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.


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