our turn

Why Do Our Kids Get To Have All The Extracurricular Activities?

Kids try all sorts of new activities, and it’s expected that they will, while adults rarely do the same.

by Jenn McKee
Mother who started taking drawing classes and made her feel great.
Maskot/Maskot/Getty Images

My introductory drawing class was scheduled to start in 30 minutes, and I was rushing around the aisles of a Michaels store, frantically gathering last-minute supplies. “This is so stupid,” I muttered, scanning my list. “Why am I even doing this?!”

I was already nervous about taking the class, though it was just a six-week community-ed offering; and now I was going to be late. Plus, what was I even buying? A set of pencils with inscrutable designations (2B, 8B, H) painted on them, and a so-called “eraser” that looked like a gray stump of clay. What did these objects mean? Would everyone but me already know?

Exuding fear and self-consciousness, I arrived at one of our community center’s large, dimly lit art rooms, where a handful of women, seated at tall tables, were quietly sketching a clump of strange items: a white bust, an animal skull, a thick, knotty branch, a pile of old books, and a bottle stuffed with a loose arrangement of flowers.

I was really hoping to ease into this whole thing a bit more, but …

I likely wouldn’t be here at all if I hadn’t read Tom Vanderbilt’s, Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning. The book begins with scenes that will ring familiar to most parents: moms and dads seated in various waiting areas, staring at their phones while their kids are in lessons, classes, and rehearsals. Kids try all sorts of new activities, and it’s expected that they will, while adults rarely do the same.

Vanderbilt makes a compelling case, however, for carving out the time to try new things in later adulthood, arguing that not only do these pursuits rewire our brain in healthy ways, but they also help us forge new social connections, and they awaken our sense of curiosity — all of which contributes to an overall sense of wellbeing. I was sold.

Which is how I ended up in Drawing 101.

That first evening, in an attempt to catch up to my classmates, I started small. Like, really really small, doodling a two-inch square version of this still life that felt pretty finished in minutes. Trevor, my goateed, thirty-something teacher, came by and suggested I try drawing a larger version on another page. Fair, I thought. So I turned to the next page and tried again.

Predictably, these initial attempts of mine were … rough. Kind of laughable. I’m 52 and haven't taken a proper art class since middle school.

But I did my best. At the end of class, Trevor asked us to place our sketches on easels for a class critique, and he offered his thoughts on the strongest parts of our sketches, as well as ways we might address the issues that challenge us most.

Yes, this was (gently) humbling. But learning and growth almost always involve some discomfort. Maybe even a failure or two.

And really, I asked myself, what was I so afraid of? Even if every drawing I did in this class was terrible, so what? The stakes were ridiculously low, and regardless, I’d leave knowing more than I did when I started, which was kind of the point.

Yes, I knew, when the community education catalog arrived in the mail months before, that taking a class would sometimes be inconvenient for my family. But I also knew there was never going to be an ideal time, and that my daughters, now 15 and 12, didn’t need me as ferociously as they once did. So I quietly added the class to our family calendar.

On Mondays from 6-9 pm, for six weeks, I was in that art room, listening to my instructor explain what those pencil designations were about (hardness) and watching him demonstrate how to achieve a sense of depth, perspective, and proportion; how to shade; how to blend colored pencils; do figure drawing with charcoal; and draw human faces. And something kind of amazing happened: by shutting my phone down, shoving it into my bag, and thus silencing my awareness of all the usual family pulls on my attention, I drilled down on what I was doing, and I started doing some pretty darn good drawings and sketches. Sometimes I couldn’t even believe what I was capable of producing in just a couple of hours.

The seeming magic of it all made me excited and happy — like I’d suddenly, at 52, discovered a superpower I’d never known I had.

But as Vanderbilt’s “Beginners” book had suggested, you never know when or how you might unearth a new superpower. We tend to think that over the years, we’ve already found our “things,” presuming we have one or two extracurriculars, and that there simply isn’t room for more. Plus, the older we get, the less likely we are to put ourselves in unfamiliar situations where we might feel or look stupid or silly or vulnerable. So it might feel irrationally scary at first.

But it turns out that sometimes, all it really takes to make a positive change is a baby-step outside your comfort zone.

Jenn McKee is a Michigan-based journalist, essayist, and arts critic whose work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Shondaland, The Writer, American Theatre, Hour Detroit magazine and more. She has two daughters, two cats, and one husband. Follow her introvert adventures on Instagram at @criticaljenn.