Saturday, 13 July 2013

'I thought you did it for me, Mamma'

Are we allowing children enough space for their interests to unfold naturally?

Wow, wow, wow! Beg, borrow or buy a ticket to see Caroline O'Connor as Mamma Rose in Gypsy because she is incredible! (and I've seen Patti Lupone on Broadway. She was fabulous too). The whole show is incredible. I didn't realize row EE was the front row, so I had the view of a lifetime. I saw sweat, tears, and other unmentionable body parts in g-strings. Amazing! The message in Gypsy, however, is loud and clear. If you choose your children's paths in life there's a high likelihood that they will resent you or even leave you in their struggle to find who they really are.

I think children should have the opportunity to experience as much as your time and money affords. I think they should also be expected to develop a certain discipline, the ability to delay gratification, to experience success and failure, and to set and achieve goals. We need to be aware, however, that there's a difference between teaching children to develop these skills and enforcing them from outside. Internal motivation, self-belief and self-regulation are the tools that will help children to become highly-functioning adults. Internal motivation comes from love, from passion, from joy in the process of whatever it is that we're doing, building, crafting or creating. Self-belief comes from knowing that we are building on the talents and abilities that come most naturally to us, that we feel we were born to do. When we tap into these abilities we become focussed, as we feel a sense of purpose and see our skills improve in concrete ways.

Most hobbies that we encourage children to explore have positive benefits for their physical wellbeing, social skills or self-expression. Encouraging children to develop skills at a high level is okay. I had a piano exam every year for eight years. It didn't hurt me and I'm really grateful for it, but I was never forced and I can't think of any long-term negative effects that come from playing the piano. I'm more concerned when parents push children too hard in areas such as ballet, beauty pagents or modelling from a young age. Now not many people love ballet more than I do. For years I read every book I could get my hands on. I'd sit by myself watching videos of Margot Fonteyn dancing Swan Lake or Ondine, and who knows how many times I read Anna Pavlova's biography. Despite this I always knew that ballet and piano lessons were for fun. My level of natural ability in either was never going to be at a professional level.

This is where we need to be realistic with ourselves and with our children. There are natural, physical attributes required for ballet and for modelling that belong to a tiny few. Maintaining a painfully thin body without seriously compromising physical and emotional health is impossible for almost everyone. Fulltime dancing on feet that are not born for it leads to a lifetime of hobbling around in pain. Let's not project our own unrealised dreams onto our children. Let's give them every experience that we can. I can't think of anything more exciting than standing back a little, and seeing children's true selves emerge and unfold before our eyes. This is the surprise, the wonder, the magic of it. Let's enjoy it (and not forget to live out our own dreams. There's still time).

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