Should We Prioritize Excellence?

A  few months ago, I took my three oldest children to an amazing concert put on by the Gifted Children’s Music School in Salt Lake City. We went into a beautiful concert hall and watched children ages 8-12 perform amazing feats with their instruments.  It was breathtaking to see these small people execute extremely difficult music with stupendous skills (I played violin for many years so I could really appreciate how hard the music was that they performed).  My kids were mesmerized right along with me.

I sat there wondering whether perhaps I have a gifted musician in my family whose talents I’m not nurturing properly. I mean Ashton’s taught himself some chords on the guitar and can play lots of songs by ear.  And Isaac’s got serious rhythm.  And Eliza sings beautifully and can pick out songs on the piano by ear. Could they be amazing musicians if I took the time to get them involved in serious lessons and sat by them to practice every day?  Could I squeeze in all the time that would entail?  Should I kick other things out of our lives to make room for the kids to really develop deep skills in some areas?

After the concert, we went to a reception where we got a chance to talk to some of the brilliant young performers. We found out that most of them practiced 4-8 hours a day.  Music was their life and they really seemed to love it.  And this intense focus seemed to work for them (and hopefully for their families).

But you know what, I don’t think that would work for my kids or our family. We like to do too many different things. And there are a lot of us. With each child just participating in one or two pretty basic extra-curricular activity (the boys do Scouts weekly and play on a basketball team in the winter, Eliza has weekly dance classes, the twins do soccer plus we do some music lessons here and there), it still seems like it’s hard to protect our family dinner times, the hiking and biking we love doing together most Saturdays, and the free time to read and use their imaginations and play together that I think kids really need.

My mom has pointed out that people can generally be either “highly-sharpened” or “well-rounded”. I guess we’re going more for “well-rounded” than “highly-sharpened” in our family. And I’m OK with that.  It seems right for us. I do hope all my kids can feel the thrill of really excelling at something in their lives – and I’m pretty sure those opportunities will arise as we watch for them.  But right now, I thank my lucky stars that my kids haven’t shown any really strong inclination towards the expensive, consuming talents that some children have.  I just don’t know if I’d have the patience and stamina (or money) to support a truly gifted child in pursuing his or her talent for years and years.  Maybe that’s why God didn’t give me any of those Gifted Music School students!

I think it’s important to decide what really matters most to our family and then fit other stuff around that. For some families, perhaps true excellence and “sharpening” for their talented children is an important priority and everything else can be carefully fitted into the spaces around practicing and performing.  For other families, perhaps less structure and more time for imagination and play feels like a priority that needs to be placed above the priority of excellence. For most families, certain seasons mean certain priorities while other seasons lend themselves to other priorities.  I don’t think there is any one “right” set of priorities when it comes to extracurricular activities and the pursuit of excellence.

But, I do think that we need to stop and really think about our priorities from time to time.  It can be so easy to assume that soccer or dance or piano lessons are just what kids are “supposed” to do – and to feel frustrated when our kids don’t seem to excel at anything in particular. Maybe it’s better to figure out what’s most important to us as a family and let our children’s interests and talents evolve – and then build out from there as far as extracurricular activities. Sure, it’s great for kids to be exposed to many different possible talents and interests and to be urged to pursue excellence in ways that will be meaningful to them.  But ultimately, I think it’s important to protect our highest priorities for our kids and our family as we carefully choose and generally limit the activities we make a part of our lives.

Maybe we’ll just be excellent at being well-rounded in our family and leave the highly-sharpened excellence to others. I can applaud and appreciate other people’s excellence and develop my own brand of excellence while encouraging my children to do the same.

 QUESTION:  Is excellence important to you?  Why or why not?  What are your priorities for the non-work, non-school hours in your family?  How can you protect those priorities?

 CHALLENGE: Work with your spouse to discuss what you want most for your family.  Then talk through the extracurricular activities you’re doing or are planning to do this school year.  Decide whether each activity supports your family’s priorities.  Make changes if need be.

 

Photo by Nuchylee @ www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Comments

  1. says

    I have to say that i think there’s a reason that we don’t pick majors until college… you need to kind of see a lot of what there is before you pick your “thang” :)

  2. ajorjco says

    I think it’s part of our nature to be inspired by excellence, but I often wonder why there seems to be such a shift from a focus on excellence in character to excellence in talent/skill. We can ALWAYS be working on building an excellent character and while some of those talents and skills can help us build character, so many people who don’t have those opportunities build strong characters anyway (often as a result of great adversity).

    • says

      I love the concept of excellence in character. Thanks for putting this into words for me Ajorjco. As parents, we need to remember that developing excellence in character takes time and direct teaching and practice too. It doesn’t just happen, just like a concert pianist doesn’t just happen either. And I think this is why family dinner is so important to me. Dinner is where we develop manners, conversation skills, empathy, etc. It is also a great time to discuss values, world issues and reconnect with family. My oldest is only 10, but so far I’ve opted for family dinner over soccer or dance practice. I hope I am making the right choice.

  3. says

    Great post! Very thought provoking. My son will often say he’s going to get into the Olympics or that he’s going to play a certain instrument or become a champion in this. But that’s just it; it changes day to day. He, like the rest of our family, is interested in many things. I can’t imagine forcing him to pick one thing. Is he good at all of these things? No. And, we don’t go crazy doing everything at once. Everything is a choice and to do one thing, sometimes you have to let something else go. But you also don’t need to limit yourself to one thing. At least not at 10. I think for some kids, that drive comes naturally, either because they are intrinsically talented in that one area or because the family is just really really focused on that particular area. For the rest of us, we dabble until our true focus shows itself.

  4. AnnieG says

    I think whatever they choose, or you choose to have them do, it needs to be consistent and persistent. I don’t believe in “talent” per se anymore… my children practice their instruments DAILY… not for hours but at least for 30 minutes if not more, and they both excel. Mothers I know tell me, “your children are gifted, mine can’t do that.” I say they are not gifted, they just practice consistently. Most parents I know just don’t want to make the commitment, or make it a priority for their children, but practice does make perfect and it builds discipline and focus.

    • April Perry says

      Annie, I would love to hear more about how you structure the practices. Do you give your children a specific time to start/stop? Do they always practice in the morning, at night, etc.? Do they ever whine about it? Do they get distracted? Do you have to sit right next to them and help them remember the right techniques? (Can you tell I’m struggling? :)) Thank you!

      • willow says

        April my two oldest take piano and practice (almost) daily. They get up early abd practice all their songs 3 times which is about 30 minutes usually. I don’t sit by them because when I have, it seriously damages our relationship. :). That’s the teacher’s job. I tell them it is their job just like homework, unloading the dishwasher or taking out the garbage. They get a “home point” everyday they practice and their piano teacher and I have come up with a reward system. I am fortunate in that my boys genuinely enjoy playing.

        • April Perry says

          Thank you so much! I’m thinking I need someone else to be my children’s teacher. I’ve been teaching them myself, and it’s just tricky. Glad to hear what’s working for you!

  5. says

    Love this article! My children participate in very few extra-curricular activities, and I think about excellence versus well-roundedness all the time.

    We are more of the well-rounded type people around here. It’s funny though–my oldest daughter has a lot of natural musical talent. Though she practices harp and piano daily, it is very minimal compared to some. Yet, her being the church organist at 13 years old has caused all sorts of quick judgments about how “accomplished” she is. Really, I would say more of her skills are natural than hard-earned.

    As for my other children, music is definitely “not his thing” for one of my sons, but we require music practice daily for each of our three older children. And to some it looks like they are really “gifted!” It’s more to aid in the “well-rounded” feature of them–it is a trade-off for the other (unorganized) activities we let them participate in.

    I agree with Annie’s comments–I hear all sorts of “meant to be compliments” from others–but really it’s about consistency (with a little natural talent thrown in). Consistency can cause excellence-but I don’t believe it is necessary at all. I much prefer the well-rounded nature of people versus a specific area they excel in. My children included.

  6. AnnieG says

    April – Each of my children is different, they don’t share the same instrument or teaching methodology, so my approach is different. My 10-year-old son is a self-starter and plays the piano and guitar, both with a traditional teacher/approach. For him, I have only recently had to step in on his practicing. His pieces are longer now and whereas his practices used to consist of him just playing a song beginning to end, now they need to break down the piece into smaller parts. After each lesson, I write up a practice chart for him and break it down into categories like warm-up,theory, technique drills (arpeggios, etc.), his current song and review of older songs.
    My 8-year-old is a different story. He takes the violin (which is a must more complex instrument) and is a Suzuki student, which requires my participation. He does not like to practice, whines and gets distracted. I keep him motivated in a couple of ways. He likes to see what the practice will be, so I show him the practice chart so he can see how much work there will be. I have him mark it off as we do it so he can see progress. Also, in Suzuki style, there is a lot of doing things five times, so we use counters (beans, pennies, jelly beans, pez candies, etc.)and though it’s a small reward, he likes it. We don’t always use it, but it does help. I also do a lot of research on games to play in practice, how to motivate him, how to structure practice, so I can keep it fresh. Practicing in the morning is great but just doesn’t work for us. Thoughts: try to practice in the same place/time each day; try to make it fun; acknowledge that practice isn’t fun, but it’s how we get better, it’s how we make it easy; don’t call it practice, call it making music; be patient but unyielding.
    And, the one constant for both boys is that I attend their lessons and take notes so that I can make sure their practices meet their teachers’ expectations. Music is such an important thing to learn as it develops discipline, mastery, self-confidence, improves math skills, etc. etc. There is a great book out there called “How to Get Your Child To Practice Without Resorting to Violence” by Cynthia Richards that is a good resource – also “Helping Parents Practice” by Edmund Sprunger. Happy to discuss more if you have questions or are looking for resources. It ain’t easy, but it’s important, just like the rest of parenting.

    • April Perry says

      You are so inspiring!! I’m amazed at how well you have set this up for your children. I’m getting tons of ideas. Thank you so much!

  7. cami says

    Hmmm….Love the article! While reading it, I was feeling so happy about my recent decision to let my two boys discontinue piano and start the school year with a simplified schedule. I am very consistent about having my kids practice when they take lessons, but found that school work was sliding and we have no time to just relax and enjoy each other. One son has ADHD and the other just has to work really hard in school. I probably shouldn’t have let myself read the comments because now I’m feeling guilty all over again!

  8. says

    I think you do what feels right for your family. My older two take lessons and I am diligent about making sure they practice at least six days a week…but we practice for 15-30 min per day which is what we can fit in around dinner, homework, readng and family time (particularly during the school year). And while they are doing fine, I don’t know that I would say they excel… But I am ok with that. We don’t have 3-4 hours each day to practice and there are other things that matter to me just as much (such as that my children become bilingual or that I have time to read to them nightly..even though the older two can read on their own…because I know readlng aloud to kids has numerous benefits.). I have a dear friend with 8 children that are each involved in two activities and that works for them. Another friend sets a limit that her children may participate in 1 extra curricular activity each. There’s no one right way…as long as the schedule and practice work with your time constraints and your child’s. so don’t feel bad, Cami. Do what is best for your children. I guess I also want to say that while I can’t schedule my life for my children to practice 3 hours a day, if the child loves the activity then maybe that is right for that child or family. I guess I also figure that my children are still young…they may eventually quit playing altogether (although I hope not) but if they continue to play and practice, then they will continue to improve. They will probably never be famous, but they will have developed a talent that I hope will bring them joy and give them opportunities to bless others’ lives for many years to come. They don’t have to be the best…they just need to develop skills and good work habits…and then they can keep learning throughout their lives. (But at times it is hard to keep that perspective when I go to Federation and see children younger than mine performing more complicated pieces or see concerts and realize that my children are not as amazing as their peers in this area or that. But I think it comes back to what Saren says about taking stock of what is really most important… And also remembering that we have a tendency to judge ourselves by comparing our own weaknesses to others strengths…). Thank you, Saren! And thanks for those who made comments…all were valuable…I especially appreciate the titles about practicing. I will check them out.

  9. says

    Thank you for a very good read! It was amazing and I enjoyed reading every line of the article. I learned so much from this and it was also very inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing this post!

  10. Emily says

    I have been pondering this for a year now. I worry that I am letting my kids down because I am not pushing them harder. I have decided to push them to do well and continue to learn in whatever they are persuing at the moment, and that is good enough for us.

    Thanks for the great article.

  11. Holly says

    My sister and me were just discussing this. My parents gave us the opportunity to take lessons in something we were interested in pursuing. As others have mentioned, children change their minds and their interests frequently, so we had to express a lot of interest before our parents would spring for lessons. We weren’t monitored, but if we weren’t motivated to practice without supervision, mom decided we weren’t really interested, that it had just been a passing fancy. Also, if we didn’t show a fair amount of talent pretty quickly, the lessons stopped. I don’t agree with this, but our parents were of the old school, I guess. They wouldn’t spend time or money on something which didn’t show results. I think children should be encouraged to explore any aspect of life that they want to explore, whether they’re geniuses, or just average, or even sort of clueless! There’s a saying that I love – if you can’t learn to do it well, learn to enjoy doing it badly!

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