Norwich is a sleepy little town in the central part of Vermont. The bedroom community is quiet and cozy and is not unlike hundreds, if not thousands, of other communities scattered across this country, except for when it comes to childhood sports.
In Norwich, no parent presses for participation and no bar of excellence is set. In their community soccer league, after a kid scores two goals in a game he is sat down so that some other kid has a chance to score. Their approach to participation and competition is consistent across all leagues and ages.
Why is this so noteworthy? Because it turns out that the sleepy little un-athletic town of Norwich continually sends athletes to the Olympics and other significant international competitions in numbers ridiculously disproportionate to its size.
Like every parent, I want what’s best for my children. I approach parenting, piano, and coaching in the same way that I taught, with structure and rigor. It’s not that I expect, or even want, them to choose music or sports as a career, but I want them to understand that in all things, excellence is achieved through diligence, commitment, and dedication.
But what if I’m wrong? What if my approach is inhibiting their growth? What if, in all my attempts to help them grow and succeed, I am keeping them from flourishing? What if, in an effort to do EVERYTHING right, it turns out that I may have done everything wrong and at times make myself and my kids miserable in the process?
In a recent article in the New Yorker Magazine author Adam Gopnik goes in search of what it takes to raise a prodigy. He examines extraordinary individuals from all walks off life in hopes of finding a common thread in their upbringing, some consistent experience or approach that might explain their extraordinary skills.
What did Gopnik discover was the secret sauce? What did he find to be the key differentiator for savants? Was it rigor? Was it structure? Was it dedication, rigor, and commitment, as I had suspected?
Gopnik states that, "What typically emerges from looking at kids, gifted and ordinary, is that, from the kids’ point of view, accomplishment, that is, the private sense of mastery, the hard thing suddenly made easy, counts for far more in their inner lives than does the achievement—the competition won, the reward secured."
In short, Gopnik believes that genius is not fostered, and is in fact inhibited, by competition.
Famed pianist Lang Lang explains that the brutal pressures placed on him by his father were over stressing him. He says he was saved because he had, “carved out space for a version of the ‘autotelic experience’—absorption in an activity purely for its own sake, a specialty of childhood.”
I make both my boys play piano, and trust me when I say more frequently than not, forcing them to practice has left everyone less than inspired.
Maybe this Lang should take a cue from the other Lang (Lang) and chill out a bit. Maybe I need to be less competitive and more supportive. Maybe I need to guide less and let them explore more. Maybe I need to force less and let them explore more. Maybe, just maybe, in music and sports, they need less time practicing and more time playing.
For the sake of me and my boys, I am willing to try. Plus, it’s too cold for me to move to Vermont.
Have a great week!