Letting Your Kids Be Involved

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Many high school yearbooks have Senior Superlatives, titles for students, voted on by their peers, such as “Most Likely to Succeed,” and “Best Smile.” Because I was an over-involved extrovert, I earned myself a title: Biggest Brown-Noser.

They even asked us to rub dirt on our noses, but the shadows in the picture are so prominent you can’t even tell.

Even though this title was vaguely offensive, I was quite pleased with myself. This label didn’t surprise me in the least. The classmates who voted me Biggest Brown-Noser saw someone who was “sucking up” to her teachers. What I saw—and still see—was someone who took advantage of her position. I talked to my teachers. I asked for help. I answered questions constantly. I stayed after class. I volunteered. I often took on leadership roles. And I participated in a whole lot of activities over the years.

Being involved in the classroom and beyond set me up for a lifetime of enriching relationships and allowed me to become the person I am today.

I became a high school teacher myself. I coached the speech team. I supervised the literary arts magazine and the Gay-Straight Alliance. I volunteered for committees and leadership roles and went to every conference or seminar they were willing to send me to. I remained a brown-noser my entire career.

When my own kids were born, I quit teaching for good, but that didn’t quell my desire for over-involvement. I began writing, speaking, volunteering, and leading in any group willing to have me.

Soccer captured both my kids’ hearts for a few months.

I have an eight-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son who are both showing signs of sharing my tendency to get involved—gymnastics, swimming, and their science fair project currently keep them both busy.

While most literature now tells us to “let kids be kids,” and “just let them play,” I offer the counterpoint: let kids be as involved as they want, as long as they enjoy it.

Here are my tips as an experienced over-joiner and a parent of up-and-coming over-joiners:

  1. Follow their lead. Every single thing I did as a teen and I do now as an adult has been because I like it. It brings me joy. It feeds my soul. I do nothing out of obligation. LETTING your kids be involved is not the same thing as MAKING your kids be involved. Teach and encourage them to love the things they do and they will learn to love life.
  2. Sit in the front, literally and metaphorically. Know what’s going on. Read the notes from school. Take front and center at the informational meeting. ASK THE QUESTIONS. As the adult, they will model your interested behavior. If you are in the back row on your phone instead of listening to the presenter, they will do the same thing.
  3. Listen to them. If they say they don’t want to go to gymnastics today, ask why using specific questions when necessary. “Do you like gymnastics?” “Are you included?” “Is the teacher fun/friendly/engaged?” Find out what the problems are. Similarly, listen to them talk about their passions! If your kid loves robotics league, but you don’t know what a circuit is, let her teach you! Let her talk your ear off about it. And care. For real. No pretending. That’s love, mama: caring about the things your kids care about. It’s hard sometimes. Ever listened to a five-year-old talk non-stop for twenty minutes about the K’nex machine he made? Hard. But the light in his eyes is worth it.
  4. Tell them no sometimes. Teaching them to hear the word no leads to a future in which they can use the word themselves. Whether family obligations, money, or exhaustion keeps you from signing them up for one more thing, tell them. And be honest. “Mom has church meetings at that time, so it’s a no.” Tell them when the schedule changes, you can revisit. Until they can drive, their obligations are also YOUR obligations, so make sure you and any partner you have can handle it without resenting them or their activities.
  5. Help them see the big picture. This one is a little tricky. Time in activities usually means time away from your family. Money spent on hockey equipment might mean less money available for vacations. But spending many hours practicing for the school talent show will teach them how to be on stage, giving them confidence. Spending hours after school running with Girls on the Run will help them develop a lifetime of healthy habits. Balancing the cost and the benefits will vary from family to family, but including them in the analysis is a lesson all by itself.
  6. Don’t assume you can’t afford it. Many activities and programs have scholarships available or can waive fees for families in need. Secondhand equipment is often more than adequate. Usually, if you qualify for free or reduced lunch, you also qualify for activity fee support.
  7. Finally, let your children be themselves. Just because the idea of dancing on stage in front of 500 people mortifies you, don’t assume it will mortify your son. If you were an all-star pitcher in your glory days, don’t expect your daughter to naturally pick up a glove, too. Only you can decide what your limits will be on letting them try things and quit (mine are quite loose; see #1), but if they show even the tiniest interest, encourage them to try.  

You never know where it could lead.

When I was a freshman in high school, a boy I liked talked me into joining the speech team. By my senior year, I was the captain of the team and had a scholarship to join my college speech team. On the college team, I met the most amazing friends and coaches I could have asked for. One coach became my thesis advisor, another got me an interview for what would be the best job I’d ever have, and the friends are still my closest friends nearly 20 years later.  It also inspired me to become a speech coach myself, spending ten years impacting a new generation of over-involved extroverts like myself.

All because my mom said yes when I asked her if I could join yet another activity–because she saw the value in letting me be the “Biggest Brown-Noser.”

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Emily is a former communication teacher and speech coach. She earned her BST and MA in Communication Studies, both from MSU, Mankato. When her first child was born (Olivia, now 9), she took an extended maternity leave that turned resignation. When her second child (Nathan, 6) started kindergarten, she returned to work to teach Oula Dance Fitness at the Y and serve her church as their Congregational Services Coordinator. In her spare time, Emily enjoys drinking wine in the bathtub, painting and writing lovely things, and trying not to swear in front of her kids.