Brynn Sandlin is the community coordinator for the Healthy Kids Running Series in Frisco. There are no uniforms. No team practices. No stress.
“There isn’t anything like it,” says Sandlin, whose two sons, ages 6 and 3 ½, participate. The emphasis of the program is on finishing your race, not winning it—the points system favors consistency rather than the occasional first-place finish. Not every kid will win a trophy at the end of the series, but regardless, everyone will have a good time.
Before every race, Sandlin tells her sons, “I expect you to finish your race. That is what your goal is. Someone might be faster than you this week; next week, it might be you.”
She’s teaching them that coming in second—or last doesn’t mean they’ll never finish first in the future, and that success is about more than being the best at everything they pursue.
After all, not all kids are honor students or star athletes or violin prodigies. Yes, some kids excel in academics. Others have gifts like perfect pitch. And the parents of these children have their own sets of challenges to address. But that’s not the typical kid. Typical kids make B’s and C’s and don’t make the varsity squad. Instead they have creative minds or gritty spirits, skills that are impossible to quantify on a battery of standardized assessment tests. Skills that may shine in the lab or the boardroom 20 years down the road.
And yet, right now, parents push these kids so hard to be something they’re not, especially in activities for which they might not have the talent—or even the passion.
It comes at a cost.
Many of the parents I’ve talked to, both for this article and in more casual settings, agree that this generation of parents is spending more money, and a lot more time, on all the “extras” to push their kids to greatness.
They’re not making it up: The BackPack Index found that between 2007 and 2015, the average cost of supplies and extracurricular school activities increased 88 percent for families with elementary school students and 81 percent for middle school students. In 2016, the average family spent $659 per elementary kid on these school-related activities annually, and $957 per middle-schooler.
And those figures are just for school-related activities. In 2016, TD Ameritrade surveyed families with children in premier athletics programs. A majority spent $100–$500 per month, per child—and about a third of the parents surveyed reported spending more than $500 a month.
The average parent is now spending the equivalent of a monthly car payment (or three) on private tutoring, hobbies, league play, equipment, uniforms, etc. It’s no longer enough to have a happy, resourceful B student or for the child to compete on a recreational sports team.
The message these kids are absorbing, whether they realize it or not, is that they aren’t enough. And if they don’t finish first here and now, they never will.
Breathe, Mom and Dad. Your kids are going to be all right. More than that, by pursuing their passions and honing skills like teamwork and perseverance, they’re creating their own pathways to success.
A Huge Investment
Jennifer W. of Flower Mound has a 9-year-old son, Bryan (names changed by request), who is absolutely crazy about basketball. He’s on an academy-level team and has to go through tryouts every six months. The flat rate for six months of play is $1,560. In addition to the league dues, his uniforms—custom tailored—total $300 per season. He plays with a small group of boys from the league, four times a week, for $200 a month. And the family spends about $240 on private lessons every other month. Tournaments, which occur twice per season, carry an additional cost.
“It’s expensive, but he loves it,” Jennifer says. “We’ve cut out a lot of things to make it work.”
That TD Ameritrade survey reveals she’s not alone: More than half of parents with kids in elite sports cut back on entertainment to pay for athletic expenses, 40 percent take fewer vacations and nearly a fourth put less money into savings and retirement accounts.
Jennifer is adamant that one of the reasons why parents seem to be pushing their kids so hard, more so than what she remembers from her childhood, is because league play and other activities can feel like a huge investment—and as the numbers show, they are.
We tend to frame this discussion in terms of sports. (After all, this is Texas.) But the arts and academics are absolutely a part of this conversation too. Tutoring and eventually SAT and ACT prep don’t come cheap: According to Angie’s List, tutoring services cost anywhere from $20 per hour for online tutoring to $30–$60 per hour for in-person services, with some experienced private tutors charging up to $85.
Furthermore, in addition to money, our children’s activities and interests require a significant investment of time. Multiple weekly practices, tutoring sessions and all the cross-town road trips leave little time for awesome things like family meals and date nights and good, old-fashioned sleep.
“We all want our kids to be happy,” says Aileen Wainwright, a licensed clinical social worker based in Keller and mom to four children ages 11–14. “But you’ve got to ask yourself, are you so busy that you feel like you’re living out of your car? If you’re exhausted, your child is more than likely exhausted, too.” She encourages parents to routinely ask themselves, “Who is actually invested in this?” and “Does it make my child happy?”
Navigate the World
Nancy Graham, 48, of Dallas says that some people were “shocked” when she mentioned she wasn’t going to actively push her son Babe, 9, into one of Dallas Independent School District’s magnet programs. He’s a good student and turns his homework in on time, but he isn’t that interested in school. Rather, he has a wide variety of interests outside of class, like Minecraft and tae kwon do. Most of all, he loves spending time with his friends.
When Babe was in first grade, Graham recalls being a little bit nervous about his reading assessment when she sat down for a parent-teacher conference. But Babe’s teacher immediately put her at ease. Babe was hanging in there and completing his assignments. And as the teacher explained, “You’ve got the ones who shoot up and the ones who creep up, but by the time they get to third grade, it all evens out.”
So Graham helps Babe with his homework. She throws a football with him on the weekends. “If we start something, we finish it,” she says. “The game, the season, we’ll follow through with it.” But she doesn’t pressure her son to win lots of awards and trophies. Yes, she cheers for him when he catches a football, but she is careful not to attach too much value to a single achievement.
“Look, there’s something to be said about striving to make sure my child is happy, rather than be the fastest or the smartest kid out there,” says Graham. “I want him to learn how to navigate the world and get through social events in time—in his time. And there’s not just one way to get there.”
This is a sentiment strongly echoed by Wainwright. Kids who don’t excel in school have so much to offer the world as they come into adulthood. “Average kiddos can be great leaders, and they have much better social skills. They’re good listeners and they tend to have a very high emotional intelligence.”
Since psychologist Daniel Goleman published Emotional Intelligence in the mid-’90s, study after study has confirmed that emotional intelligence is a better predictor of success than IQ or test scores—meaning kids who are good at, say, finding friends on the playground could end up with leadership roles and higher salaries than their book-smart but socially unsavvy peers.
The professional and politicalworlds are rife with leaders who were not top of their class but rocketed to success once free to pursue their interests. Some worked hard, but were gifted in areas like creativity and entrepreneurship rather than academia. Others found school boring and not worth their effort, but discovered other passions they could pour their energy into.
Think Richard Branson, who dropped out of high school, where he performed poorly, to follow his entrepreneurial bent and now has a net worth of over $5 billion. Or former Vice President Joe Biden, whose college grades were “never exceptional” according to The New York Times, but who made it into law school by sheer force of personality and later found his passion in politics.
And there’s former President George W. Bush, who famously told graduating Yale students: “To the C students, I say, you too can be president.” He would know.
So not nabbing that valedictorian spot doesn’t mean your child is destined for a life of mediocrity— and in the nearer future, it doesn’t mean your child won’t earn a place at his or her dream college. In fact, nonacademic traits like “concern for others and the common good” are highly desirable in prospective students for many college admissions offices. Concern for others can be a very difficult quality to assess, but in a 2016 report by Harvard’s Making Caring Common project, the authors suggest it can be demonstrated in the less splashy, sometimes overlooked day-to-day activities like “contributions to one’s family and the community” activities that some kids may naturally be drawn to instead of schoolwork.
When parents push too hard for their children to excel, there can be unintended physical and emotional consequences. Children are particularly susceptible to sports injuries. And with athletics or academics (and especially with both in the equation), there’s also an emotional risk of burning out, which can carry into adolescence and young adulthood and contribute to depression and anxiety.
In her Fort Worth counseling practice, Stephanie Adams, a licensed professional counselor, sees a lot of teenagers and college students with anxiety disorders. Many of her clients “don’t know how to slow down or take care of themselves,” and because many of them are so used to having structured activity, “they get overwhelmed when their parents aren’t there to manage their schedules or plan their activities or even take care of the day-to-day things like laundry and picking up after themselves.”
Given the risks, why are we putting so much pressure on our kids to excel—to “be the best, next better thing,” as Adams describes it? Why are we trying to box our kids in with such a narrow definition of success?
Instead, says Adams, parents should nurture and value “the assets that these kids already have—for example, that they are good to people, they are kind to people, they are good at finding solutions to difficult challenges.” (See sidebar for phrases to help you encourage your child.)
Some kids who don’t excel in the classroom will climb the ladder to the C-suite and the White House. Others will grow up to be good friends, good parents, good employees—all-around good people who successfully pursue their passions and make an impact in their communities.
“An angel on earth,” is how Jana Bailey, 59, of Richardson, describes her son Brandon, 25.“What he’s accomplished in such a short amount of time; he’s truly an amazing individual.”
Brandon never went through a gifted and talented program or took a bunch of honors classes. When it came to academics, “school was just not very high on my priority board,” says Brandon. “I thought as long I passed, I’m good.”
And yet, when Brandon was a teenager, the Bailey house was always full of kids. “It was definitely the place to be!” laughs Bailey. “Brandon treats everyone as a friend, no matter what his or her background.”
His ability to connect with different people, across so many different backgrounds, “to understand the lives people live,” has helped pave his way to adult success.
He graduated from Oklahoma State University and has a great career in account management ahead of him. He is a loving husband and devoted father of twin daughters. He and his wife are even foster parents, which are sorely needed here in Texas. Last year, he ran his first half-marathon.
So even though his parents didn’t push him to front-load his CV, Brandon found his own road to success. Now he’s passing those ideals on to his girls. He wants them “to find their niche” and hopes to inspire in them qualities like “kindness” and “thoughtfulness.”
And he’s thinking about taking on a full marathon next.
Finishing the Race
At the Healthy Kids Running Series in Frisco, the runners line up on the orange starting line in a grassy field. Some of them nervously wait for the sound of the air horn. Some of the younger kids are picking dandelions. Some of the older kids are doing stretches with their friends. But every one of these kids is going to finish—just like the little girl in the Richardson series who ran almost an entire mile in slide sandals before kicking them off and finishing her last lap in socks.
By the end of the program, most parents will find themselves cheering for the other kids in their child’s event by name.
“These kids run their hearts out,” says Sandlin. “They run to the very best of their abilities. And that is the goal of this series.”
The runners will push themselves forward, one step at a time, and as they near the finish, they will dig deep into their inner reserves and find that extra kick they’ve been saving. They will finish the race. And that resilience and self-motivation are well worth celebrating.