‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.’ – Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
Our bank account has two settings; slow drip of money out and huge haemorrhage of money out. When reviewing how we could save more and spend less, the Husband remarks, ‘The kids do a lot of extra activities, what about those?’
Big One does ballet and tennis, Little One does gymnastics and a music playgroup and both have swimming lessons. They enjoy these activities and it would be tough to tell them that they could no longer participate. I am lucky that they have fun, that they don’t feel forced to do them and I can have a few hours in the week where I am not refereeing arguments or pretending to be a mummy elephant.
When Big One was first born and we had hours of time alone, I tried to plan activities for us to do to get me out of the house and keep her occupied. You can only walk on the Downs Link so often and, as is sometimes the way with new parents, I was frightened. You see, I had the example of other mums and their offspring.
Here were babies barely able to walk involved in signing lessons, intensive swimming, baby gymnastics, baby yoga and grim marches around the boarding school site on something called a ‘balance bike’ – far superior for children’s physical development than the traditional bicycle I had recently purchased. I told myself that such programming would result in a race of buff über-babies able to communicate telepathically. They would soon be able to overthrow us, Children of the Corn-style and establish their own dystopian universe where we are powerless and they spend all our money. Since this situation has pretty much happened already, I signed my children up for baby fun.
Consult any ABC or Grapevine magazine to see an enormous range of baby and toddler activities. These activities have obvious benefits - guaranteed sleep, an advantage over other Roedean or Eton applicants (‘Ruby is a violin virtuoso with a black belt in tae kwon do’) and valuable bragging rights. Far worse for me was the fear that my child would not Develop Her Talents because I was an indolent parent and left her to merely ‘play’ while other children were learning chess from Russian grand masters and attending writing workshops with Julian Barnes, their potential frittered away amongst lego pieces and Disney Princess dolls, doomed to second-rate universities and jobs that required the making or serving of chips.
So with such an enormous range on offer, how do you choose what they do? When they’re older, you can look at what they are good at or what they enjoy doing but when they’re little you can’t always take the lead from them. Asking them for their opinion goes something like this:
‘Would you rather go to storytime or gymnastics tomorrow?’
‘Be an astronaut!’
‘But you’re only two. We could try the planetarium in a few years…’
Okay then, storytime it is. I chose activities either because other mums saw value in them or because it was what I did when I was little, figuring that genetics might help me, that they might like what I liked.
At first, you do these activities to occupy their time, to show them what is out there. Later you will vaguely remember some athlete or actress on Desert Island Discs reminiscing that they first became interested in whatever is they do because mum or dad took them to Stratford-on-Avon or a sailing regatta. I don’t want them to miss their moment because I wasn’t proactive enough. But when your kid doesn’t win the swimming race or can’t pirouette perfectly, what is the next move? Do you pay for lessons, knowing that the talent is unlikely to develop? Is it enough that she enjoys tennis or should you steer her toward something else that may someday land her in the booth with Kirsty Young happily chatting about songs you played when she was little?
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that children are born innocent and if they become corrupt it is because of what they are taught - or not taught - as a result of parenting and social impact. He thought that children should be allowed a free development, at their own pace. For example, they should only be taught to write and read when they want to do so. This appeals in theory because it is easier to respond to an interest than to attempt to create one and it is always easier to get a child to go somewhere that they want to go. But this attitude does not seem to be the norm among today’s parents and the fear that a laissez-faire attitude might diminish their opportunities wins out against Rousseau’s ideal. We open that door and sometimes force them through it.
I could bend a little and let them feel their bliss regardless of what they choose and see where it goes. Please excuse me while I go phone NASA…