Hoping something sticks

Expertise through long-term committment

Raising kids has become a topic of obsession American parents. There seems to be no shortage of advice to be had, much of it conflicting.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. A generation or two ago, kids followed a predictable route of development that followed that of their parents and their grandparents before them. In essence, parents could say to their children: “Just watch what I do; and you’ll become what you will be.” But the post-WWII prosperity and the cultural shifts that followed brought significant upward and lateral mobility. A side-effect of mobility is that it breaks down the formulaic approach to raising kids. If I can be anything I want, then why not actually try? But this often leaves parents with a limited ability to prepare their children for their idealized future.

The fragile economic conditions also weigh heavily on parents. Since the future is so uncertain and parents’ ability to prepare their kids for a livelihood that is dissimilar to their own is lacking, many parents respond by exposing their kids to countless activities. Throwing things at the wall hoping that something sticks. Of course, this leads to burnout and frustration among parents and an unnecessarily harried life for their kids. But more importantly, this isn’t how expertise develops.

Expertise unfolds through long-term committment to a discipline. Trying many activities in hopes of finding one that resonates with a child seems logical, but it turns out to be a particularly bad way to develop real expertise in kids. Interest develops through depth more than breadth. If we skim along the surface of the ocean at high speed, it looks like a boring, desolate place. But if we slow down and dive beneath the surface, the richness of its diversity springs into view. I don’t discount that kids have differentiated interests that result from unique ways in which they’re wired. And parents have to be mindful of unique characteristics of their kids when they select activities. But there’s both a lesson and a meta-lesson to be had by focusing on a smaller range of activities.

The lesson, of course, is the acquisition of a talent or ability that has depth. Kids that have dived beneath the surface are easy to spot. They’re the ones who are in the front, winning competitions. They’re involved. The meta-lesson is about pushing through difficulties, deferring gratification, and respecting commitments. Both are priceless.

Things don’t stick to walls because of some unknown forces. They stick because someone made them stick. That’s what parents do.