As I practiced my clarinet today, I had a thought that gave me pause:

Many kids today are stuck in a cycle of activities that they would enjoy more if they weren’t always feeling like they had to be “the best” at it. 

What happened to doing something for the joy and fun of doing it?  Is it OK to do something where you won’t be a star? Or make the varsity team or all state band?  By no means am I suggesting that kids should be allowed to phone something in instead of giving it their best shot.  My question is: Is it acceptable to simply do something because you like doing it and it makes you happy even if you’re not particularly good at it?

Of course, it is and we know it.  Just look at the number of adults who enter marathons each year.  As adults, we know that some things are about the accomplishment, the lesson, or the challenge.  Although we know it, we’ve forgotten to teach our children.  As a coach and music teacher, I see this all the time from students who tell me that they “have” to make the varsity team or the “best” band.  Kids have learned that the only acceptable thing is to be “good” at the chosen activity but here’s the rub: someone will almost always be better.  Does that mean we shouldn’t participate even if we really like doing it?  Of course not.

Over my 32 years of working with middle school and high school students, I’ve watched kids shift from mostly fearless to paralyzed, afraid to try for fear of making a mistake.  Kids seem less brave these days and that concerns me.  (I have a theory about messing up and our very visible social media world but that’s another blog for another day. Look for it soon!)

In this hyper-competitive, “always striving for better” world, what would it look like for our kids to have a safe space to just do something they enjoy without fear of failure?  I’m a middle-of-the-pack athlete; when I do a race, I know I won’t win and I know I won’t be last. I’m just happy to be there.  But what if I were to finish last?  Would that make it less enjoyable for me?  I honestly don’t think so because of my mindset and personal understanding of my reasons for participating.  What would it mean for your child if the mindset was shifted away from trying hard to be “good” at the activity and more towards the fun of participating and doing their best, whatever that is?  What lessons could be taught about giving sincere compliments to the team star without self-comparison, feeling compassion for the kid who strikes out a lot or the kid who secretly hates baseball but does it because his dad wants him to?  How about enjoying the fresh air, feeling gratitude for a healthy body, or enjoying the connection from being on a team – particularly when connection to others is threatened every day by social media comparison and perceived competition?

Adults talk a lot about gratitude and joyful living; it seems that we are all trying to remember our good fortune or find some happiness in this crazy world.  Our children could benefit from some early intervention about joy and the gifts of participating just for fun’s sake.  Let’s start this conversation.