Activity Update

It's a bit early to be worrying about college applications. Instead, I'm worrying about laying the groundwork...

Activity update

Activities have unfolded nicely in this house, almost naturally. Like everything else, behind the scenes with a concerted effort on a daily basis to arrange our values, activities, priorities and sanity toward a desirable end goal. The end goal is the exact same thing college administrators are looking for on a college application: fortitude, sociability, hard work, giving back.

I'm going to recommend one mandatory activity and then demonstrate how we pursue two others that have a very high payout. Your chosen activities will vary. I'm make a strong case for the two we picked based on numerous conversations with parents who have little to go on except for a few sensational outcomes taken out of context.

Start with chores

Chores are the foundation of all the qualities that you want your child to take into their clubs, sports, and organizations. A lot has been written about chores. Think 'opposite of the spoiled, privileged child'. Think hard worker. The principles are similar to everything else that's worthwhile.

  • Lead the way. If you hire someone to clean the house, you're sending the wrong signal to your child.
  • Slowly transition all chores to your child, like over a period of two years.
  • Do not assign chorse that involve with hazardous chemicals. I'm not worried about an accident, but I prefer that my lungs bear the brunt of noxious fumes and not my child's.
  • Allow plenty of room for ineffectiveness and sloppiness. Be proud of a vacuumed room even though you can still see dirt on the rug. There will be time later to point this out, but chores are discouraging enough in the beginning without you being a jerk about it.

My favorite benefit of chores is watching the child learn to get things done. The vacuum backpack was their idea. My second favorite benefit of chores is free appliance repair. We've ratcheted up the bar on chores;this is a competitive gifteness blog, after all. Vacuuming is just a start.


Music and math success go well together. This is well known. There are two routes to go with music after that, and I'm going to argue that band is the better of the two.

If you've read the Tiger Mom book, you've seen the first option. Long hours of practice, lessons, stellar performances. I think this route applies to a few people who like this sort of thing and is oversold to the rest of us.

Option B has a much easier entry point. To be a contributing band member, one simply has to practice about 15 minutes a day. It's more of a social activity than reaching excellence. While option A is teaching kid not to quit in the face of relentless rigor, option B is teaching the kid not to quit in the face of bordem.

Or so one would think. We discovered contests (memorize the last and hardest piece in the book), honor band (a weekend of fun, as it turns out), and city band. We found about about city jazz band too late. Lesson learned. In other words, you can work as hard as you want with option B. Based on sitting at math competitions, 90% of high performers in math are perfectly qualified to sit alone for hours working on things, but need more practice in the social skills department. Thus option B.

My proudest moment as a parent happened a few weeks ago at contest. My son had an hour to kill before his performance, so he decided he would memorize the piece. He spent an hour screwing it up, but went into the contest room and nailed it. I'm not proud because he succeeded, I'm proud because I saw him fall short many times before, including the previous year. Option B has a low bar and kids naturally step up on their own without nagging.


Some of the benefits of obtaining Eagle Scout are well known. It's a rare and highly respected little addition to a college application. It represents 7 or 8 years of training in all sorts of things, teamwork, discipline, giving back.

My personal selling point for Scouting is this: on Monday night, most kids are sitting at home in front of screen. My kids are at a Scout meeting learning CPR or planning a trip or teaching the other scouts how to tie rope. We've done enough math. I need my kids to review the achievement list of the younger scouts, grill the newby's, and then approve the list. It's all social and leadership skills and no screens. Weekend activities are even better. When I said 'discipline' above I was thinking about the time we showed up to a campsite at 9:30 pm in freezing rain and the Scouts had to set up the camp as fast an organized as possible while I sat in the car admiring their work. I personally slept in the back of my SUV, but I was thinking proud thoughts while I did it.

Here's the best part of Scouting. It's our little secret. Scouting before 5th grade is nice (aka no screens etc.) but doesn't matter. If you join Scouts any time between the end of 4th grade and 5th grade, your child is starting fresh as the other scouts start from the beginning. In other words, 'Cub Scouting' doesn't count. In my opinion, it just burns out the kids before the real fun begins.

There are thousands of activities to choose from. This summer my older Scout is going to spend a week on a research vessel off the coast of Florida with one of the scout leaders (my wife). Cheap cruise vacation and learning experience all rolled into one. I'm looking forward to herding cattle with the little brother in a few years on a large ranch in New Mexico but some of the other scout leaders are thinking about mountain climbing or the Appalachian trail.

Even better, Scouts accept girls. I am personally cursed with only boys, but if I had a daughter, she'd be a Scout.

If anyone wants to ask questions about scouting, I will answer them. In the Midwest, the scouts own 4 sailing sailboats and 25,000 adventure camping site. When we go to a nuclear lab or an airfield or to launch rockets, 60 year old Eagle Scouts show up to lend their expertise in that field. It's like we're in some secret society that rules the world secretly. The only caveat is that anyone can join. Here's the website for our troop (in addition to hiding in my car during campouts, I'm the web master).

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