instagram — pretty much ALL DAY — unless I push them to do something else. You may think this is because they are so burned out from their hectic schedule that they just need to tune out and relax. (My kids claim this is how 21st Century kids relax, by interacting with a screen). But even last summer when I scheduled virtually nothing for the first several weeks as an experiment, that’s all they did every day was play on their electronics — day after day, week after week. They didn’t even put forth much effort to see the friends who they were communicating with online, other than an occasional suggestion to meet at the local pool.
My daughter finally declared she was bored and begged to sign up for gifted classes, which we gladly did. My son said he was happy on the couch with his video games and cell phone the entire summer. But I was miserable watching him! Should I push him out the door to see friends and exercise, or let him “relax” with his joystick after getting good grades and achieving so much in extra-curricular activities during the school year?
My overachiever mom instinct went into overdrive, and I pestered him about gifted classes — showing him the brochure and prodding him to try one. He said he really didn’t want to unless I made him. No, I didn’t want to MAKE him. I wanted him to be enthused enough about a class to leave the couch. So I asked him: If I found something that YOU wanted to do, would you be willing to give up the games for a day or a week or a month to do it? Yes, he admitted, but he didn’t know what that would be. So I peppered him regularly with questions: Would you like to learn to build a robot? ‘No.’ Would you like to participate in a mock jury trial? ‘No.’ Then I hit on one while he was downloading yet another app for his phone: Would you like to learn how to build your own app? ‘Well, yeah,’ he said under his breath — ‘but only if I create a real app that I can use when the class is done, not just learning how to do it in theory.’
So that was my mission. I searched high and low and had a very hard time finding something that would fit his exact parameters, but I did. It was from a company called Black Rocket, and it was offered at our local community college. It was expensive and a hassle to drive him that far away every morning and pick him up every afternoon for a week. But I found a way to do it. And he loved it. And he built his app. And when the class ended, he built more apps. And after he reached the limit with the free program, he begged for us to pay to get the pro version of the app-building program — another expense that would be difficult for us to afford. We found a way to make it work, and he is still programming apps.
So in the end, when I wonder if my kids are overscheduled or if they are getting enough down time to rest and just be kids, I gauge that by how much time they spend on their electronics and hanging out with family and friends. And every week my kids still spend HOURS on their electronics despite all their homework and chores and activities, and they still get the chance to watch movies with mom and dad every weekend and invite friends overnight regularly. Sometimes they don’t get any electronics time on a given day, but it’s rare that happens more than one or two days in a row. And I think they appreciate their electronics time that much more because there is not time for it every day!
But what about families that can’t afford to put their kids in all the activities they want? For many of those families, it is a matter of being resourceful and prioritizing. I have found gifted classes that offer reduced prices based on a family’s income. I have found teachers who will trade lessons in exchange for you teaching something to their kids. I have found most of my kids’ sporting equipment through freecycle.org. I have found friends willing to carpool and take my kids to practices when my work schedule prohibited getting them there, and my husband and I have reciprocated when we had more flexible schedules and coached and offered to drive any kids on the team to practices and games.
There are also ways to cut back on a family’s expenses to be able to afford to offer your kids enriching activities. Years ago, I was visiting a friend of mine who proudly showed off her new kitchen. She lived in a gloriously huge home decorated beautifully, and though I always admired her kitchen, it had become dated to her and she was so thrilled to finally update it. During that same visit, while we were sharing stories about our kids, she told me she was thinking of dropping her daughter’s beloved horseback riding lessons because they were so expensive. I frowned and told her I thought that was a mistake. I knew her daughter loved that activity more than any other. I knew her daughter was shy and that activity was one that really brought her out of her shell. I didn’t know their financial limitations, but I knew they had enough to pay for that expensive kitchen remodel. I didn’t tell her I wish our family had half the income her family had, and that she should put her kids’ activities before her new kitchen. But I told her the time for her daughter to nurture her passions was NOW. If she leaves behind something she loves, she may never return to it. She may learn that other people can take away something that she loves just because of money. Those aren’t the lessons we want our kids to learn.
Not only did she continue her daughter’s riding lessons, but her family eventually bought a horse that her daughter now cares for. The horse is even in the family Christmas photo every year. My conversation with her may not have been the reason that the riding lessons are still a part of her daughter’s life; she may not even remember the conversation. But I’m just glad she found a way to maintain an activity that meant so much to her daughter!
Now my daughter is begging to start up violin lessons again, this time with a different school where her friend takes lessons and also participates in weekly jam sessions. That would add even more hours to our crammed schedule than the one-hour lesson and 15-minute nightly practice that I convinced her to drop months ago. What will I say? Maybe wait until summer… Maybe not.
Years ago I told my daughter to wait, and I regretted it. As a four-year-old, when my daughter adored fairies, we read a delightful book called “Fairy Houses” by Tracy Kane — describing an actual island off the coast of Maine where people built elaborate, tiny structures out of branches, twigs and leaves for “fairies” who inhabited them every night. My little girl was mesmerized and for years fantasized about seeing this place in real life. It inspired her to go on more hikes in the forest preserve with us, where we would build our own fairy houses for the “Illinois fairies” when she was five years old. It inspired her to write lengthy and detailed stories about fairies when she was only six years old. It inspired her to create an elaborate extra-credit “state box” school project on Maine that took her weeks when she was only seven years old. And all that time, we kept telling her, Maine is very far and would be very expensive to visit, but we will try to get there some day. I really meant it. And when she was eight years old and we told her we were thinking of finally planning that summer vacation in Maine, she gave us a confused look and declared: ‘Why bother? I don’t believe in fairies anymore. I don’t care about going there.’ I was crushed. I still wanted to go, but I wanted to see her young, innocent eyes light up at the site of hundreds of fairy houses. I didn’t want to go there just to eat lobster and visit lighthouses. We never went, and I regret that we waited too long.
Does that mean we should give our kids whatever they wish for? No. I realize life does not work that way. But there is a certain magic spark in a child’s mind that can continue fading out each time we deny it. I don’t want to do that again.
So should I say yes to the violin lessons?
Although it is always tricky to figure out a way to afford another family expense, I don’t think the answer should be based on money.
Although it can be tricky to fit another activity into our already crammed schedule, and hard to motivate to get in the car for more driving after a long and tiring day, I don’t think the answer should be based on the rest of the family’s schedule or energy level.
When my kids tell me they want to try something new, and I know we can’t afford it, I tell them we have to figure out together: HOW can we afford it? Are they willing to help out more around the house, so I can take on extra freelance work to earn the money? Are they willing to get their shoes from a garage sale instead of a store to save enough to pay for their new activity? Are they willing to take on jobs around the neighborhood like babysitting and lawn mowing? This is the mindset I want to teach them.
I want my kids to live in the world of abundance and realize there is always a way to nurture their passions and ultimately fulfill their dreams — instead of thinking about limitations. Don’t you want that for your kids and yourself? You can have it. It has nothing to do with your finances. It has to do with your approach to life — something you have control over and something that no one can take from you!
I’m dismayed when I google the phrase Overachiever Mom and find most of the results on the first page focus on how bad overachieving moms make the rest of the moms feel.
Maybe the “rest of the moms” don’t really understand that they are overachieving moms themselves in their own way; perhaps they don’t put themselves in that category because they aren’t making their kid’s birthday cake from scratch, coaching the soccer team and helping their kids create super school projects that earn an A+. To me, you are an overachieving mom if you are balancing motherhood, a job and a romantic relationship and putting your best effort into all three. (That’s my definition, but others might substitute volunteer work or caring for an aging parent or housework in place of a job.)
But how do you define your best effort? Obviously, if you are vegging out on the couch watching TV all night instead of trying to help your kids with homework, or feeding your family fast food every night because it’s easier than cooking, or always yelling at your spouse and never apologizing (no matter how much he drives you nuts sometimes!), or showing up late for your job every day — you’re not putting forth your best effort. But if you get up exhausted in the middle of the night to comfort a scared child, or take work home on the weekends to help your boss meet a deadline, or give your husband a smile and kiss when he comes home even if you had a bad day, you are an overachiever mom — even if you aren’t doing all the things that other overachieving moms appear to be doing.
And that’s why I believe that these mothers deserve their own show devoted to Overachiever Moms. I know there are plenty of mothers who can help build that video community — a “fairy house” for the overachieving moms of the world to deliver the awesome power of information and inspiration!
If our children see us pushing to succeed in so many areas of life because we really believe in all that we do, then it’s only right to allow them the same luxury with our help and sacrifice — so go out there and figure out how to allow them to take on all of the activities that their hearts desire.