I have a friend who can't stand to let her daughter have a minute of unused time during school breaks. She assiduously researches all kinds of specialist camps, summer classes and other opportunities to get a head start for the academic year. And then she spends virtually all of her own free time ferrying her daughter around.
My friend absolutely adores her daughter and I know she has her best interests at heart. She's focused on what she's providing for her daughter. But by flooding her spare time with endless classes and lessons, I don't think she realizes what she isn't giving her daughter. With the best of intentions, we hand our children off to a myriad of coaches and tutors to provide them with enriching experiences because we think they will best prepare our kids for the future. But helping our children in this way can come at a high cost.
I gained this insight from Clayton Christensen, one of the world's most respected innovation experts. In his course at Harvard Business School, Christensen teaches his students about how companies must prepare for the future. A company may have the most highly qualified employees, but if those employees don't know how to work together to solve hard problems, the company will wither in the face of tough competition or changing market conditions.
The same is true for our children. We want our kids to get ahead and believe that the opportunities and experiences we have provided them will help them do exactly that. But the nature of an endless stream of time-consuming extracurricular activities may not actually help them prepare to "compete" in the future. If they're not deeply engaged and challenged to do hard things, we're not preparing our children to develop the capabilities they'll need to succeed in the future.
Our children need to tackle hard problems. They need to learn how to pick themselves up from failure. They need to learn their capabilities. I have wonderful memories of my own summer camp experience -- taking my turn at the archery target and making crafts out of moss and pine cones was really fun. But I'm not sure if I'd spent my whole summer that way, I would have emerged more prepared for the future.
More powerful, in hindsight, was the time I spent organizing a fundraising carnival in my backyard one summer when I was about 10 with my sister Robin and some neighborhood friends. We spent hours dividing up responsibilities, creating fun "games" for participants and then working hard on the days leading up to the big event. We even had to persuade our neighbor, Mr. Monty, to allow us to borrow his precious invention: a wooden box that allowed us to "play baseball" against a home-made machine. We were raising money for muscular dystrophy in nickels and dimes.
When the carnival was all over, we maybe had $20 or $30 to send off to Jerry Lewis's fund, but the amount didn't really seem to matter. We'd worked through squabbles, we'd kept our focus on our mission and we learned a lot about teamwork along the way. We had accomplished something, all on our own, without parents supervising or coaches telling us our roles and goals. Frankly, it was as fun as a second or third or fourth week of camp would have been.
My 10-year-old recently announced that she wants to run a lemonade stand this summer to raise money for breast cancer. Her idea, her cause. I think I'll encourage her to do that. But I'll let her do it all on her own: Though I'll be tempted, I won't organize the supplies, give her the strategy or even tell her when and where to do it. I'll just watch her figure out how to make it work -- or learn from her mistakes. I will, however, be first in line to buy a glass...
Karen Dillon is the former editor of Harvard Business Review and co-author of How Will You Measure Your Life?
Follow Karen Dillon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@DillonHBR