What Color is your Child's Parachute?

By Lori McLaughlin

I’ll never forgive my parents for not giving me violin lessons. In elementary school I had the itch to learn but Mom and Dad declined, arguing piano lessons were more practical. After all, more homes had pianos than violins in the living room for impromptu performances at family gatherings. I don’t recall where the violin urge came from, but I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I did get my hands on that instrument. Instead, I suffered through two years of piano, hating every minute of it.

All parents, mine included, want their children to succeed, to find a passion. They know that extracurricular activities can matter — even lead to a career — and allow a child to live fully.

The hard part is when interests collide. Pushing an activity on a child that he or she doesn’t want because it fulfills some other agenda ultimately serves no one. In her role as Moravian Academy’s Director of Academic and College Counseling, Marilyn Albarelli is frequently asked what extracurricular activities look best on college applications.

“The appropriate response is to find activities that resonate with students’ interests and talents,” she says. “If students become involved with activities that are important to them, they will flourish in unexpected ways.”

Looking at what everyone else does is a common mistake. Aspiring soccer moms may have to give up that dream if their kids find the game too chaotic or competitive. If a child is more Billy Elliot than Bill Gates, dance lessons will be less of a struggle than computer classes. The key is finding something they can be reasonably good at and enjoy for a lifetime.

“A willing participant is the first step in successful learning,” says Lori Donovan, manager at The Lesson Center which offers instruction in guitar, piano, saxophone, clarinet, flute, bass, violin, drums, and more. “A parent’s desire to have her daughter play piano is admirable, but a little girl who beams each week when she remembers what she learned in last week’s lesson is the key to success.” Making music requires physical and mental dexterity and determination, and without that spark of engagement, students won’t advance.

Donovan also recognizes parents’ roles in stoking the fire in a young musician’s experience. “Mom is the cog that turns the wheel,” she adds, driving kids to practice and waiting while lessons take place. The Lesson Center’s facilities in Bethlehem and Coopersburg accommodate parents’ needs, offering large windows for lesson observation, free Wi-Fi, a comfortable waiting room and “the opportunity to see their star pupil perform at a number of optional recitals.”

While parents should be their children’s biggest cheerleaders, the part played by other adult mentors cannot be underestimated. “I wake up every morning for kids to have an opportunity to do art,” says Shannon Slattery Fugate, director of The Baum School of Art in Allentown. Youngsters start with drawing and painting classes and often continue through high school, thanks to relationships developed with teachers who recognize and nurture specific talents. “Our faculty is amazing,” Fugate adds.

Art is more than finger painting; science, math and problem-solving skills come in to play. Ceramics and jewelry-making are a good fit for kids who like to build things but classes also teach the chemistry of glazes and metallurgy. Computer graphics, cartooning and animation classes nudge “Xbox kids” and Spiderman fans to create digital artwork of their own.

The effect on a child’s sense of achievement is powerful. When walking through Baum’s student gallery, Fugate has often had a youngster pull on her sleeve, point to something and say “I did that.”

Self-expression isn’t limited to evidence displayed on refrigerator doors. Consider dancing. “Shy kids can let themselves go when the music starts,” says Judy Burgio, owner and artistic director at Dance Design Studio in Easton. Tumbling classes where three- to four-year-olds release energy by stretching and noisily stomping their feet evolve into more complicated instruction in tap, ballet and jazz. Older children become more expressive and specialize in what best suits their abilities.

For over 30 years as “second mom” to her students, Burgio’s watched children grow in self-confidence, grace, posture and, most of all, self-esteem. Having served as a judge in beauty pageants, she says it’s easy to identify contestants with dance backgrounds — they’re the ones most poised and self-assured. Those skills last a lifetime, like dancing.

Children who express themselves verbally or in writing will discover their sweet spot at Touchstone Theatre in Bethlehem. “Children are natural storytellers,” says Education Director Cathleen O’Malley. The theatre’s programs are designed to “nurture even the smallest spark of creativity into a piece of art.” Under the guidance of teaching artists and professional ensemble, students share every role in production — playwriting, acting and directing, plus the technical aspects of lighting, set design and costumes.

One learned skill takes a top spot on many parents’ must-do list: “Swimming is more than an extracurricular activity.” says Penny Pantano, owner and director of Swim-in Zone in Center Valley. “It can save a child’s life someday.” Pantano recounts the story of a boy who rescued his two-year-old sister at a party when she slipped into the pool. Grateful parents whose children survived a fall into the water have Pantano to thank.

If family outings include fishing, boating or even wading at the shore, everyone needs to be a swimmer. New studies show that even children under the age of four benefit from exposure to the water. Pantano couldn’t be happier. “Kids who excel at swimming are introduced to the water at a young age. They learn to love the water and become like little fish.”

Some children feel more at home onboard a horse. “What hooked me was the sense of freedom and partnership a horse can give you,” says Melissa Morehouse, Head Trainer at Bit by Bit Equestrian Center in Wind Gap. Children who shy away from other physical activities discover they are strong and in command of their bodies when riding.  Not to mention the close bond that forms between rider and horse. “They are the most generous of creatures,” adds Morehouse.

Bit by Bit encourages bonding with new six-foot-tall friends. Students learn how to ready their horse for lessons and to untack and cool him down afterwards. Whether children opt to pursue competition or just enjoy themselves, Morehouse adds, “It takes a strong sense of responsibility to the horses’ well-being. Riders who excel have a keen sense of commitment to be out in 10 degrees or 100 degrees to ride.”

Youth sports attract a huge audience, and for good reason. There are dozens of activities to choose from. Assertive children are a natural for team sports such as soccer and basketball which put them in close contact with others. Baseball and gymnastics allow more independence from the rest of the team.

In the Zone Athletics covers most of the bases, offering instruction in basketball, baseball, volleyball, cheerleading and more in their large facility in Bath. Specialized summer clinics and tournaments improve basic skills. But sports offer more than exercise. Children learn to get along with their peers and coaches. Then there’s that significant something called self-esteem, which piggybacks on teamwork, achievement and positive feedback. Most important, children learn fair play. You can’t do better than saying you’ve raised a good sport!

It’s tempting to shape well-rounded children by involving them in lots of activities. But as Lisa Dubreuil, Moravian Academy’s Assistant Director of Academic and College Counseling attests, “Children need free time to simply relax without having to be concerned about schedules and commitments.” She and Albarelli encourage a balanced approach that includes both structured and unstructured time.

Watch for your children’s spark of interest, listen to their dreams and let them choose for themselves. “In this way,” Albarelli concludes, “they will feel a sense of ownership and control over the activities that are eventually selected.”

It takes an open mind and perhaps many years, but in the end your sons and daughters will thank you for it.

Lori McLaughlin, of New Tripoli, is happy to report that her parachute has landed in the field of arts and travel writing.

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