One of the most important things we can do for our children is get them involved in groups outside school. Doing this is not easy, especially when it loads extra chauffeur and chaperone duties onto our already-long lists. If we can manage it, however, the benefits to our children will more than repay our investment.
Recognize the Benefits
There are thousands, if not millions, of articles extolling the benefits of extracurricular activities, and I don’t need to repeat all of them here. I have found that there are some benefits that are particularly strong for children who have suffered childhood trauma.
First, group activities help them learn social skills. Trauma tends to hit children hard in their ability to pick up and follow social cues, and they need as much practice as they can get. Groups that work on team projects, such as sports teams or community theater, often are more accepting of eccentricities than school peers.
Second, team projects help our children learn problem-solving skills. Unlike school grades, there is no arguing with the laws of physics. Either the fire starts on a camping trip or it doesn’t. Learning how to solve those problems is an irreplaceable life skill.
Finally, extracurricular activities can can boost a child’s self-confidence. Doing well in school requires a very specific skill set, and our children simply may not have those skills. Group projects, however, require different abilities and give our children a chance to shine. Nothing increases a child’s self-confidence like mastering a new skill.
Encourage, Don’t Insist
Of course, we shouldn’t force our children to join a particular activity. If they aren’t willing to be there, then we are just wasting our time and damaging our relationships. That being said, part of our job is to carefully nudge them outside their comfort zone. We can insist that they at least attend one or two meetings before giving up. With some of my kids, I could insist that they join one extracurricular group. I left the choice up to them. My only requirement was that they had to do something in addition to school and home activities. When your encouragement turns into counterproductive requirements depends on your individual child, and there never is a clear line.
If your child has a lot of anxiety about new situations, consider starting with family-focused activities. One of the things that I love about Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts is that there is plenty of opportunity for parents to work along with their kids in various projects. We’ve taken our kids with us to serve food at a domestic violence shelter and involved them in worthwhile projects in many other ways. Not only did we enjoy watching our children gain confidence and new skills, but the activities help strengthen our family relationships.
Finally, follow their interests. A child who is not athletic is not likely to enjoy a sports league. Children who hate dirt and bugs usually avoid camping. Help your child figure out what sort of things interest them enough to spend their time and energy pursuing. Once you start asking them to think about it, you may be surprised at what you learn.
Throw a Wide Net
Fortunately, there are a multitude of options for your children. Sports teams, scouting, and religiously-affiliated groups are obvious choices. Don’t overlook academic competitions or service groups.
If your child prefers solitary activities, such as art or writing, look for art camps or writer’s groups. I have always been a fan of community theater groups because of the wide variety of skills they need. I was never a good actor, but I enjoyed working on the backstage crew and organizing props. Theater productions need artists to create sets and posters, seamstresses to create costumes, and writers to generate publicity. There is room for all sorts of talent beyond being on stage.
Don’t Forget Down Time
Finally, don’t forget to leave room in your child’s schedule for unstructured play. Yes, extracurricular activities are important, but they also need time for self-directed activities. Even video games can be an important part of their day. Don’t let the benefits of group projects get lost in the stress of meeting deadlines.
Helping our children find projects that they enjoy and skills they want to learn is an important task for parents. Unfortunately, it’s something that they (and we) can figure out only by trial and error. Commit to finding the time and resources to help them expand their horizons beyond school and home, and then watch them learn and grow.