Matching children's extracurricular activities to their strengths

Jamie Dewalt held her lean arms over her head and just like that – in a position reminiscent of Superman sans the cape – was airborne.

In a blink, she landed gracefully atop a metal bar, flipped backward from a standing position onto her hands and back down again, and landed squarely on her feet on the mat below.

It was another tense moment -- the kind parents like Jamie's willingly endure and hope to find for their kids.

What's the secret?

"She loves it," Jamie's mom, Karen Dewalt, said.

While other kids her age may approach extracurricular activities in stops and starts, 8-year-old Jamie, from Marietta, has been pursuing gymnasticsl for a solid five years.

Choosing the perfect after-school activity isn’t always easy.

Experts say it's important to go with your child’s strengths and desires.

“Too often parents want their children to participate in activities that they like rather than taking the time to figure out what the child really wants to do,” said Jenifer Fox, educator and author of "Your Child's Strengths" (Penguin 2009). “The key is to help children find things they are energized by because then they will want to stick with it and get the most out of it.”

Playing to a child’s strength means looking for activities that energize them instead of  something that leaves them feeling drained, Fox said.

“Everyone knows someone who was forced to take piano lessons," Fox said. "That person may even be quite good at piano, but it depletes them rather than energizes them and they end up giving up right away on it.”

Although gymnastics was originally her choice, Dewalt said that it turned out to be a natural for Jamie. It turns out she has incredible strength and a strong work ethic, key characteristics for gymnasts.

“She’s been the one pushing it,” said Dewalt, who signed up for a "Mommy and Me" class when Jamie was 3. “We just sort of let her lead.”

That has worked well for other metro Atlanta parents, some matching their children's strengths to activities through trial and error and others, like Suzanne Miller, who let their children’s playtime be the guide.

Miller, a mother of three who lives in Decatur, said she noticed early on that when her daughter, Audrey, saw something that went up, up she'd go.

"Once we lost her for an hour only to find her right where we started looking... up in a tree," Miller said.

And when she kept getting in trouble at school for climbing, a friend suggested they try rock climbing.

Miller used the same powers of observation to find a fit for her daughter, Caroline, whose penchant for goofiness often landed  her in trouble.

"She has always been creative but a little outside the box," Miller said of the 13-year-old. "As was the case with Audrey, we were looking for an outlet for something that she seemed to be very good at but that she seemed to keep doing in the wrong venue."

Their answer? Improv.

"It's important to follow their lead even if it takes off in a weird direction," Miller said. " If it's legal and moral and they love it enough that they are willing to get in trouble for it at school, you know that's a sure thing."

Molly Croft of Atlanta said her daughter, 11-year-old Morgan, discovered rock climbing four years ago after trying soccer, softball and tennis.

"She was hooked," Croft said. "She would live at the climbing gym if she could."

To get similar results, Fox said, parents should ask themselves,  "How well do I know what drives my child’s interests?”

"When we listen closely to children, at any age, we will hear clues about the things that matter most to them," she said.

Fox said parents rarely taken time to listen because they mistakenly believe that as adults they are supposed to have all the answers.

"One of the biggest mistakes adults make when helping children decide what to do is to interject a lot of advice and autobiography into all their conversations with them," Fox said. " How often do we hear ourselves saying, ‘When I was your age,' or ‘You need to do this, I loved it'."

She advises parents to let the child pick the activity, then suggests working out a contract about how long they will try it.

"If they want to quit sooner," she said, "find out the real reason why."

Becky Oppenheimer, owner of Georgia All-Star Gymnastics where Jamie Dewalt takes classes five days a week,  said kids generally tire of activities and drop out around age 13.

"They're coming into puberty, their bodies are changing and they may feel because of the hours that they're missing out on something," Oppenheimer said. "The good news is there's also a high return rate."

Rhonda White, of Marietta, said her sons, 11-year-old Cameron and 10-year-old Carson, returned to karate two years ago after a season each of baseball, basketball, tennis and soccer.

"We've stayed with TaeKwonDo because both boys want to get their black belts," she said. "Karate also works for our family's school and work schedule. The class times are flexible."

In addition to a child's enthusiasm, that kind of convenience is also a key to success, parents said.

While Jamie is "excited to come here and is willing in to put in the hours," her mother said they picked the class based on its proximity to their home and the "good feeling with the coaches."

Now all the effort and energy are paying off,  Coach Sennie Clark said.

"She's doing really well, " Clark said as Jamie completed the first half bar routine for the upcoming fall competition. "She has really nice lines."

The real