Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Piano lessons (or how we navigate the extra-curricular activity pressure on parents and their children)

Faced with a National Trust schoolroom, a chalkboard and and instruction to 'write something, anything you like', the Little One wrote this.

"I do pyano lesurns" ... or, to us spellers out there, "I do piano lessons".

And I wanted to tell you about it. You see, most children we know do three or four paid-for extra-curricular activities a week. These range from cricket, tennis and football, through swimming, to dance, gymnastics and theatre school. There's a huge pressure felt by so-called 'middle class' parents to conform to this. We want to give our children opportunities. We want them to be well-rounded. We fill their days with shouted instructions to hurry up so we can rush them from school to an activity, from weekend breakfasts to more activities. It carries on for years and it starts young. Yes I've seen signs for baby yoga, for toddler music groups, for baby gyms.

There are two honest truths about our parenting that I have to tell you about this.

Firstly, for our own family we don't agree with the rush-them-everywhere, fill-their-days-with-organised-activities school of parenting. We like to give our children time to play, to breathe, to rest, to be creative of their own accord. We like them to run round on grass playing silly games of tennis-cum-cricket with us rather than always join in with the keep-up-with-the-Jones' formal activity every single day. Apart from anything else, we know it would just exhaust them.

Secondly, even if we didn't feel this way, the complete honest, feel-ashamed-as-I-say-it truth is that we can't afford it. We can afford one activity per child and that's it. For several years, it's been gymnastics. It has taught our middle child how to manage in a large, organised group without us at his side. It's given him the skills and techniques in sports and activities that could transfer to other recreation from football and dancing. He loves it.

But my husband and I a long talk about it, and we've changed our approach this year. The Little One is at an age when he's thirsty for new experiences and skills, and the pride that comes from mastering them. He's incredible agile and interesting in sports. He's growing up in all senses of the phrase. We decided we'd enroll him in a number of different activities so that he has the chance to learn the skills and the rules of each, and most importantly find out what he likes and is good at. He's doing football, cricket, gymnastics, and occasional tennis. He's also doing piano lessons. For the sports, these are things he'll be doing in the playground, with his peers, in P.E. lessons, and after school as he grows up. If we want to enfranchise him to be able to do all these things, and to be included, we have to give him the chance to grasp the fundamentals now.

But I am not sporty by nature. I was the arty one. I learnt piano. I strongly feel piano is the gateway to being a musician of any hue, and any level. You learn about songs; you learn how to read music. You learn rhythm, beat and volume. It's learning a vocabulary and giving you an ear. Again, it's about enfranchising him. The funny thing is, I never thought he'd be the musical one. The eldest, now sixteen, has a father in the music industry and is always plugged into headphones. The youngest, now four, has snake hips, and dances to every song on the radio with glee. But the middle child, the almost-six year old, the one who dances like a fourteen-year-old boy at a disco and leans more towards maths and sciences... he surprised me. Yet he loves structure, he has incredible concentration and perseverance, he loves to learn and he loves to be good at things. Why was I surprised? He says his piano lessons are his favourite part of school now. And this is from a boy who loves school.

As the Tiny One starts school in the autumn, as the cricket and tennis seasons come to an end, I think we'll say goodbye to our days of wild abandon with our budget and slim back down on the sports spending. But I will fight tooth and nail for the piano. Apart from anything else, I have a keyboard on order (sadly not a traditional upright piano, but that's another story), and I plan to start learning again myself.

Disclaimer: Tuesday is piano lesson day and I totally forgot to send the Little One to school with his piano folder. Lofty ideals, rubbish execution. If only this wasn't the theme for my life!


  1. All three of ours learn piano too. Youngest has dreams of drums and goodness knows what else, but I firmly believe that piano is the place to start. I admire you limiting their extra curriculum activities. I'm torn between letting them try something that they show even a little interest in, and having some down time after school. They each do at least one sport and one music activity, but more have crept in over time. I know it won't last for ever. #MBPW

  2. This is such a good post, and has given me a bit of a kick to get on and sort out more activities for my two! I think your approach is spot-on. I hate the idea of rushing around after school every day and they'd hate it too. However, my two currently do NO after-school activities (except have a fab time playing at home like best-friends...). I feel uneasy about this and I know I need to find something for both of them. We've tried swimming and football for my eldest, but he just isn't bothered and would much rather come home! My youngest is just getting to a stage where he's ready. Maybe gymnastics would be good? I am not at all sporty, neither is OH really, but I don't want the boys to miss out. Piano lessons would be wonderful - maybe if I got rid of that tea trolley I'd have room for one! Thanks for this post - it has really reminded me that I need to work on this. Lizzie x


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