Several years ago I interviewed Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, percussionist and founder of hip-hop band the Roots. I assumed he’d always loved music and I asked him when he knew he wanted to be a professional musician. His answer surprised me.
Although he picked up drumming at an early age, he told me that there was a point when he did not want to take lessons anymore. His father, also a musician, insisted that he continue his lessons. And there was no further discussion about it. Today Questlove is nothing but appreciative that his father made him continue his lessons even when he desperately wanted to toss the drumsticks forever. And now, in addition to a wondrous musical career, he’s also the bandleader for the house band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
I’ve thought about Questlove’s story often as I’ve raised my two daughters. My youngest, Emmy, is 8 years old. One thing I knew I always wanted for Emmy was for her to be able to swim. I can’t swim. And the numbers of young black children who can’t swim are dangerously high. My mom—wonderful woman that she is—signed Emmy up for private one-on-one swimming lessons. Once a week, she picks Emmy up from school and takes her for her lesson, keeping me posted on her progress each week.
I remember the first time Emmy came home and told me she was able to tread water in the deep end for over two minutes. I wanted to cry from pure happiness and relief that in case of a fall into a pool or ending up in the deep end, Emmy would be safe. I didn’t even think about stopping her lessons at that point. I decided that Emmy would continue taking lessons until she could be certified as a lifeguard. I even looked into having Emmy swim with my town’s local swim team.
And that’s when I discovered an obstacle. Emmy didn’t like swimming lessons. Once she knew how to swim well and could tread water, she started to complain. And then finally, last week, she made it plain and said to my mom, “Grandmom, I don’t want to take swimming lessons anymore.”
My mom asked me what I wanted to do, and my first reaction was to say, “Too bad, Emmy. You’re going to continue lessons until I say you can stop.” But then I found myself rethinking that strategy. I know for my generation, we didn’t have much say in activities. If your parents arranged for you to have lessons in piano or karate or French, you took the classes and kept your mouth shut.
With my mom, it was Girl Scouts. I wanted so badly to stay at home Saturday mornings and watch cartoons like my friends. But every Saturday, my mom gently pushed my younger sister and me out the door to walk to our weekly Girl Scout meetings. My 11-year-old self didn’t appreciate it. But my 42-year-old self is so glad she insisted that I stay in Scouting. I formed lifelong bonds with friends, learned some invaluable life lessons (from CPR to balancing a checkbook), and I can honestly say that some of my fondest memories as a young girl are associated with Scouting.
But of course, I’m a modern mom. And in this era, we often allow our children to decide what their interests are. I’m still torn about swimming. On the one hand, I strongly believe that Emmy would appreciate being a certified lifeguard if I pushed her to continue her lessons. But I also want her to engage in activities that she actually wants to do. (Right now she’s trying to get me to sign her up for acting classes.)
Which generation did it the right way? Did our parents’ method of “Because I say so” work best? Or is the modern way of allowing our children to make their own decisions a better way to go?
Was I right to insist on the Scouting experience to my daughters without asking for their input? For me, it was tantamount to insisting that your kids eat vegetables because you know it’s good for them. But I do ask my older self now: “Does every extracurricular activity have to be good for you?”
Aliya and her younger sister remained active in Scouting through high school, and for years they moaned and groaned about it. Aliya wanted to just chill on Saturday mornings after a week of school and homework, and my youngest daughter announced that she wanted to take gymnastics instead.
I remember thinking, “Gymnastics? What will that lead to in life?” Aliya believes that not every activity has to lead to something and that some things can be done just for fun. I don’t agree. I think that sometimes you can and should (gently) push your children into activities you know will benefit them.
Aliya and I agree that swimming is a skill every child should learn. After two years of swim classes at our local YMCA, Emmy recently announced that since she now knows how to swim, she doesn’t want to continue weekly swim classes. I feel that she should be pushed to acquire even more skills. I observed several weeks ago that she and her teammates were being taught to dive while treading water to try to retrieve something on the pool floor. After several tries, no one accomplished it. I think it was training to hopefully be able to rescue someone one day, and I want Emmy to have that skill!
When Aliya said that Emmy wanted to take acting classes instead of swimming, I said to myself, “Acting class? What’s that going to lead to?” I’d much rather that Emmy learn to dive to the bottom of a pool and save a life than learn how to memorize lines in a script. And I think that Aliya should make that decision for her.
Emmy’s young mind is still developing. And like most 8-year-olds, she’s not thinking about the big picture when it comes to choosing what she’d like to do. It’s Aliya’s responsibility, for now, at least, to make those decisions for her.
As Aliya said about musician Questlove, many people who have excelled in their fields, from the Jacksons to Venus and Serena, often wanted to stop the activities they would go on to master. The “Do as I say” method is best, particularly with young minds. There will be plenty of time later, as kids grow older and wiser, to make their own decisions.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at her website. Rita Moore King, mother of three grown folks, is originally from Newark, N.J., and has made East Orange, N.J., her home for the last 40 years. Prior to her recent retirement as an English teacher at East Orange Campus High School, she advised the school’s book club for 12 years. Her goal is to publish her first children's book, A Fake Moon in a Real Sky, an idea inspired by her granddaughter Emmy.