Why Raising a Well-Rounded Child Doesn’t Work (and What to Do Instead)
By Paresh Shah
My son loves anything with a screen: computer games, YouTube, apps, TV. (And let’s admit it, who hasn’t looked up a funny SNL skit and realized an hour later that they’ve just laughed themselves past the kids’ bedtime?) So I was hesitant when he asked to join a computer programming club. “Does he really need more time sitting at a computer?” I thought. “Shouldn’t we find him something else to do so he’s more well-rounded?” But I quieted that voice because I’ve learned that being well-rounded may actually limit our potential.
Well-Rounded or Lopsided?
I used to believe that it was a good thing to have well-rounded children; it was kind of like a badge of honor. It’s normal to want our kids to succeed in every area of life, right? But as the father of four kids and the head of a company that researches human happiness and wellbeing, I’ve come to understand the serious pitfalls of this approach.
First, raising children with interests and abilities in too many areas forces them to be just like everyone else, conforming to some elusive, vague standard of normality. And second, pursuit of the well-rounded experience can actually severely limit a child’s potential to powerfully fulfill his or her unique gifts.
This is why I promote what I call “lopsidedness.” Instead of trying to make children balanced all-around, encourage them to embrace their true selves by being lopsided! Lopsided people break the mold because they live in alignment with their gifts, talents, and passions. Being lopsided can be powerful in terms of both personal fulfillment and a person’s impact on the world. Allowing your kids to become lopsided and find their own paths is not only rewarding, it can also increase their self-efficacy and self-esteem.
Barriers to Lopsidedness
Parents often have a hard time letting their kids become lopsided for a few reasons:
Fear. I know how hard it is to fight that feeling that your child will lag in a critical area down the road. However, the freedom to cultivate and apply unique talents and passions is a wonderful gift to give your children.
Focusing on weaknesses. In our culture, shoring up perceived deficiencies gets more attention than doubling down on areas that truly distinguish us as individuals. When a kid brings home a report card with three A’s and one B, parents often congratulate the kid on the A’s yet spend most of their time discussing how to raise that B grade. That sends the wrong message.
Conforming to societal pressure. Both kids and adults face pressure to conform. This intensifies with social networks. The problem is that most people aren’t projecting a true picture of themselves online or in the real world. And that focus on projecting a good image can rob us of true joy, even causing emotional, physiological, or psychological issues.
As an employer, I’ve fallen victim to the well-roundedness trap by asking employees who are off the charts in one specific area (like programming) to work on their other areas (like management). Having an employee who’s amazing at one job and loves it is awesome. Why make her try to be good at everything else?
The same idea applies to kids. Why ask them to try to be anything other than who they truly are?
Encourage the Tilt
So how do you encourage your kids to become lopsided? Here are a few tips:
Watch and learn. Observe what makes your kids excited or piques their interests. What do they love talking about? Ask, “What do you love doing?” or “What would you love to be awesome at?” Kids are often better than adults at identifying their truest selves. Making vision boards as a family is also a powerful and fun experience and allows images to speak more clearly than words.
Let them explore. Allow your children to sample every feasible activity and idea that interests them. Try new things with them, too. I’m learning to surf with my 10-year-old, and I recently went to my 13-year-old’s aerial acrobatics class. I have so much more respect for her now that I’ve experienced how physically and mentally demanding the sport is.
Introduce them to kids who rock. If you don’t know other kids who share an interest your child is sincerely passionate about, find different local groups or encourage them to research online. YouTube and TED have some great examples of kids who excel at what they love doing.
Don’t discourage quitting. “Quitting is underrated.” My wife invented this saying, and it took me many years to get comfortable with it. Being good at anything requires practice and hard work, but we often pressure our kids to continue activities they’re not passionate about because we don’t want them to be “quitters.” Or, worse yet, we want them to fulfill one of our own dreams. If your children have given an activity a real try (a season on a sports team, for example) and don’t like it, let them quit and apply their energy to something else.
Do it yourself. If you want your kids to become their truest selves, you must be willing to do so, too. Find your passions: explore, experiment, fail, try again, practice, and make a difference. Shift your mindset from “I must follow this prescribed path” to “I’m going to consciously live and express my true lopsided self.” You’ll amaze yourself; I promise.
While I can’t say our four perfectly lopsided kids have found their callings, the lopsided philosophy is generally working in our household. I’m even practicing it myself, taking up activities I quit decades ago like electric guitar and poetry. I’m finding real joy in things I never considered valuable or useful. Give your kids the permission and encouragement to explore; they’ll be more fulfilled and able to live out their passions.