Raise children with a wild streak

Many 'ideal' students lack inventive, restless and self-reliant spirit

by: Mark Pruett

A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics stresses the importance of childhood playtime. It reinforces my own belief that many young adults have been cheated by years of excessive schoolwork and teamwork, too many extracurricular activities, and a straitjacketed "just say no to anything risky" upbringing. I am convinced that modern childhood generally does not build enough independence and thirst for knowledge.

For the past few years I helped interview high school seniors seeking scholarships to come to Appalachian State University. These applicants come from all over the state. They play instruments and sports, participate in church and charity, and work in diverse jobs.

They also display remarkably similar accomplishments. They are at the top of their high school classes and possess generically good manners. They lead teams, groups and clubs. They are smart, solid and hardworking.

They might be surprised to learn that I, like many college professors, yearn for rarer traits -- curiosity, passion, a wild streak. Yes, teamwork and leadership skills will help your child to implement someone else's ideas, and extensive extracurricular activities will foster responsibility. What your child really needs, though, is an inventive, self-reliant, restless spirit.

The key questions

For me, the heart-wrenching interview moment is when we ask these teenagers what they would choose to do on a day spent alone. Many say they never have the chance. Worse still, some have no answer at all. This should disturb and sadden any parent. In the end, my scholarship votes ride on two questions: Is this someone that I'd be excited to have in my class? And is he or she open to being changed by my class? Class rank and extracurricular activities are less important than genuine individuality or enthusiasm. It matters not whether someone is bold or shy, worldly or na´ve. Is there a flash of determination, a streak of independence, a creative passion, an excited curiosity?

We need more students like the ones who leave after graduation to work as missionaries or in the Peace Corps. More like the ones who start successful businesses while in school. More like the ones who find the courage to go overseas for a summer or a semester because they know their own worlds are far too small.

Some students are team players and high achievers, but I'd trade them for stubbornly creative iconoclasts. Some students as children were taught to color inside the lines, watch Barney the purple dinosaur, and always ask permission. We need students who found out what Crayons tasted like, loved reading "The Cat in the Hat" and paid little attention to rules -- students whose parents encouraged their children's curiosity.

Something's missing

The irony is that many students begin to perceive late in college that they've missed something along the way. They regret not taking risks with difficult professors, unusual courses or semesters abroad. They berate themselves by equating self-worth with grades, and they are saddened by the realization that they have only glimpsed the breadth of the university. They begin to grasp that their uncomfortable sense of passivity has its roots in the highly controlled existence foisted on them.

Parents: love, guide and support your children, but don't insulate them, control them or let them be too busy. Independence, confidence and creativity come from freedom, risk and a good measure of unstructured solitude.

Encourage studying but make them play hooky, too -- partly to learn what it feels like to be unprepared and partly to foster spontaneity, irreverence and joy. Study chemistry together, then blow up a television in the backyard.

Foster camaraderie and connectedness through group activities (especially family ones), but be unyielding in your commitment to teaching them to love doing things entirely on their own. Make each child plan and cook the family's dinner on his or her own once a week.

Surround them with books, not video games. Raise a garden or build a deck together. Send them on solo trips.

However you choose to do it, give your children, their teachers and society one of the greatest gifts of all: Help your kids become creative, independent, curious, interesting people.

About the Author

Mark Pruett is an assistant professor in the Walker College of Business at Appalachian State University.

This article, that originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer is reprinted with permission from the author, Mark Pruett.