Not Really Interested

By Denise Gonzalez-Walker

DJ, my 10 year-old, stood in the middle of his classmates, rigid and then sinking quickly to the soft grass. His eyes rolled back as he fell and he let out a sharp whimper.

Sitting with a small group of moms, I watched the game from one side of the playfield. By the end, all the kids were happily writhing around on the grass.

“Have you ever thought about enrolling DJ in acting classes?” the mom next to me asked out of the blue. Her own daughter, DJ’s classmate, was deeply involved in acting and performed in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. The mom continued eyeing DJ. “He’s good at acting, you know.” The other women agreed.

A few days later, it was The Grandmother nagging me. “I think DJ would make a good actor. Have you ever asked him whether he wants to take acting lessons?”

I had not. But after hearing about his natural talent from several people, I became convinced that DJ should start acting lessons right away. Perhaps it’s my competitive streak, or perhaps that crazy maternal desire that someday my kid could be Somebody — the same desire that drives moms to tart up their 3-year-olds for beauty pageants, or fly their surly tweens across the country for elite sports competitions.

That night, I told DJ about what the others had said and enthusiastically asked, “Would you like to take some acting classes?”

“No,” he replied, “I’m not really interested in that.”

I felt like whapping him across the head. What kind of kid is not really interested in being in the spotlight? Even no-talent adults clamor for the opportunity to embarrass themselves on reality TV shows or, even worse, on YouTube. And here’s a kid with talent, but no desire to pursue stardom?

For me, this embodies the most difficult challenge of Free Range parenting — giving my son the freedom to choose his extracurricular interests. With the exception of swimming lessons, which I insisted that he take despite his protests, DJ has been allowed to decide what activities he does. And because he generally abhors busy schedules and has no desire to participate in competitive sports, his activity list is relatively anemic compared to his friends’.

It makes me worry about whether I should more actively “guide” DJ’s interests. In my mind, I picture him as a middle-aged man, shaking his fist at the TV and saying, “If only my mom had forced me to take those acting lessons!”

Trusting your kid to find his way to the park is one thing, but how about trusting him to find the path to his passions? It’s another Free Range challenge. A hard one.

26 Responses

  1. “He generally abhors busy schedules” – sounds like a smart kid to me.

    I think the biggest problem is the fact the poor kid has an activity list to get through. Am I the only person who doesn’t believe that a life and a to do list aren’t the same thing?

    There seems to be some serious cognitive disconnects between action and intention here. Furious activity has no correlation to being productive or producing things of merit. Doing nothing isn’t worthless. Unstructured play is worth as much, and possibly more, than regimen and drill. Just because you spend your day in an office doing mindless, repetitive tasks, shouldn’t mean that your kids have to do the same.

    The best way to learn something is to do it, and preferably make mistakes. If a parent makes every single decision for their child, they cannot be surprised when they raise a child incapable of making decisions. This is the core of freeranging – giving kids the skills to make good decisions and then letting them do so.

    The thing that really confuses me, is the parents who are shocked to learn that their children aren’t little versions of themselves and that they have opinions and preferences of their own. I think a large part of these ‘activity death marches’ are about preventing parents having to deal with their own child’s self determination. It’s not about making the child’s life better, but the parents.

  2. Seems to me your question is really about how to minimize the mistakes we make bringing up our kids. How much do we insist they do something “for their own good”?

    Here’s my perspective: as little as possible. Unless it is a safety issue like learning to swim, he still has time many skills. If DK is really talented at acting, it won’t hurt anything that he doesn’t start his career at 10. He has time to develop this talent if he ever becomes interested. Likewise playing the piano, figuring out how to program a computer, learning ballet or to speak a foreign language. Sure, it’s easier if you start at a young age, for some skills much more than others, but there is no reason your kids can’t pick some things up later.

    We as parents are too concerned about being the perfect parents. We don’t want our kids to be able to blame us for making wrong decisions,. This isn’t achievable, and I don’t think it a particularly laudable goal either. Our children need to see us weighing options and making decisions. And as they grow up, we need to include them in some of those decisions, and respect their preferences, as you did with DK’s acting lessons.

  3. Agree with Sioux, that there’s no hurry. He’ll get better at acting without lessons. Anyway, what kid wants more classes? How about asking him if he wants to be in a show?

  4. I am fighting this battle with myself everyday. I want my kids to grow up with every opportunity, to not feel like they missed out on something but I also don’t want to push them into doing something they don’t want to do (with the exception of swimming lessons- like you, I feel that not drowning is an essential life skill).
    I also know by experience that I have to back the hell off, or else those same experiences I want them to have will be tainted and ruined for them (violin lesson fiasco-really, you don’t want to know- it wasn’t a stellar parenting moment).
    It seems to me that your kid is already acting. Just like John Holt said about when he was practising the cello- he wasn’t practising, he was playing. Playing is an important part of childhood- it is their way of figuring out the world. We should really trust our kids and give their play its due.

  5. I also have a hard time putting my feelings aside and letting my daughters choose their extracurricular interests. I like to think that I am above competing with my friends and neighbors for bragging rights… but not really.

    The exception has been my 14 year old, naturally athletically gifted daughter. When she started high school she didn’t want to play a fall sport. She could have chosen tennis, golf, or volleyball. She is ‘good’ at all three, but is not the star of any of those sports. So she choose not to embarrass herself and instead come home and sit each afternoon. I tried not to push-knowing that she wasn’t going to be happy sitting at home. Thankfully the tennis coach recruited her to play because they needed more players. That is when I started to push— I felt guilty for a little bit, but yesterday I am proud to say that her and her doubles partner were the only ones that won their match! Now, she is glad she decided to play.
    I would not have pushed my 9 year old-so what is the difference.. I have no idea.
    I do believe that teenage girls should be busy in the afternoons after school—since this is the age that one 10 minute mistake can change the course of their lives. Maybe that is why I pushed her into tennis….. I don’t know.

  6. I am struggling a bit with this with my oldest – 10yo son – I loved riding my bike at 7 – my dad dropping me off at school with my bike in the back of his truck, and I would ride it a mile every afternoon in the first grade.

    My 10yo is barely able to stay upright, and when I suggest the idea of practicing, he refuses immediately.

    So I’m trying to let it go. He knows how to swim, so he won’t drown. I suppose that not knowing how to ride a bike is not the end of the world.

  7. @jb…if he can stay upright (even just barely)…all he needs is just a tad more speed🙂

    My 8 yo shows no signs of ever getting off training wheels. There is so much more to do inside, he has no desire to do outside stuff like soccer, bikes, tag, whatever.

    @cagefreekids…if you want to spark something in the acting area, skip classes and see if DJ and friends would like to do some comedy skits or a talent show in the yard for the parents and neighbors.

    Cycling coach Kevin

  8. When I was 10 my sister used to drag me all over town to audition for any and every child part available. It was her passion, I just went along for fun. My mom drove us, but my sister would tell her when and where and why. She got a few meaty roles and developed a life long love of theater.
    At every audition we would see another girl whose mom was a clear stage mom. That girl was pushed into the auditions, done up in full make up. Her mom would get upset at anything that got in her daughter’s way. There were complaints when she didn’t get roles. I’ll bet anything that she developed a real distaste for the theater in the process.
    I agree to let your son’s passions guide him. Let him know he has skills, but don’t push. He’ll find his way.

  9. I think steering them in a direction and making them try new things will expose them to more interests – then they can decide.

    How does he know he’s not interested if he doesn’t have to try it for a season? He may freaking love it and discover his innate abilities are where his interests lie.

    Also, the swimming lessons – that’s just a safety issues.

    Extracurricular activities are also exercise issues. I make my kids participate in at least one so they will learn to take care of their bodies. That doesn’t apply to acting but it applies to karate and soccer.

  10. we’re an unschooling family, so trusting my child and not pushing or forcing him to do something that I THINK he *should* do, is second nature. we have to trust that our children know their limits or at least support them while they find their limits.

    I wish more children (especially those who are schooled) could and would voice their opinions on extracurricular stuff and have their voice and opinion respected…you have to rest at some point.

  11. […] Not Really Interested By Denise Gonzalez-Walker […]

  12. I have the same thought process as Tracee. How do the kids know if they do/don’t like something if they’ve never done it? It’s like when my 4-year old looks at what’s on her dinner plate and says “I don’t like it.” and she’s never even had a bite! In our house, we have the “taste test” rule, which is you have to take at least one bite of a new item. If they don’t like it after that, they don’t eat it, but I do reintroduce the new food a few weeks/months later because I know how kids’ tastes can change.

    We do sorta the same thing with sports. We did basketball last winter and towards the end of the “season” she said she didn’t like basketball. I said she had to finish the lessons and then she could choose something else. A few weeks ago we passed the gym where she had her lessons and she said “I want to play basketball again!” and that’s all she’s pretty much talked about the last few days. Just like food, kids’ taste can change.

    I feel that our job as parents is to expose them to new experiences and introduce them to the world so they have the information they need to decide whether or not they like something. If we left it up to them I think most kids would do only what they’re familiar with since I think kids tend to be very much creatures of habit.

    Just my $.02.

  13. I think your son isn’t necessarily fighting acting per se, but the fact that he would have to commit to learning it in a structured environment where he would be expected to do so. The idea that we have to structure learning in everything is absurd. In 6th grade, I won 2nd place in the Indiana Geography Bee (run by National Geographic). I didn’t take geography classes (other than social studies, which for the most part was review anyway), or had a geography tutor. It was all interest. I think parents’ goals should be finding their kids’ INTERESTS, not “I want him to take this just so he can stay busy”. Americans in general are so caught up with being busy and making sure they’re busy, when all a busy life does is allow stress to accumulate. People aren’t supposed to feel like crap each and every day, and many don’t seem to realize it. People were happier when they didn’t think making an extra $10k a year (which they would spend on a house that cost $50k more with 500 more SF they would never use) in exchange for all their free time was a good trade off.

  14. This is very difficult for me. I grew up in Toronto, and while all my friends played hockey growing up, my parents didn’t want me to play because it was the 70’s and the goon era in the NHL. I also don’t blame them for having to spend hundreds of dollars in equipment costs every year as I grew. I had no real interest in it growing up, but discovered playing hockey when I was 23 and had a complete blast. I wish that my parents had set me up for hockey so that I didn’t have to learn how to skate and play at an adult age, as I’ve never really gotten competent at it. However, there is no guarantee that if they had signed me up that I would have enjoyed it. Plus often kids have a shorter attention span, so a kid can be all fired up to want to do some kind of extra thing, but six months later couldn’t be bothered.

  15. When I was about 10 or 11, my parents told me they thought I had natural talent for music. They told me learning to play an instrument would be hard and tedious, but that after some time, I would appreciate the effort it took, not only because it would enable me to enjoy making music, but because of the discipline itsef.
    I signed up for piano, and dropped it after just one year. Do I regret it? Sometimes. But I have only myself to blame. And anyway, I can always pick it up- it was only supposed to be a hobby, not my proffession, right?
    What I mean is that my parents gave me good advice, and I took it as I saw fit. Why don´t we do the same with our children? DJ, do you like acting? Yes. Do you want to be an actor? No. Would you like to have fun with a bunch of people who prepare amateur plays now and then? Maybe. Would you like to learn the technique behind those fabulous movies you like? Not really.
    Well then, don´t go looking for extra-curricular activities for him, but for a good hobby. Adults can play and have fun too, you know, and it´s never too early to start!

  16. My parents send me to ballet, tennis, piano (they never gave up on this one) swimming, anything they could afford (and sometimes als could not really afford, but hey, you do everything for your kids) and that was available in our tiny village. at high school i found myself an acting course, and dropped it shortly after.

    At the age of 35 I started with a bunch of friends and no previous experience a theatre company. 5 ys. later we are good on our way to become professionals. We are really good. we still cannot pay a mortgage with it (you see, we play in Italian in the Netherlands, so an audience is sparce), so we have a serious job next to it, but just because of it we are totally free on what we play, how we do it etc.

    Major directors, nationally acclaimed writers whose works we play, they love, support and come to see our rehearsals and help. To me this is much more worth than making money. Besides, I do not need to compromise, or have sex with people who can offer me a role (believe me, this happens to boys too).

    So, I would not worry about your son. Every activity and every talent needs an age to develop, and life and ourselves will eventually bring us there. I was far too shy and timid at 15 or 20 to seriously challenge myself with acting. Now I am a grown up woman and acting helps me a lot in being less timid.

  17. We have the try and decide method in our house. Our Park and rec is a great source for competitive light exposure to all kinds of activities. They are usually short term also. We have a set expectation that our son will enroll in one active (sports or exercise) acitivity and one music option per season. We negotiate if he would like to do additional activities like theater, service clubs etc. We are also regular church attenders and so church attendance is not optional for our 10yo. The key is he chooses. I let him know what comes in the mail or what is in the newspaper, he chooses what to do. We do not allow tv, video games etc during the week. He is only allowed two hours each weekend day after homework and chores on Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday. We live in the Pacific Northwest, so winter days are quite short for playing outside, so options like basketball, karate etc allow for activity indoors. In the summer we do nothing, but play. He chooses a camp or two. Other than that we camp and play together. My husband I I both work full time, but we scheudle it so one or both of us can be with our boy! The biggest key for us is to let the 10 yo choose one acitivity at a time and to play a lot together! Adults can play too!

  18. I have always felt like the lone voice in my town for not overscheduling my kids. We do 1, maybe 2 outside activities a semester. This year it is cub scouts and swimming. (Shh – don’t tell anyone, my kids are 8 and 6 and can’t really swim yet. But then as my mom said: She’s 65 and can’t swim yet either, and she’s still here)
    We have tried soccer (good at it, but not really interested), baseball (ok at it, somewhat interested), latino culture class (interested in the class, but not the loss of Saturdays it entailed), and maybe 1 other thing. But in the summer – nothing. My kids resent being scheduled to an extreme. They want time to play with their toys, ride their bikes, climb the tree in the yard, etc. It is a pity that all of their friends are so overscheduled that we can rarely get together for playdates with anyone. But I’m not going to overschedule them so they can meet people. I would rather have them be doing what they want to do.

  19. When my kids were growing up, we had the “only one thing” rule. In addition to piano lessons (which we required as a basic component of their education; they were allowed to give it up when they entered middle school, when the district mandated music training and they each went into orchestra and learned a new instrument), they could choose one other extracurricular activity. It was usually Odyssey of the Mind (in season), but later my son kept up the viola in the high school orchestra and my daughter got a job. She just wanted to be independent, period, and had no interest in the usual high school shenanigans. In summer they goofed off with their friends and/or worked, and read lots. We usually went somewhere (national park, visit west, etc.) a couple of times a year–and they didn’t suffer in getting into college or in terms of social development. They’re both thirtyish today and are bright, creative, accomplished people.

    So if the kid doesn’t want to act, good on ‘im! Feel free to impose one thing that’ll help him develop cognitive and cultural skills; otherwise leave it up to him. I think you’ve got the right idea.

  20. I angst over this passion business quite a bit. My boys were taking piano lessons until last year, when I ran out of extra cash. This broke my heart. Not theirs. They are fairly musical, but the piano is not their passion. Their passion right now is playing roller bat and flinger. Flinger involves getting on the swing set, swinging outrageously high, and then flinging your shoe off your foot as far as it will go. Somehow I am not seeing a career in this.

    But they will be OK and find their way. I think of my youngest brother, now 40, who loved to doodle but never set foot in an art class as a kid. Instead he hung around the house all the time drawing cartoonish Snuffy Smith–looking characters with big noses. This was his passion. He then studied art in college and now is an ad art director with a low-key, well-paying job.

  21. My 6-year-old daughter often puts on beautiful little dance shows for the family. I have asked many times over the last couple of years if she wanted to take dance class, like many of her friends do. (Here in the South it seems like a practically required thing for little girls to start taking ballet lessons at 3.) But she has never been interested, although she clearly has talent. Yesterday, she finally explained why in a way that made sense — “I don’t want to dance like everybody else. I want to make up my own dance.” That totally fits her personality, I realized, and I am proud of her celebrating her individuality.

  22. maybe he’s not acting. maybe he’s a budding politician.

  23. Many great actors didn’t gain interest in drama until high school or college. I think you have to wait for the kid to be interested and drive themselves into things. I like to get my son to try things and if he hates it or doesn’t want to do it again…that’s cool.

    I had the same issue…my son is a drama king and loved the spotlight in school plays…but the minute I tried to get him into an organized class he was like…no thanks.

    Another example is scouting…I think it’s a great thing for him to do, but he’s absoultely adamant he doesn’t want to do it.

    I also have challenges with how he chooses to spend his pocket money. He loves pokemon and I hate him spending all his money on those cards…but he said to me…”It’s important to me mom, even if it’s not important to you.” For a seven year old…I felt like i was being talked to by a wizened old man.

    He was right…it’s his hobby, it’s his money…sigh…

    We have to give them more independence…especially these days when they have so little naturally.

  24. I’m amazed. A whole page full of moms debating wether or not some kid they’ve never ever met should take acting classes, even when said kid has clearly stated that he isn’t interested in that sort of thing.
    Hellooo? It’s a kid. He doesn’t want classes. He wants to play. Playacting is a part of playing and it’s important and it’s fun and adults should stay well away from it. What’s next? The kid is really good with his lego and you’ll enroll him in Junior Architect classes? Let. Him. Be.
    Mom asked. Kid said no. End of story.

    Oh, and mom? If your son ever throws at you, “I coulda *been* somebody! I coulda be a *contendah*, if only you pushed me into enduring acting classes!”, take a level look at your son, shrug, say, “I asked. You said no. End of discussion.”
    Dealing with the consequence of your decisions is an essential part of growing up.

  25. What do you mean, “What kind of kid is not really interested in being in the spotlight?”!?! Ever heard of an introvert?!😦

    And I’m with Marion R., don’t be a jerk and force things onto people. (Kids are people too.)

  26. IMO if we don’t expose our children to things such as drama class, how will they know they don’t like it?

    Sure, a stuffed agenda isn’t the way to go but leaving the decision up to the child isn’t either. Just like we want our children to go and play outside instead of their wanting to play the XBox, we can also want them to go to drama class (even if only for a semester).

    A little pushing never hurt anyone. It’s when the pushing or the lack of it tips the balance in the wrong way when it starts to hurt.

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