with a wild streak
Raise children with a wild streak
Many 'ideal' students lack inventive, restless and self-reliant spirit
by: Mark Pruett
A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics stresses the importance
of childhood playtime. It reinforces my own belief that many young adults have
been cheated by years of excessive schoolwork and teamwork, too many
extracurricular activities, and a straitjacketed "just say no to anything
risky" upbringing. I am convinced that modern childhood generally does not
build enough independence and thirst for knowledge.
For the past few years I helped interview high school seniors seeking scholarships
to come to Appalachian State University. These applicants come from all over the
state. They play instruments and sports, participate in church and charity, and
work in diverse jobs.
They also display remarkably similar accomplishments. They are at the top of
their high school classes and possess generically good manners. They lead teams,
groups and clubs. They are smart, solid and hardworking.
They might be surprised to learn that I, like many college professors, yearn for
rarer traits -- curiosity, passion, a wild streak. Yes, teamwork and leadership
skills will help your child to implement someone else's ideas, and extensive
extracurricular activities will foster responsibility. What your child really needs,
though, is an inventive, self-reliant, restless spirit.
The key questions
For me, the heart-wrenching interview moment is when we ask these teenagers what
they would choose to do on a day spent alone. Many say they never have the chance.
Worse still, some have no answer at all. This should disturb and sadden any parent.
In the end, my scholarship votes ride on two questions: Is this someone that I'd be
excited to have in my class? And is he or she open to being changed by my class?
Class rank and extracurricular activities are less important than genuine individuality
or enthusiasm. It matters not whether someone is bold or shy, worldly or na´ve. Is
there a flash of determination, a streak of independence, a creative passion, an
We need more students like the ones who leave after graduation to work as missionaries
or in the Peace Corps. More like the ones who start successful businesses while in
school. More like the ones who find the courage to go overseas for a summer or a
semester because they know their own worlds are far too small.
Some students are team players and high achievers, but I'd trade them for stubbornly
creative iconoclasts. Some students as children were taught to color inside the lines,
watch Barney the purple dinosaur, and always ask permission. We need students who found
out what Crayons tasted like, loved reading "The Cat in the Hat" and
paid little attention to rules -- students whose parents encouraged their children's
The irony is that many students begin to perceive late in college that they've missed
something along the way. They regret not taking risks with difficult professors, unusual
courses or semesters abroad. They berate themselves by equating self-worth with grades,
and they are saddened by the realization that they have only glimpsed the breadth of the
university. They begin to grasp that their uncomfortable sense of passivity has its roots
in the highly controlled existence foisted on them.
Parents: love, guide and support your children, but don't insulate them, control them
or let them be too busy. Independence, confidence and creativity come from freedom, risk
and a good measure of unstructured solitude.
Encourage studying but make them play hooky, too -- partly to learn what it feels like
to be unprepared and partly to foster spontaneity, irreverence and joy. Study chemistry
together, then blow up a television in the backyard.
Foster camaraderie and connectedness through group activities (especially family ones),
but be unyielding in your commitment to teaching them to love doing things entirely on
their own. Make each child plan and cook the family's dinner on his or her own once a
Surround them with books, not video games. Raise a garden or build a deck together.
Send them on solo trips.
However you choose to do it, give your children, their teachers and society one of the
greatest gifts of all: Help your kids become creative, independent, curious, interesting
About the Author
Mark Pruett is an assistant professor in the Walker College of Business at
Appalachian State University.
This article, that originally appeared in
The Charlotte Observer
is reprinted with permission from the author, Mark Pruett.