Updated at 12:40 p.m. on May 31, 2019.
David Epstein’s new book, Range, isn’t about parenting per se, but Epstein thought a lot about parenting while he was writing it. And not just because his first child was born a few months before its publication.
Range, a book about the value of being a generalist rather than a lifelong or career-long specialist, argues that many of the most effective people in elite professional fields (such as sports, art, and scientific research) succeed not despite the fact but because they find their way to that particular field after pursuing other endeavors first. The concept of parenting, particularly the guidance and gatekeeping of children’s hobbies and interests, seems to consistently hover just outside the page margins—because it’s hard to argue that anyone plays a more vital role in overseeing people’s academic, artistic, and athletic pursuits early in life than their parents. As Epstein put it in an interview with me, “Before this was even a book idea, I was interested in [early childhood] specialization, particularly in sports. And you cannot interact with that area without parents being front and center.” Range’s primary takeaways for parents are both clear and counterintuitive to contemporary parenting wisdom: Let kids find out on their own that they’re passionate about something, and let them quit and pursue something else when they find out they aren’t.
Epstein opens Range with the story of the strikingly laid-back upbringing of Roger Federer, believed by many to be the greatest male tennis player of all time. Unlike Tiger Woods—another sporting legend, whose early, all-consuming childhood specialization in golf under his father’s tutelage has become a template for parents who want to prime their kids for excellence—Federer played several sports as a child and an adolescent. His parents encouraged him only in the direction of good sportsmanship, and when he began to gravitate toward tennis, they cautioned him against taking the sport too seriously. Years later, Epstein notes, Federer would credit the hours he spent dabbling in basketball, handball, skiing, wrestling, swimming, table tennis, and skateboarding with helping him develop his hand-eye coordination and his famously well-rounded athleticism.