Monday, July 23, 2012

Kids and opportunities

Some good things and some sad things today.
Good news: I'm officially re-admitted to Purdue's Graduate School through their Professional Education / distance learning program.  Once I get the log in information, I can submit my Plan of Study, and the other next steps towards registering for classes.

Sad news: Sally Ride passed away today, of pancreatic cancer.  It should come as no surprise to anyone who's been following my blog, that she is one of my heroes.  She was not who inspired me to want to work for the space program - I'm fairly certain I saw the space shuttle before she made history.

But I have some faint childhood memories of telling people that I wanted to be an astronaut, and some people saying that girls couldn't do that.  Even though the first female astronauts were selected in 1978, I guess they didn't register until Sally Ride flew in 1983.  That, that told people that yes women can.  THAT put a stop to THOSE comments, so thoroughly that I can barely remember them.  And for that, I am profoundly grateful.

I want this blog to be inspirational, to be a positive thing.  But the truth is, traditions can be deeply rooted and hard to change.  Our SWE section in Houston decided to invite high school girls who were interested in STEM fields to a holiday party with college engineering majors and professional women.  One school system, the guidance counselor told the woman calling, "Oh, none of our girls are interested in that."  As if they didn't need to ask.  Because they just assumed that no girls would want to do that sort of thing.

Which always makes me wonder, how many opportunities did I simply miss, in elementary school or so, because the adults around me just assumed I wouldn't be interested?

That's one of the things I'm trying to do for my son.  Give him the chance to try everything: baseball, gymnastics, soccer, art, basketball, dance, martial arts, music.  He doesn't have to like them all.  It's okay to not like something.  A year or two later we can ask him if he wants to try it again, and listen to his answers.  Maybe he will and maybe he won't.

Obviously, I would like him to find some thing(s) to stick with, eventually. But he is 4 years old, and VERY few people are child prodigies.  To me, this is exactly the time to try things out, experiment, PLAY, have fun and enjoy.  I don't care if he's any good at it, because skill can be developed over time.  The important thing, to me, is sparking the interest, helping him to discover what activities bring him joy & peace.

Most skills take a long time to develop.  Malcolm Gladwell in "Outliers" says 10,000 hours, which usually translates to 10 years of regular practice.  So, when we find the activities that bring him that calm, happy enjoyment, we can focus on continuing those for the longer term.

The other thing I have to say about that is, be flexible.  I am going to insist that he have music in his life, but when the time comes, I'll give him a say in what instrument(s) he wants to play, balanced by our observations & his music teacher's inputs.  Negotiate for the win-win.

I am also going to encourage him to be physically active.  Most families with boys, the dad wants the kid in team sports.  Let him have a say in what sport(s)!  If he picks one, find appropriate cross-training activities for the off-season, that don't overuse the muscles.  Our family takes a broader view on athletics.  Neither Brian nor I were all that good at the team sports, but we like to go over to the Y to swim.  I enjoy martial arts, yoga, gymnastics, archery, even horseback riding when I have the opportunity.

I'm also realizing how strongly I was influenced by my (male) classmate who did ballet.  If my son decides he wants to dance, I'm going to encourage him.

I know that cold, hard reality can make it hard to give all kids these opportunities.  I remember how many times I asked my parents to be able to play soccer, and never getting the chance.  I know that my Y offers scholarships for kids in need... but I remember the days when my parents worked three jobs each, and sometimes needed me as the third driver to help our family get where we needed to be.

For those parents who can't, all I ask is this:  Love your kids.  When they get an opportunity to do/try something at school, a sport or a play or a singing event, try to encourage them.  If cost looks like a barrier, talk with the kids about how it might be overcome.  I read "Outliers" and "Freakonomics" back-to-back, and so sometimes the ideas between the two blend together.  One of the things that stood out for me, that helped explain my parents, was that often struggling families see after school activities as "extra," just for fun.  They often don't see the way that their child might be able to make a living doing those activities.

Or how those activities can become a positive, fulfilling hobby for the rest of their life.

For those parents who can afford extracurricular activities, I'll ask this instead: Set limits.  Even just the three of us, we're often heading in different directions most of the week.  Make time to sit down for meals together, to play games together, to be a family.  It's okay to slow down, to say "You know, we're rushing around too much this day, let's skip [activity] to reduce stress."

Especially for the "try it out" phase, you don't have to try everything at once.  One or two things at a time is good.  Continue what they like, drop what they don't.  As our son gets older, we'll work with him to focus a little more on the things he enjoys doing the most.

Boys and girls can be anything they want to be.  Even everything they want to be, though usually not all at once.  I've thought of it this way: I learned English before 10, Spanish in my teens, and Russian in my twenties.  With focus, I could readily learn a fourth language in my thirties, a fifth in my forties, and so on.  Sports, music, hobbies, it's the same thing.