The other day, I was listening to a podcast interview with Scott Weinger, a Hollywood writer and actor. Weinger is probably most well known for his roles as Steve on Full House (
Kimmy Gibbler’s DJ Tanner’s boyfriend) and as the speaking voice of Aladdin in the 1992 Disney movie (the singing voice was a different actor). Weinger was a teenager when he acted in those roles but he starred in a few commercials when he was younger, as well. During the interview, Weinger made a number of references to his wife telling him that he did not have a childhood because he grew up working in show business, as opposed to living a more typical life. He said that she makes that type of comment anytime he mentions working in a recording studio with Robin Williams or something about having a trailer or traveling for a movie premiere. Weinger said that his response to his wife’s comment is always some version of correcting her assessment.
“I had a childhood,” he says. “I just didn’t have a ‘normal’ childhood.”
They’re both right, of course. Weinger’s wife feels pity for her husband because he did not get the chance to have certain experiences because he was a working actor. Weinger, on the other hand, contends that childhood happens, regardless of whether the child is a working actor or a typical full-time student. It’s seems to me, though, that the real thing they’re both talking about is fun. Children are supposed to spend their childhood having fun. They’re supposed to learn, obviously, which is why they go to school. But they’re also supposed to play and interact with each other and have social lives. That’s how they learn to become independent human beings, which is what we, as their parents, are supposed to want for them.
But what if the work is part of the fun? Weinger may not be the most talented actor in the world, but he was very good in the parts that he had and, as he says, he was enjoying being an actor. He didn’t mind missing out on all the “typical” childhood experiences because he was having fun with what he was doing.1
The reason I’m spending so much time thinking about this is because Eitan took his first tennis lesson last week. He’s been showing incredible progress hitting a baseball; he watches the pitch and swings for contact, as opposed to just swinging wildly and hoping for the best. A couple weeks ago he hit a Wiffle Ball off the fence a good thirty feet away on the fly. There is a tennis club nearby that offers fairly cheap lessons and Eitan had expressed some interest, so Trudy brought him for a group lesson with a few of his friends, just to see how he liked it.
He was really good.
I know, I’m his dad, I’m biased, I’m supposed to say that. Let’s be clear: he wasn’t that good. The teacher dropped a ball and wanted Eitan to hit it on the first bounce and Eitan usually didn’t get it until the third or fourth. Sometimes the ball had stopped bouncing completely before Eitan hit it. But he’s three years old; he hit he ball and he hit it well. His hand-eye coordination was terrific, though not as terrific as his determination to keep trying, even if the ball was sitting still on the ground. Then my wife practiced with him once – once! – and he started consistently hitting the ball on one bounce. This past weekend, we did it again and he was hitting the balls that same twenty to thirty feet he had with the Wiffle Ball. Out of curiosity, I started throwing the tennis balls to him, as opposed to dropping them next to him, and he returned them all. Hard.
While I was watching Eitan play, I couldn’t help but start thinking of competitions and scholarships and who knows what else. I pictured the videos of three-year-old Tiger Woods putting and young Venus and Serena Williams preparing each other for careers dominating their sport. Eitan may not be there yet, but even the best athletes have to start somewhere, right?
I snapped out of my reverie, only partially because a tennis ball was screaming toward my face. I had to take a minute to realize what was happening. Eitan had one tennis lesson and I was already picturing him winning Wimbledon. Was I already that parent who heaps on the pressure to succeed at everything? After all of the reading I’ve done about the dangers of helicopter parenting and emphasizing achievements, was I going to let all of that go because my son showed he can hit a ball with a racket?
It was in that moment that I made a conscious decision about the role I would play regarding Eitan’s involvement in extra-curricular activities. Whatever Eitan does, whether he wants to play sports or learn an instrument or design computer programs, it has to be fun. The last thing I want is for Eitan to become the kid who is driven by parents or coaches to play so much, to practice so relentlessly, that they end up hating the game. Andre Agassi, one of the best American tennis players in history, wrote in his autobiography that he hates tennis, largely because of the pressure his father placed on him to succeed.
I refuse to let that happen to Eitan.
There is a fine line between challenging a child to reach their potential and forcing them into an unpleasant situation. I will push Eitan to improve his abilities at whatever activity he chooses, not because I need him to be successful, but because I want him to experience the rewards of working hard. If he wants to quit, he will have that option, as long as he can give a legitimate reason for doing so.2 Eitan will do things because he wants to, not because he has to. The choice will be his, no matter what, and I will be there cheering him on throughout his journey.
And, if he happens to win Wimbledon, that would be fine with me too.
1. Considering that two of the main people he worked with were Bob Saget and Robin Williams, can you really blame him?↩
2. Also, “It’s not fun anymore” is absolutely a legitimate reason.↩