I was shocked. My son Ian had been going to karate once a week, and now he showed me a brochure telling me he could have been going four times for the same price. "We should sign him up for another night or two," I suggested to my husband.

He looked up. "Why?"

"So he'll get better, of course." Wasn't that obvious?

"Why?" he asked again. Then he gently reminded me that Ian was in karate to have fun - and to burn off some excess testosterone. "Who cares how much he improves?"

Somewhere on the path of parenting, I'd been told it was the moral obligation of parents not only to provide their children with every possible opportunity but also to make sure they go as far as their talent can take them. I had been sucked into the black hole of endless improvement, where each accomplishment is eclipsed by another opportunity.

Lately, I've noticed that many other moms and dads have bought into the same high-performance approach to parenting. In the book The Over-Scheduled Child, authors Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise point out that today's parents are no longer content to wonder what their child's future will hold but now feel the burden to construct it.

Never good enough?

The pressure to help kids achieve greatness begins long before they start school. We sign up our children for preschool while they are still in utero, lest our friends shake their heads at our neglectful parenting. We play Mozart next to our slumbering infant or put headphones to a bulging belly in hopes of nurturing a budding genius. And we enrol our kids in sports when they are three to give them a better chance of playing in high school.

Once they hit school age, the pressure is really on. To make the school team, kids participate in year-round club sports. And children who perform just fine in the classroom are sent to after-school tutoring programs so they can get a leg up on the competition.

We are encouraged to see our kids not simply as children, but as pre-NBA, pre-Harvard, pre-Juilliard material that needs continual refinement. The problem is that if we always push our children to get better, we imply they are never good enough.

Making smart choices

So how can parents decide which and how many activities to choose for their kids? When weighing the possibilities, realize that what's best for one child may not be good for another. You need to understand your children's temperaments to determine what fits best for them.

While one child finds himself energized by playing on a basketball team, another dreads it. You could liken it to a well of energy reserves - some activities fill the well, others drain it. Depression, rebellion or emotional meltdowns are often indicative of an empty well.

One of my daughters loves to try new things. She wants to dangle her toe in every pond and doesn't mind getting a mere taste of what an activity is about. She also doesn't mind failure but sees it as part of the progression of learning. A full calendar of competitive sports and highly social activities fill her well.

For her detail-oriented sister, failure would be catastrophic. Not only does she need to understand something, but she's also driven to master it. She hates competition but thrives on cooperative activities such as the church drama group. We learned the hard way she shouldn't follow in her sister's footsteps.

It's not bad for kids to do activities they don't enjoy from time to time; difficult experiences can help them learn discipline. Just try to make sure your kids have more activities that fill their well than those that drain it.

To guard against the societal pressures to raise overachievers, I often need to remind myself that my kids are more than improvement projects. I will not doom them to a life of failure if I refuse to sign them up for every opportunity that comes their way. After all, raising kids is not a competition; it's a sacred trust.

Amy Shane is married with five children.

© 2007 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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