Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Living our dreams through our children

Recently I did some research on the Internet to find ways of encouraging a child's creative side, boosting their imagination and skills at the same time. I also looked for ways to help a child enjoy sports and being outdoors. My motives were to ensure Lydia's future could be whatever she wanted it to be, and that she wouldn't be stuck inside playing video games and watching TV while the world outside passed her by.

During my research I found countless articles about pushy parents, those who practically force their own children to do a ridiculous amount of activities outside of school, often to the extreme of depriving them of being a child. Examples of this include parents forcing their children to have insanely busy after school schedules, with ballet lessons, soccer practise, piano practise and various other musical or sporting lessons.

I read an article on the Psychology Today website (which you can read here) on this very subject. One parent in question wondered why her 9 year old son was complaining that he was tired all the time, despite the fact that she had set up a series of extracurricular activities for him that included "three team sports, church activities, scouts and ... piano lessons twice a week". When the psychologist mentioned that this might be the cause of his tiredness, she said she was simply giving her son all the opportunities that she never had when she was a child. This is probably very reasonable thinking, as we all want our children to enjoy their lives and have every opportunity available to them. However, this kind of thing has to be done in moderation.

In the article the interviewer went on to speak with the child, who mentioned that he missed playing with the other kids in his neighbourhood, doing activities like riding their bikes or having water balloon fights. A parent pushing their kid to do lots of activities might have good intentions, but there should be some logical limits. These children may well be learning instruments and actively taking part in sports - both good things - but they don't have time to indulge in the activity of a little something called childhood. We all say that children grow up too quickly, but through overloading their children some parents might be the reason for this.

The worst examples of pushy parenting that I found related to child beauty pageants. In all honesty, I had never heard of beauty pageants for children before. Beauty contests for adults aren't really that mainstream in England, but over in the USA it's far more common. However, I was very surprised to see that this kind of contest exists for children as well. One article I found (you can read it online on the Daily Mail website here) explains the extremes that one mother puts her 9 year old daughter through, just to try to win a beauty contest. This includes dying her hair, gluing veneers onto her teeth and - worse of all - waxing her eyebrows. This poor girl is only 9 years old, yet she's having hot wax applied to her face and then yanked off so she'll have the eyebrows that her mother thinks she should have.

If you thought that was bad enough, the same article goes on to mention a mother giving her FOUR YEAR OLD daughter a fake tan in the bath tub, in preparation for a beauty pageant. Seriously? I did a double take when I read the girl's age, I couldn't believe what I was reading. Apparently the little girl was crying while she was waiting for the spraying to start. Can't say I blame her really. That, to me personally, is awful parenting.

What kind of values is this teaching the young girls? That image is everything? Spending all your time (and money) trying to look good is the right way to succeed in life?

This got me to thinking about how some parents want to live their own dreams through their children. If a mother always wanted to win beauty pageants and be Miss Texas/America/World/Universe but never quite got that chance, she decides her daughter will have to do it instead. This isn't the daughter's choice at all - they are thrust into this world of hairspray and makeup, of fake tans, hair, nails and teeth, from ridiculously young ages, where they should be playing with dolls and My Little Pony instead of spending hours in front of the mirror with an obsessed mother and a suitcase full of cosmetics.

Similarly, I could imagine other parents who wanted to be famous musicians or footballers (or insert your favourite sport here) pushing their children to go down the path that was never open to their parents, either through lack of talent or lack of opportunity. Whether it is intentional or through our subconscious, we might actually be trying to make our children live the dreams we had for ourselves when we were young(er).

Ever since I began to imagine having children of my own, I started to think about how they would grow up. Like some of the pushy parents mentioned above, I wanted them to have as many options open to them as possible, to allow them to explore their own paths in life, wherever those paths might lead them. I knew that if my child told me they wanted to learn guitar then I would do everything I could to help them, likewise if they said they dreamt of being a professional footballer I would happily go to every practise session and match for moral support. However, I would never force them to do something they didn't want to do.

Looking to the future, I wonder how I can help nurture Lydia's creativity and imagination. I want her to have a creative outlet, a means of expressing her thoughts or feelings in some constructive way. Some people paint, others play musical instruments, some even write blogs... But how do you get a child interested in art or music or the power of the mighty pen?

Well, with computerisation that last one should probably read "mighty keyboard", but that just doesn't have the same ring to it.

At 9 months old Lydia is not quite at an age where she can display her creative, artistic side. I don't expect her to pick up a paintbrush, climb on top of her wardrobe and turn the ceiling of her room into a modern-day version of the Sistine Chapel. To be perfectly honest, I would be impressed if she picked up a paintbrush and didn't put it straight in her mouth.

I think it might be a good few years yet before Lydia asks me to buy her a Fender Stratocaster, or a pair of Adidas football boots. In the meantime, I'm focused on ways of finding out at this early age if she displays a natural talent for either music or art, or just to find happiness in doing some such activity. If I see she likes something, I plan to encourage her to do that, for as long as she keeps enjoying it.

Lydia, the talented
We've got the musical side fairly well covered. Lydia has at least three toys that have small musical keyboards on them, playing a different note for each key pressed. She also has a toy xylophone, complete with two small drums and a little cymbal to allow her to make different sounds with each hit of the drumstick. I've also tried giving her a couple of saucepans and wooden spoons to see if she would delight in making loud noises. Up until now, she hasn't really taken to any of these music forms. The closest she has come is shoving the drumstick in her mouth. These toys are around the house for Lydia to play with if she chooses; I show her how it is done (i.e. by pressing a few keys on the keyboard to play a little tune) but then leave her to try it herself if she wants to. If she ignores the toy then I don't force the issue.

We also sing to Lydia as often as possible, to help her pick up a sense of rhythm. I know research says that babies can hear music while they're still in their mother's womb, but I found it really odd to be singing to my wife's stomach, so I waited until I could hold her in my arms before I treated her to my questionable singing ability.

Children in general like the rhythmic sound of nursery rhymes, even when they are sung by a guy with a terrible, gruff singing voice whose attempts at hitting high notes sound eerily similar to the sound a man makes when hit between the legs. Regardless, I sing to her as often as possible. My knowledge of songs targeted at children is fairly limited, to I have often resorted to singing songs that I know. This means Lydia has at various times listened to the Stereophonics, Pearl Jam, Michael Jackson, Linkin Park, Usher, Elvis Presley and Elton John, all interspersed with the occasional rendition of "Mockingbird" and "Row, row, row your boat". At least I can say I'm introducing her to a wide range of music.

We play CDs of nursery rhymes, and also play her music by Mozart in the evening to help her fall asleep. Generally speaking, we're making sure Lydia is exposed to music on a daily basis. Hopefully this will encourage her to enjoy music as she gets older, but again this is her choice. Everyone has their own musical style, and if she ends up as a Slipknot fan then so be it (although in this case I would ask her to listen to their music with her headphones on).

On a personal level, one of my genuine regrets in life is that I never learnt a musical instrument. When I was young, around the age of 8 or 9, I started learning guitar at my school. It was in a class of around 10 students, lasting maybe 30 minutes or so. I don't remember learning anything, and unfortunately gave up after only a couple of lessons. Many years later, at the age of 19, I bought a Fender electric guitar and resolved to teach myself through books and DVDs and daily practise. Gradually, over the course of several weeks of sporadic strumming, my guitar playing decreased until it eventually sat in the corner gathering dust. Finally, I ended up selling the virtually unused guitar at age 27 to raise funds for my wedding. I said goodbye to my guitar and to my dreams of being a rock star.

My tale might have turned out differently if I had stuck to those early guitar lessons, or actually paid for a real tutor for my second attempt at learning. At 29, I think I'm too old to really learn an instrument, mainly because I simply don't have the free time these days (raising a child is quite time consuming, believe me). So, my dreams pass onto my children, with Lydia the first in line.

As mentioned above, I don't want to force her to do anything she doesn't want to do. I want Lydia to make her own choices. If she turns to me and says she wants to try learning the guitar or piano or any other instrument (hopefully not drums; we're on pleasant terms with our neighbours at the moment and I would like to keep it that way) I would happily encourage her and do what I can to let her give it a go. If she says she isn't really enjoying it, I would advise her to give it a bit longer and see how it goes, simply because she might like it when she gets better at it. I wouldn't force her to continue though, and if she really wasn't enjoying it I would agree for her to stop and move on to something else.

On an artistic note, as a child I enjoyed drawing. A pencil and paper could give me hours of fun, my imagination inspiring the scribbles on the paper. When I was around 10 years old, I won a colouring contest at a holiday camp in England. As far as I can remember, this is the only time in my life when I have actually won a competition. Progressing through to my teenage years, I showed signs of promise in art class at school, regularly getting A grades for my homework and classwork. My old art homework books are still in my parents' loft, so I might dig them out to see what my drawings look like now (in case my memory has been clouded through the years, distorting my view of my own skills at the time). I remember my art teacher was saddened when I opted not to take art as a course for my GSCE studies. I was quite good at it, but I always saw drawing more as a hobby than anything else. Since leaving school I would occasionally doodle on paper, but have never tried to do anything more arty than that.

I would like to encourage Lydia to try drawing, painting and colouring, and that should be fairly easy as children tend to enjoy scribbling on paper and making a mess with paint. When she is old enough I'll introduce her to crayons and paint, and see if she has fun with it. Hopefully she will, and will keep her artwork going, as it might prove to be a useful outlet for her emotions in the future.  If she does turn out to have a talent for drawing it will probably have come down to her through my genes; my wife' has a great many talents and skills, but drawing is not one of them, something she has proven through her attempts at playing Pictionary with me and my family. I know that the field of art is incredibly broad, and that it is unbelievably difficult to actually make a living as an artist, so would never expect my daughter to look upon being an artist as a future, but I would be delighted if Lydia simply enjoyed drawing or painting on canvas just for the sheer fun of it.

The same thing goes to any sporting activity. I know this won't necessarily help to nurture any creative side of her persona, but it would have many benefits in her life, both psychological and physical.

When I was young, I played for my village's rugby team, because my dad was an avid rugby fan who played for the village's adult rugby team for many years, and he wanted me to share this with him. Unfortunately, I simply did not like rugby. I didn't like standing around in the cold, or getting my clothes, hands and face all muddy from the rolling around on the ground that rugby requires. After a while, I convinced my dad that rugby was not for me. Fortunately for him, my younger twin brothers did like playing rugby, so they had that as a common sport for many years.

The combination of living in a small village with poor transport connections and a crippling personal shyness meant I didn't really find a sporting activity that I did on a regular basis. Football was my favourite sport, but the village didn't have a football team, so the only opportunity I got to play this was with my brothers (and later during Physical Education lessons at secondary school). My sporting side was relatively ignored, and to this day I don't take part in any regular sport. I don't think I was a particularly skilled footballer, and probably wouldn't have gotten anywhere within the world of football, but at least being part of a team might have built my teamwork skills and helped a bit with my shyness, with the possibly of making new friends.

For those reasons, I want Lydia to explore her sporty side. I would like for her to try as many sports as possible, and see if there is one that she takes particular pleasure in playing. Whether this is football, hockey, tennis or any other sport, I would be delighted if she became part of a local sports team. Again, I wouldn't push her to keep playing a sport if she told me she wasn't enjoying it. As long as she gets regular exercise in some form or other, that would be enough for me. This certainly isn't a way of me living my dream, as I was never particularly sporty. Ok, so at various times I played for the school football, hockey and athletics teams, but I personally don't think I was any good at any of them and couldn't imagine pursuing any sport further. I can, however, imagine going to watch my daughter's team play, standing on the sidelines shouting words of encouragement and support for my darling daughter, every inch the proud father.

Perhaps that is the main reason why some parents goes to such extraordinary lengths to push their children to succeed in all those activities, because of the sense of pride they get from seeing their child do well. That's perfectly normal - every parent wants their kids to succeed. It's just those darn pushy parents who take it too far, in my honest opinion.

I wonder if a hidden desire to be proud of my daughter is partly responsible for me wanting Lydia to be musical, artistic and sporty. Maybe somewhere deep inside me there lives a pushy parent, ready to replace Lydia's childhood with a hectic schedule of learning in a desperate bid to make her the successful musician/artist/sportsperson that I never was?

I sincerely doubt it.

I am already very proud of my daughter. Every time she does something new, often unexpected, I'm filled with pride. It never ceases to amaze me how babies learn things all by themselves. From rolling over, to crawling, to walking and everything in between, a baby's ability to teach itself is simply a thing of wonder.

Following Lydia's development has already been such a rewarding process for me personally, and I look forward to the future, watching her grow up and become whatever she wants to be.

...with a few gentle prods and suggestions from her loving father.


nothingprofound said...

I think the most important thing is to develop an open line of communication with your daughter, so that she'll be able to tell you how she feels about things, and what activities she enjoys and wants to get involved with. I think most people like to discover rather than be told what has meaning and value for them. Growing up in the loving and nurturing environment you are obviously going to provide will doubtless give her the freedom to discover and create herself. So expose her to everything, and then let her follow her own bent. It may not be music, it may not be tennis, but it'll be something she loves and is happy doing.

OmegaDSX said...

As a parent i believe all we can do is love and support our children, Support meaning Introducing concepts, and allowing interest to either flurish or wane.

There is a fine line between support and pushy i thing, one thats mainly based on opinion. What you percieve as pushy might not be to the child.

I guess thats one of the reasons its so hard to know. A parent knows there own child, and what works for theirs might not work for yours.

The psychologist might have been right, that the woman was placing to much on her child, but not all pushy parents are like that.

I have always thought that pushy parents were fueled by the mistakes they had made in life, and were pushy through a want to help their child avoid the same ones. :/

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BedtimeStories said...

Thanks for the great article.

I always like to read customized bedtime stories for my kids. It's really fun!

Also playing free online games like Looney Tunes games or gladiator games like swords and sandals is always a success.