"Keep your eye on the ball!" Shawn shouts.
"Boom!" yells our son. His bat slices through the air and makes contact with the ball. He drops the bat and runs in an arc around our backyard. He slides into home and looks up at us with an exuberant smile. It was as though he hit the winning home run in the World Series.
In fact, he hasn't even won a little league game. At 18 months, he's just plain little. Though barely a toddler, he seems to have a natural athletic ability and a love for baseball, in particular. It got us thinking: if Tiger Woods started training for the PGA Tour at age three and Beethoven composed his first symphony at age nine, should we be coaching Ari with the hope of maximizing his potential? How do we know how young is too young to start encouraging our children to become an athlete, musician or mathematician? If we start now, do we risk discouraging him and becoming pushy parents? In short, what is the best way to support our child as he discovers new interests and talents we could never have imagined he might possess?
Lorne King doesn't have all the answers. What he does know is that his eight-year-old daughter, Payton, has potential to be a great soccer player - and he wants her to succeed.
"I took her to a rep soccer tryout thinking that my daughter was really good," says Lorne, a personal trainer and former CFL running back and owner of Advantage 4 Athletes, a high performance athletic facility in Markham, Ont. "When I got to the tryout, I realized that two-thirds of the other girls were better. Their parents had been sending them to soccer camps since they were three! There was a whole world out there that I didn't know about, and I was angry that I had disadvantaged my child by my lack of knowledge."
Lorne and his wife, Sarah, began to do some research and found out about other soccer seminars, team tryouts and drill schools. He and Payton also worked really hard at a local soccer field to improve her understanding of the game, passing skills and cardiovascular ability. A few weeks later, she earned a spot on a competitive soccer team.
"I think that when you realize that your child has talent, you have to be their advocate," says Lorne. "You have to do the legwork and find out what schools or programs are available for your child that match his or her interests and talents."
If, like Lorne, you are late in realizing that extra supports are available for your child, don't give up. "Instead, do the best you can to help your kid catch up from that point forward," he says. "I don't want to be pushy, but I do believe that you have to be involved as a parent and supportive of your children's interests. The rest is up to your child."
Andrea Hecht believes that, sometimes, it's her job as a parent to be a little pushy. Her son Cole, 13, tested in the 98th percentile on a gifted aptitude test, making him eligible to enter his pick of gifted programs. Though he could easily have attended a private academy for gifted children, Andrea and her husband, Evan, decided their local public school's gifted program was the best option. But Cole didn't agree.
"I didn't want to switch schools," explains Cole, who says he was doing division while his classmates were learning addition. "I would miss my friends, but my parents made me go. They said that if I gave it a try and didn't like it after a year I could go back to my old school."
In a short time, Cole realized that he belonged in the gifted program after all. "I hated it at the beginning," says Cole, who one day wants to run a Fortune 500 company. "I made the worst of the situation, but now I want to stay in the program. I like that it's challenging."
Andrea, an educator herself, is glad she gave her son a push. "Cole has always been extremely bright, and I was reluctant to test him for giftedness because I didn't want to risk pigeonholing him in a program that would only nurture his brain. I wanted him to be more well-rounded. We wanted him to have balance in his life."
Eventually, however, she decided that her son was mature enough to take the gifted test and appreciate his need for a new academic environment. "It got to a point where my fear was that he would become complacent," says Andrea. "It's easy to not push your children, but in the end, we made the right decision."
Lauria Kerr is sure she made the right decision for her son, 12-year-old musical prodigy Christian Laurian. He showed a talent for playing piano at age four, when he taught himself an entire method book one morning just six months after beginning piano lessons.
"I was shocked," says Lauria. "He learned all the songs on his own, and by age five he received the second highest mark in Canada on his Grade 2 Royal Conservatory of Music piano examination."
His abilities progressed quickly under the tutelage of renowned piano teacher Peter Turner. Christian gave his first public performance at age five, wrote his first concerto at age eight, and has been playing at packed concerts and events across Canada ever since, including making it to the third round of auditions on Canada's Got Talent.
"When he started playing piano seriously, I didn't know if it was the right choice for him," remembers Lauria. "I didn't want him to go too fast. I wanted Christian to feel comfortable, but during every lesson and every performance, he was joyful."
Suddenly, she wasn't worried. "I don't have to wonder whether all the hours he spends practising and performing is too much or not enough because Christian is so happy," she says. "If you see your child is content, you know you're not pushing; you know it's right."
Today, Christian practises for up to four hours a day. He practises on family vacations, and he even practises after a performance.
"I've asked him if he feels pressure," admits Lauria, "but Christian truly enjoys performing. He plays from his heart and he is absolutely joyful. It's magical when he plays. If you want to be one of the best you have to be dedicated."
Her greatest worry is how Christian's immense talent will affect his younger sister, Malia, seven. "My biggest dilemma is making sure that my second child isn't left behind," says Lauria.
So far, she seems to be thriving, as well, and the two kids are the best of friends. "I will know I did my job as a parent if I can make sure that Christian's musical gift is part of our family and that he knows he is a little boy who has a sister and two parents who love him regardless of whether he becomes a great pianist," she says.
No matter what your child's talent may be, it's important to ensure that they are living their dream, not yours. "We've already lived life and had the chance to dream," says Andrea Hecht. "As parents, it's up to us to help our children pursue the best path for them without looking at our own needs. It's important to nurture their strengths, but your children have to be a partner in the journey or it becomes a negative experience."
As for our son, he still loves baseball, but now enjoys playing with his fire trucks. We've decided to support his latest hobby. He seems to be just as talented at putting out imaginary fires as he is at batting a ball. Erin Dym is the acting associate editor of ParentsCanada, and future Major League Baseball mom.
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