Two springs ago one of my daughters took a creative movement class. Her teacher had a gift for working with children and was really good with the tiny dancers. My little girl looked forward to her class all week and would sometimes tell me that when she grew up, she was going to be a real ballerina (and a real gardener, a real horseback rider, and a real mommy as opposed to a poser in all of the jobs). But there were some other girls in her class who didn’t seem to have such happy feet. There was one child in particular who cried before every single class. For six weeks.
On a particularly rough day, she started screaming and clinging to her mom. Her mother kept urging her to go in because she “had to practice if she wanted to wear a pretty dress at the recital.” However, the child would not be consoled. The mom finally pushed her into the class while the child’s red, tear-stained faced peered through the glass in the direction of her mom who refused to make eye contact knowing “it would just make it worse.”
Her child grew more hysterical. And then the poor thing peed all over the floor.
“I knew that was going to happen,” the mom said, sighing. “She always does that when she’s really upset.”
I felt sorry for the mom and the little girl.
The mom said it had been a terrible day and that she hated to push her like that, but she knew that if she gave in to her cries it would just get worse next time. I get that. At bedtime, my oldest use to bring up all the woes of the world. A typically happy child, her vespertine mood was very morose. I was sensitive to her emotions (usually), but I also didn’t give in to her plaintive cries. Instead, on a good night I’d say something like, “Once you settle down, I’ll be happy to come spend more time with you. I know you’re sad, but you can’t cry and scream every night when it’s time to go to bed.” Instantly, the wailing stopped. I’m no fool. I knew her sad, little show was mostly a ploy to keep me from leaving, but it was also as sign that going to bed and unwinding was tough for this high-energy buzz of a child. But sleep was non-negotiable. She needed to go to bed at a reasonable hour for her mental, emotional, and physical health.
So, yes, I understand this mom completely when she said that if she rescued her child from the tortures of creative movement class this time, then the child would likely cry the next time since crying “worked” and got her what she wanted. But here’s what I don’t get: Why did there need to be a next time? A creative movement class is not a need for toddler or preschooler. The mom also mentioned in passing that the child was in some form of school for a few hours every day.
My daughter, at the age of almost 4, was one of the older children in the class; this child was closer to 2.
When the creative movement class’s recital finally arrived, the crying, little girl was no longer as tearful. But she still didn’t appear to be overjoyed about the whole experience. Of course I don’t know the whims of this particular child. One of my kids is very mercurial, but I know how to read her. Others don’t, and I could have been over-analyzing this whole situation just to make my own decision to not do too many activities seem better. When I’m scrubbing poop off the walls or sweeping up crushed Cheerios all daylong, I may start to get self-righteous about this life I’m living as a form of self-preservation. I also know that sometimes we need outside activities more for ourselves than our children, especially if we are extroverted and craving community. It’s good to sit with other moms while our little ones dance and have fun.
Still, what I observed from watching this loving mom keep her child in dance class was this: She forked out a wad of cash for a fancy costume, she cajoled and consoled and pushed, and for what? A huge spotlight zeroing in on a child who just stood on stage, stone-still, and immovable? Her sweet daughter surely dances with more vigor and enthusiasm in her living room. I enjoyed watching my own daughter, who was definitely more eager to dance than this child, but I still remember wondering why so many of us had our little, little girls in a dance recital. It made for a cute photo-op, sure, but I partly signed her up because that’s just what we do as moms these days. We sign our kids up for dance class…and Spanish class…and Mommy & Me gymnastics…and soccer…and…
We live in a society of gunners. Parenting sometimes starts to feel like a cutthroat competition. We’re starting activities younger and younger. We want to give our children an advantage. Sometimes we honestly just want to offer them an outlet of fun, or we need an outlet. When we sign our kids up for things and they balk, we sometimes push because we don’t want to be the parent of the kid who’s a quitter. And this is often a good thing. If my 7-year-old has a bad soccer practice one day and says she doesn’t want to go to her next game or practice, I’d have a talk about being a team player and how others are depending on her, and I’d probably use a few cliches such as when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Blah, blah, blah.
But when this same child was 2 1/2, I remember taking her to a dance class. She cried the first class, but I encouraged her to give it one more try. The next day she talked about how she really didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to be away from mommy (even though Mommy was right there watching her). She cried more and even said something about how her body didn’t work like the other girls’. I remember thinking that this was a prime example of a mom choosing her battles, and a battle over ballet class for a not-even-3-year-old was not worth the tears of my child or my own stress feeling like I had to push my child to keep her commitment. So she quit. We’ve never looked back.
Now she’s taking piano lessons, and she complains about practicing. However, this is something I’m willing to push for – not because I expect her to be a celebrated virtuoso but because I want her to be exposed to music and because at this age it’s good for her to learn the value of discipline and hard work. Plus, she beams when she plays a song well. She just wants to be able to do that instantly without any practice. I’m having to teach her that hard work bears fruits. She’s almost 8. This is a valuable lesson for a child her age.
I’m not saying that pushing our kids a bit isn’t ever good for them. Nor am I suggesting that I am immune to the pressure to fill my children’s schedules with activities or opportunities to shine, learn, or develop a new skill. Right now I am confused about what to do about soccer next year. My oldest continues to play in the recreational league, but she does love it and we’ve been approached about giving her the opportunity to play at a more competitive level. Next fall she would be close to being 9. Do I challenge her then, or do I just allow her to be a kid for a little longer and have fun? The more elite teams practice twice a week and have games that require travel. That seems a little much, but this daughter sometimes laments that she doesn’t get to play more and thrives on activity. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a busy day or two; however, I don’t want to fall in the trap of filling my kids’ schedules so that we all end up feeling stressed. When all of us start to feel frazzled, something has to give.
I don’t want to push any of my children too soon or for the wrong reasons. I understand why there’s a temptation to push and enrich our children’s lives with extracurricular activities. It’s all out of love. We want to enrich their lives. Maybe that recalcitrant, tearful non-dancer told her mom it was fun. Maybe she’s a dancing fool right now. I’m careful to judge other moms’ decisions because I know some choices I’ve made might seem confusing or wrong to the outside world or my parenting peers. Yet, I found myself wanting to hug that mama – or any mama like her – and tell her it was okay if her little girl didn’t like dance class. You don’t have to push you or your child so hard. Certainly not when your child is only 2. If it’s bringing you joy, then, yes, do it. But if not, it’s okay to quit or to never even start some new activity every other parent you know is pursuing with their children. We’re afraid our kids will miss out if we don’t expose them to everything. What if my oldest has the talent to be an amazing ballerina, and I sabotaged it by not keeping her in the Family Y ballet class when she was 2 1/2? Well, the way I look at it, if a child’s purpose in life really is to bring a great talent to the world, then it will happen in spite of us parents. Or maybe it won’t, but if we raise happy children who are good, caring people, who cares?
I like our simple life. Even with limiting my kids’ activities and not having them in school-school, we keep very busy. I do try to make sure we have a few lazy days a week, though. I don’t like it when we’re running full throttle every day. Neither do my children. Even if they tell me they want to do more stuff, their behavior and moods say something different. Yet, when I hear about what so many other kids are doing, it’s tempting to think I’m short-changing my kids by having so many unstructured hours to our day. But then I see what unfolds during those “boring” and “un-enriched” hours. Children doodle dog mermaids or spend a beautiful afternoon outside reading books. A 7-year-old builds a village out of Lincoln Logs. Together the children and I make homemade dough, and my preschooler molds oodles of snakes out of it. A 5-year-old draws two garden scenes while an older child sketches Star Wars characters as I read Anne of Green Gables aloud. We are happy (on a good day, but please remember I have plenty of bad days where my children drive me absolutely crazy, and I want to ship them out). We aren’t rushed. And somehow I still see my children learning, cultivating talent, and nurturing creativity.
My child who enjoyed the creative movement class sometimes asks about taking dance again. I tell her she’s welcome to do it again, but she can’t play soccer, too. She’s also interested in tennis and may give that a swing in the spring. But we have a rule: One organized activity outside of the home per season per child. When this child first started playing soccer, she seemed lost on the soccer field; she was so small. Yet, there were no battles about practicing or going the game. Despite her seriousness on the field and confusion, she couldn’t stop talking about how fun it was to play. The next season things started clicking. She started looking like a soccer player rather than a girl just running and spinning around on a field. This season she’s really coming into her own, and she’s still having a blast. That’s what I really want for my children right now. I want them to stretch their limbs and move and play. I want them to have time to be outdoors with little friends. I want to be sensitive to their talents and temperaments. Like a wise gardener, I hope I can learn to keep my eyes on my own field and not worry about how the others are growing, tenderly nurture my children, and allow them to grow according to their own natural inclinations.
It doesn’t matter what every other family is doing. I don’t have to worry so much that I’m putting my children at a disadvantage by not having them signed up in several enrichment activities by the time they’re four. Our children don’t need every hour of their day structured and organized with fun, educational activities. They don’t need inflatable slides or pony rides on their birthday either. What they really want is us, our time, our encouragement, our hugs. They want simplicity, too. Simple schedules. Simple rituals like a story at bedtime or a family stroll together around the neighborhood on Sundays. There’s a lifetime for achievement and learning new skills. Let your littles be little. Give them time to play, dream, chase fireflies, and laugh. Your children don’t ever need to step foot in a studio to dance. They don’t need playdates to play. Give them time to do nothing. Give them time to be children. Don’t let every day’s schedule to be so tight that there’s never anytime to dawdle. Keep life simple and sweet while your children are young, simple, and sweet.
“Since childhood has become a ‘thing’ (preparation for adulthood) and parenting has become a ‘thing’ (what we do to not do things like our parents), we seek to control one with the other. Surely we can improve these ‘things.’ Surely we can add more choices. And there must be ways to increase productivity. (Handstands abandoned, [your child’s now] lying down, splitting a blade of glass and blowing like a kazoo.) This time – this afternoon, this childhood, this child, could be enriched! That’s it! Enrichment. As parents, we’ve discovered fertilizer. And we’re applying it by the ton to childhood…
Why? Why do our kids need to be busy all of the time? Why does our son, at age 12, need to explore the possibility of space travel? Why do we feel we must offer everything? Why must it happen now? Why does tomorrow always seem a bit late? Why would we rather squeeze more things into our schedules than to see what happens over time? What happens when we stop, when we have free time?”
What happens, I hope, is a beautiful, simple, and happy childhood that paves the way for a fulfilling adulthood.