This article was first featured in our free weekly Raising Empowered Kids newsletter. Sign up here to receive exclusive first looks at our best strategies, guides, and inspiring stories.

Extracurricular activities play an enormous role in our children's lives. They ignite passions, develop key skills, and shape their character. However, in the midst of societal expectations and the pursuit of well-roundedness, have we lost sight of what truly matters?

Let's travel back to 2014. Imagine juggling nine different extracurricular commitments every single week, desperately trying to maintain a semblance of sanity in the chaos. That was my life as a mom to three amazing children. And let me tell you, it was quite a ride. Week after week, our calendar was filled with piano lessons, ballet rehearsals, girl scout campouts, and weekend volunteer work. And that was just for one kid. It was time-consuming, stressful, and not to mention, expensive. I will never regret giving my children these unique experiences, but it did take a toll on our family.

I'm sure many of you can relate to this feeling. We all want the best for our children, but there's a fine line between exposing them to new activities and becoming too focused on the future. It's like being trapped in an extracurricular Matrix, where their every move is scheduled like clockwork. But should childhood really be an endless pursuit of achievements and accolades?

Let's explore a different approach, one that allows our children to thrive without sacrificing their joy, spontaneity, and a sprinkle of good old-fashioned fun.

The Backstory

My Kids Biking during COVID

When COVID hit, it brought a much-needed pause to the hectic pace of modern adolescence. Suddenly, we had the chance to have family meals together again (😱) as we embraced the stillness and reconnected as a family, something magical happened.

Our children flourished in the freedom of unstructured time. They explored their passions, delved into the wonders of nature, and immersed themselves in the captivating world of books.

Amidst the chaos, we rediscovered the precious gift of time.

When the world reopened, we made a bold choice: no more endless rat race of extracurriculars. Instead, we traded mindless routines for purposeful pursuits that resonated with their passions and sparked their curiosity. All the while, making a positive impact on the world. The results were extraordinary.

One of my children embarked on an exciting podcasting journey. Another took charge of social media for an international startup(now a public company). My kids even rediscovered their love for books, diving into captivating stories. We also made long walks and bike rides a cherished family ritual, fostering deeper connections and meaningful conversations. As our workout mats finally found their purpose, we discovered a shared passion for health and well-being.

And you know the best part? All of this happened without me saying a word. They say hindsight is 20/20, and oh, how I wish I knew then what I know now. But, I know there are many of you in this position today.

Whether you're just starting this exhilarating journey or you've been doing it for years, I’m here to share the 3 ways I transformed after-school activities from burdensome chores into hobbies my children genuinely love.

Step 1: Embrace Your Child's Individuality

My son, Benjamin, at a fencing competition

Oftentimes, we parents can get caught up in imposing activities on our children based on what our friends are doing or what we think will impress colleges.

But here's the thing: raising empowered kids means embracing their unique character, not fitting them into predetermined molds. It's about letting their interests, passions, and talents guide their extracurricular choices, not the other way around. By doing so, we allow them to discover their own path and find genuine joy, ownership, and fulfillment along the way.

For instance, let's take my son Benjamin. He’s always gravitated more toward skill and focus-based activities like chess, rather than sports like baseball or soccer. Yet, we still wanted to find him a physical activity that would allow him to grow. While his peers were gravitating towards popular team sports, Benjamin found his passion in the art of fencing.

It was a lesser-known activity among his friends, but he was captivated by the skill, strategy, and discipline it required. We supported his choice wholeheartedly, finding a local fencing club where he could thrive. Benjamin not only excelled in the sport but also gained valuable life skills such as focus, perseverance, and mental agility.

Sure, we could have put him in a local baseball league, but by understanding our son and his interests, we pinpointed an activity where he could truly shine. By embracing his individuality, we enabled him to carve his own path to success.

When we start with our child first, we empower them to discover their passions, strengths, and areas of growth. It opens up a world of possibilities and helps them build a solid foundation of self-awareness and confidence.

When their extracurricular activities align with their authentic selves, they are more likely to find fulfillment, develop a strong sense of identity, and excel in their chosen pursuits. Remember, it's their journey, and by embracing their individuality, we set them on a path to becoming the best version of themselves.

Step 2: Less is More

My children and dog (Max) picking avacadoes for dinner

There's a common misconception that quantity is better than quality.

Parents often believe that exposing their children to a wide variety of activities is the best way for them to discover potential passions. After all, at a young age, kids may not know exactly what they want. The thinking goes that by filling their schedules with numerous options, they will eventually stumble upon something they truly love. While I believe in the importance of introducing children to various activities, there is a more effective approach.

When our schedule was overloaded with activities, both my kids and I felt overwhelmed. Each activity began to feel like a chore. However, when we took a step back and started cutting out some of the extracurriculars, a remarkable change occurred. Surprisingly, the activities they continued to engage in brought them far more enjoyment.

“When you put so much on their plate, you see such a negative correlation of enjoyment and skill”

It became evident that when you overload children with too many commitments, their enjoyment and skill levels actually decrease. True immersion in an activity requires practice and time to truly appreciate it. By piling on multiple activities and hoping one clicks, we diminish the quality of each pursuit exponentially.

But how can we expose our children to many new activities while still prioritizing their well-being and joy? The answer lies in time blocking.

Instead of signing up for multiple activities over the summer, choose one focus. My youngest daughter recently developed a newfound interest in volleyball. This summer, we enrolled her in a volleyball camp, in addition to occasionally volunteering at the local library with her friends.

Through this time blocking, she has been able to fully immerse herself in the sport and create lasting memories with her friends. Had we packed her summer with an array of different camps and hobbies, the experience would have been vastly different for her.

The key takeaway is that less is more. By allowing children to concentrate on one activity at a time, they can fully explore and appreciate it. If they develop a genuine passion, they can continue to pursue it wholeheartedly.

However, if an activity doesn't resonate with them, it's perfectly fine to move on. Remember, quality and enjoyment are far more important than sheer quantity

Step 3: Keep an Open Mind

My son, Benjamin, featured in a local newspaper

In our rapidly changing world, there are countless activities your kids will come across.

Whether it's content creation, entrepreneurship, or even something as unexpected as crocheting, we need to broaden our understanding of what qualifies as an extracurricular.

Extracurriculars aren't just about impressing college admissions or filling up spare time. They're about exposing our kids to new experiences, having fun, and expanding their skills.

I've had conversations with my children's friends who want to pursue activities their parents don't approve of. They want to attend cosmetic school or dive into the world of sneaker flipping and vintage clothing. Yet, their parents forbid them from doing so due to outdated criteria of how children should spend their free time.

We can get so caught up in a narrow definition of what counts as an extracurricular that we forget the most important thing: allowing our kids to enjoy themselves and learn along the way.

Imagine if I had forced my son to become a swimmer just to boost his college application, instead of letting him follow his passion for podcasting. Little did I know that the podcast would become the foundation of his work today.

By keeping an open mind and acknowledging that times have changed, he discovered a new and valuable path that unintentionally holds even more potential for college success (more on that later).

We also can’t underestimate the power of kids' ability to learn on their own. Learning doesn't always have to come from a formal class or a teacher.

In today's digital age, children have a vast array of resources at their fingertips. They can learn from platforms like TikTok and YouTube, where creative and educational content is readily available.

My daugher Viani's crocheted Christmas gifts this year

A perfect example of this is when my youngest daughter surprised us during Christmas by crocheting all our gifts.

She had never taken a crochet class or received instruction from school. Instead, she learned the art of crocheting by watching tutorials on TikTok and YouTube.

It was incredible to witness her passion and dedication as she self-taught herself a new skill.

It reminded me that learning can happen in unexpected ways and that children have the ability to explore and acquire knowledge beyond the traditional classroom setting.

In essence, let's remember that extracurricular activities are what we make of them. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for the perfect activity; it ultimately comes down to your child's genuine passion and interest.

By cultivating an open mind, we create an environment where our children can truly flourish and reach their full potential.

Bonus Round: The College Question

My daugher Vanessa, visiting her college

While we at Kidpreneurs are all for the no-college route, we can't ignore the relationship between extracurricular activities and college admissions.

Unfortunately, many parents believe that more is always better when it comes to preparing their children for college. They think that an extensive list of extracurricular engagements will guarantee their child's acceptance into top-tier institutions. But the reality is quite different.

Susan Alaimo, founder and director of the college-consulting firm Collegebound Review, explains that colleges are no longer seeking "Renaissance people" who excel in every area. Instead, they are looking for students with a specialty or a genuine passion.

Alaimo highlights the case of a local student who was accepted into multiple Ivy League schools, MIT, and Stanford. This student's defining quality was a medical device she invented to assist her grandfather and other stroke victims in tracking their rehabilitation exercise performance.

Even on a smaller scale, activities like e-sports or volunteer work demonstrate true passion and commitment. The most important thing is that your child genuinely cares.

Colleges today are increasingly aware that the depth and impact of a student's involvement in a select few activities hold far more value than a lengthy list of superficial engagements.

Admissions officers understand that in a world where every applicant can play multiple instruments and hold numerous leadership roles, it's the out-of-the-box and unique activities that truly stand out.

By encouraging our children to do less but invest their energy and attention into a few meaningful activities, we foster a sense of purpose, dedication, and passion.

Admissions officers can easily discern when a student is genuinely committed to their pursuits. They value authenticity and unwavering dedication over a superficial collection of involvements.

It's worth noting that in our pursuit of a singular goal, we often forget to enjoy the process. Even enjoyable activities like joining an e-sports league can become convoluted if children are overly focused on using them solely as a means to secure college admissions.

Instead, we should encourage our kids to focus on genuinely enjoying their activities in the present moment. If these activities also contribute to their college journey, all the better.

Paradoxically, by not fixating on getting into college, they may actually enhance their chances of admission. It's funny how that works sometimes.

So, let's remember that in the college question, it's not just about accumulating a laundry list of activities. It's about nurturing our children's passions, promoting authenticity, and allowing them to find joy in their pursuits.

By doing so, we provide them with the foundation to stand out and succeed, both in the college admissions process and in life.

In Conclusion

Extracurriculars can be time-consuming, stressful, and difficult. Yet, if you do it right, they can also be a beacon of joy in your kid’s childhood. All while setting them up for success later on.

Thank you for taking a few minutes with me on this important issue, and I hope it's provided a new perspective on this pillarstone of childhood.

Sylvia Tam