As a belated birthday present to myself, I went to a matinee performance of the Nutcracker today. New York City Ballet has been performing this Christmas masterpiece for over 50 years now, ever since George Balanchine stamped his vision on Tschaikovsky's music.
Starring several children, the Nutcracker is always a crowd pleaser. But it was watching the young adult principal dancers of the NYC Ballet company that really got me thinking. In fields like ballet, becoming a top-tier professional takes decades of practice. With dance, especially, you have to commit to training your body into the correct form and technique quite young -- often, younger than a child could rationally make a decision about wanting to be a professional dancer on her own (well, all of us probably did want to be professional ballerinas at some point -- but before a child could rationally size up the situation and decide it was feasible). Unless the child's parents make a decision that they will commit the child to that kind of intense training, the child will not become a principal ballet dancer years hence.
Other fields don't have quite the same unforgiving age elements as dance, but certainly it is easier to learn to play an instrument and read music when our brains are new enough to learn other languages easily. Early problem solving training also makes new mathematical leaps second nature. All of these issues raise the question for parents: When are you being a pushy parent when you allow or encourage a child to spend hours a day training in a subject, and when are you trying not to cut off a child's future career choice?
It's a tough question. Certainly if a child hates an activity, or is even indifferent, making big commitments of time, money or energy toward a future career is silly. Making a living as a musician or a dancer is almost impossible. If the child doesn't love it, he'll never survive. So following the child's interests is key. Asking for an evaluation from a trusted adult who's had a career in the field is important. Maybe 2 or 3 adults. Prodigies I've interviewed also recommend allowing "breaks" from time to time. If the child gets truly frustrated with her instrument or her arabesques (not just tempted by what's on TV), don't force it. If you force it, the kid will quit for good. Children who love what they're doing will eventually come back to their avocation, maybe with a different teacher or a different approach.
Beyond that, I guess it just has to be a gut decision -- and one with no guarantees. You can study ballet intensely for decades and still never wind up in the NYC Ballet program. But if you don't study intensely for decades, you definitely won't.