Elementary Excellence

For years, something has been shifting in middle-class America. Pre-competitive and competitive sports start at age 5. Subtraction happens in kindergarten. Reading chapter books is expected at first grade. Multiplication begins in second. And, these are just the early elementary school years.

All of the advancements might sound like a good thing. We’re moving forward, right? But, when the bar for success is constantly changing, it is a completely defeating system that breeds discouragement. It’s a problem that I suspect is marked by privilege, but can be found in towns and cities of all sizes across the country.

This model works for some, but for most, it’s limiting. It communicates to kids they aren’t good at things long before they’ve really tried them. It sets others up for crushing failure despite early success, and for everyone, it limits the breadth of experiences.

The true irony comes from the recent outpouring of articles discussing the importance of failure and risk. We’re asking children and teens to constantly aim for perfection, all while reading articles about experimentation and innovation. It makes absolutely no sense, and we’re doing it to ourselves.

Can you imagine choosing your sport at age 5? I can’t. Between the ages of 3 and 11, I tried and quit dance, golf, tennis, softball, sewing, Spanish and piano. I found things I loved – like reading, acting and travel. And, others I hated – volleyball and running. It was invaluable and often embarrassing.

This new shift has me wondering why we value mastery over experimentation. Trying new things breeds confidence and self-awareness. It’s humbling and exciting. Shouldn’t we show our kids how wide and wonderful the world is? That focusing on one thing can be limiting and monotonous.

I’d like to opt out. And, as I talk to other parents, they would too. But, most, myself included, fear that opportunities to participate will dry up. That there won’t be a rec team. That their kids will fall behind. That their children’s confidence will flag in a big, impactful way.  So, we begrudgingly do extra homework and put our kids in one too many activities, looking for excellence where it doesn’t belong – at the beginning.




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