Monday, 27 January 2014


I have been thinking about modern childhood a lot recently.

A wonderful writer called Carl Honoré says in his book “Under Pressure” that 20th century gave us the ‘free-range child’ who played a lot and spent his free time outdoors, whereas in the 21st century we, in the industrialised countries at least, tend to have the ‘managed child’ (also known as ‘micro-managed’ or ‘project-managed’), whose life seems to be about fulfilling his parents’ ambitions more than his own[1]. Too many scheduled activities, academic pressure from early on, fierce competition and heartless homework in schools, all work together to rob our children of that most precious thing they have – the childhood itself.

Last Saturday morning Ana, Sacha and I rushed to the Playhouse Theatre to try out their Theatre Tots class. I come from a thespian family and so anything to do with theatre is both very familiar and very emotional for me. But this was not our reason for going. What was going through my mind was not that Ana would one day grace the stage as a talented actress who would have made my dad proud, nor even the (much more common, I guess) parental drive to make their child more confident and outgoing (as it happens, Ana seems to be confident and outgoing enough as she is, but that’s besides the point). I somehow became convinced that winter is the Season Of Boredom in our house, that all the new toys Ana had been given at Christmas have already lost their appeal (it is now already the end of January, after all), that she feels under-stimulated and under-socialised, and that she really must go and do something else apart from her three mornings of pre-school, one morning of playgroup, one afternoon sport session, and various play dates (both in our own house and other children’s). After all, what is there really for her to do at home, except paint, draw, do arts and crafts, play with play dough, read her books, play with her brother, play with her toys, and of course command my almost-total attention, whether to just chat, sing songs, read stories or whatever? It just didn’t seem like enough.

Ana didn’t say very much about going to this class, but then, she didn’t exactly know where she was going. I wasn’t sure how to explain the concept of Theatre Tots to her so I said that we were going to another playgroup, and if she likes it, we would go every week.

In the class itself, two young women in their early twenties were taking a group of eight children through a series of what I could only call imagination exercises – there were imaginary journeys and adventures to go on, various perils to avoid (dragons, witches, dinosaurs), various props to take along (torches, bags with food) and various tricky situations to navigate (quick, the witch is coming – everybody hide!). There was also some good old fashioned pretending to be something; so if you’re ‘broad bean’ you would stand with your arms wide apart, if you’re ‘French bean’ you put your index finger to your lips and say "Oooh la la!" (this was probably my favourite – very cute seeing three-year-olds do this). But all this done in a room that’s empty apart from a few chairs and with absolutely no props at all, except imagination. Yes, it really was theatre. In theatre, we tell stories which engage our minds to imagine, to look further than the stage, to overcome disbelief and accept that the space in front of us really is a boat on the wide open sea, the tower of a castle, the bed in a hospital room. So it was theatre. I liked it, my father would have liked it, but - Ana didn’t like it.

This little girl who, when we first went to try out the sport class, ran away into the crowd of children without even glancing backwards at me, spent the entire Theatre Tots class sat in my lap (much to Sacha’s disapproval – he had to be confined to his pushchair and clearly didn’t appreciate this!). At the end of the class, when I said “Shall we go home?” she seemed relieved as she exclaimed “Yes, let’s go home and play!”.

The woman who runs the theatre school said to me in quite a dismissive voice: “Oh most children are a bit unsure at first. Just come again next week and leave her in the class, she’ll get into it when she realises you’re not there”. Even a few weeks ago, I might have been tempted to say “Shall we do that, Ana, shall we come back next week? We’ll try again, right? All those children were having so much fun.”

And this is when my recent musings on modern parenthood and Carl Honoré’s book really came to save me. And so, I am not going to bring my child back to an activity she didn’t like and didn’t want to join in, and I will certainly not abandon her there to see if she might “get into it”. In the zeal of modern parenthood, it’s all too easy to assume that we always know what’s best for our children, even when it’s an area where they are actually the experts: play, fun, and deciding what activities they would like to do. Not what we would like them to do.

So I said no thanks. Ana only has one childhood, and she is not going to spend it doing things to please me. Furthermore, if she tells me tomorrow that she no longer wants to go to her sport session or the playgroup or any of the play dates even, we will stop going. It is lovely to know that sometimes she just wants to be at home where her dolls and her crayons are waiting. And maybe, sometimes, even a little bit of boredom. Never mind the modern childhood – these are the symbols of a timeless childhood, and while I may not be able to give Ana the total freedom to roam the fields or play in the street all day like I used to when I was little, I will do my best to make sure she enjoys every day of these special years.

[1] When I write “he” that is also meant to include “she”, and vice versa.

No comments:

Post a Comment