Friday 24 January 2020

Whatever happened to doing nothing

The number of extra-curricular activities children do these days would make your head spin. What's motivating parents to devise such hectic timetables?

One of these days I'll establish why I went to Irish dancing classes when I was a little boy. Perhaps, in 1980s Ireland, Irish dancing was a compulsory childhood rite of passage like learning to cycle hands-free or being allowed to stay up late to watch 'Dallas'.

Whatever the reason, I lasted one lesson -- I was profoundly self-conscious. To this day I don't like dancing and maybe the root cause were those wasted Saturday afternoons. I was also the only boy there -- a fact that immediately set the alarm bells ringing. I didn't want to be there; I would rather have been at home with my Action Man.

However, I realise now that I was one of the lucky ones. I got off lightly compared to some of my contemporaries who were hauled off to judo, chess clubs, cub scouts and countless other extracurricular activities.

Thank God I'm not seven years old today, I wouldn't have any time with my Action Man with all the speech and drama classes, dance schools, and fitness classes available to kids now. Our children have better social lives than us but how did we reach this point?


Why are we enrolling them in so many activities and clubs? Are we vainly pushing them in the hope of being rewarded with vicarious fulfilment or do we just want to get them out of the house?

There is no denying that physical activity has many benefits but is it an indicator that we're going over the top when you can now sign your kid up for belly-dancing classes and film-making tutorials?

The 'Growing Up In Ireland' study, carried out by the ESRI and Trinity College, found that children's academic abilities are strengthened by the amount of extra curricular activities they undertake.

This should hardly be surprising -- kids who only watch television or play computer games are less likely to be challenged than those who take up a sport or hobby.

Parents are warned not to overdo it, however, because children who are too 'busy' will not be able to cope with the wide range of pursuits and may suffer academically. But how much is too much?

George Browne, from Kildare, is a father of three. To say his children lead busy lives is an understatement.

"Amy (10) goes swimming three nights a week. She also does piano on Tuesdays and Irish dancing on Thursdays. Alison (eight) does drama on Wednesdays. Sean (six) goes to soccer on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and then all three of them go to athletics on a Sunday morning."

By my calculations, that doesn't leave much free time for kids or parents during the week. So why the bewildering amount of after-school pursuits?

"There is an element of wanting the kids to have opportunities that we didn't," says George, "but it's as much about them enjoying sports or activities that we enjoyed as kids.

"For example, I really enjoyed playing football when I was younger but I only found out about the local club because two lads called round to the house recruiting; I was about nine or 10 years old.

"Nowadays kids start sports or clubs at a much younger age. So I reckon that if I really enjoyed something then they probably will too. I'd like them to experience it because it was such a happy experience for me."

I wonder about the phenomenon of pushy parents and kids being coerced into training to be the next Robbie Keane.

"Well, the swimming is purely for their own good and Amy really enjoys it and asked us to go to classes before we suggested it," he explains.

"Alison was in a drama workshop last summer and really got a lot out of it so we suggested she take up regular classes.

"Sean developed an interest in hurling himself. I had to convince him to go to football and I suppose he tolerates that rather than really getting a buzz out of it."

The kids greatly enjoy the sports and activities, it seems, but surely there's an element of proxy sports glory if one or more of them goes on to greater things?

"You want to give them the chance to try all these things because you'd like them to be good at sport, but yes of course there is some parental pride, too -- I want Sean to play for Kildare!"

Life lessons

Another reason why parents are keen to sign kids up for a range of sporting activities is that there are so many life lessons to be learned out on the pitch.

Where else will they learn resilience -- when you get down you get back up again; how to interact with other children; about winning and losing and how to deal with both?

Also if we encourage our children to be fit and healthy, it's probably one of the best starts we can give them in life.

But back to George and his wife Fiona, who reckon they spend €60 a week on these pursuits but feel it is money well spent.

"Another driving force behind all the after-school activity is the fact that we live in the country. The kids mightn't have the opportunity to meet friends as easily as those who live in towns or estates."

Are there ever any complaints? It sounds like they embrace everything with boundless enthusiasm.

"They're not wild about the athletics. They enjoy it when they're there but it takes a bit of a push to get them out into the car," says George. "I've noticed that it's very hard to keep teenagers involved in athletics, maybe because they're a bit more conscious of themselves."

This seems to be a common occurrence: despite years of devotion to a hobby, many kids abandon them totally once they hit their teens.

One woman told me as soon as her eldest daughter started secondary school all the dancing and swimming classes were dropped.

"It was as if an unspoken rule had come into effect," she said. "I don't know if it was perceived as uncool or unpopular but she decided she didn't want to do them any more."

Killian Laher is a father of two girls, Rebecca (20) and Holly (16), and a boy, Dylan (11).

"The girls were never particularly active after school. I didn't have sisters so I have no point of reference but they both gave hockey a go although never really got into it."

Killian's son has a much busier after-school life. "Dylan is a different story. He has GAA after school on Wednesday, then football training with his club that evening. On Thursday he has guitar practice followed by swimming.

"On Friday he has further GAA, and then Sunday mornings there is always a football match."

I feel compelled to ask if these activities originate from the child's desire or the parent's influence.

"The ideas for the activities mainly came from me and my wife," Killian says. "As a follower of the GAA who went to a non-GAA-playing school, I was keen to get Dylan into it. I suppose it's also a case of trying to occupy kids rather than shower them with treats such as the cinema."

Ev Conroy has three kids under the age of 10.

"We really wanted our children to learn how to swim because we both consider this a life skill. I suppose the fact that I'm not a particularly good swimmer encouraged me to start them early.

"My husband always played Gaelic and soccer and my father did too, so I suppose we were always going to encourage our children to play.

"They seem to enjoy their after-school activities -- sometimes it's more the social aspect of the activity rather than the sport or activity itself.

"We are just keen to see them get some fresh air, exercise and at best, maybe develop an interest in or love of something.

"In my experience this seems pretty much to be the trend amongst parents of children in our school."

But surely these salad days of having jolly japes in the scouts and relishing the rough and tumble of a game of hurling are confined to childhood only? It's not like kids will continue this stuff into their teens?

As parents are we faced with years of yelling at teenagers, pleading with them to turn off the telly? Not necessarily.

Alison Daly is now a 25-year-old graduate from the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology. She had a very busy childhood and kept up many activities into her teens.

"I started speech and drama classes when I was three and I also started swimming when I was five or six. I did Irish dancing after school, I learnt the recorder, I was in a chess club, and I attended poetry feiseanna."

Despite what it might look like, Alison says she was never pushed into doing any of these activities by her parents.

"I used to look forward to all the events, especially swimming on a Friday night. I remember the classes being fun and it was a laugh. The poetry feiseanna were great craic."

Alison says that a more laid-back hands-off approach from parents could be the key to keeping kids motivated.

"I think if you have a trophy-obsessed mum or mad it mightn't be so good.

"For example, a friend of mine hates the piano now as a result of being forced to do loads of really intense piano training as a child. He had the talent at a very early age but there was too much pressure put on him.

"He eventually rebelled against it and now blames his mother for making him hate the piano!"

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