I was always told that the best way to get a kid into an extracurricular activity was to keep an eye out for their passions, and then try encouraging them, so we put our daughter in ballet because she danced a lot. She was 5, and I often found her dancing in the living room, on her bed, at the pool, and she loved to dance with me, her father. We danced a lot in the kitchen, swaying this way and that, and even though I have no idea how to dance, we found a rhythm.
Parenting right now is all about extracurricular activities. When I was a child, my parents sent me into the yard with a stick and told me it was a horse. So I rode that bitch around the yard for hours, having a wonderful time. But now, there is so much pressure to place your children in this activity or that one, and then hope that it teaches them dedication and grit.
My 9-year-old son plays soccer. Before that, he played basketball. Before that, it was gymnastics. He loves it all. Every weekend we’re running his ass from one activity to another, the whole time trying to show enthusiasm for what he’s doing — when in fact, I’d rather just give him a stick and tell him it’s a horse. He digs those sorts of thing, but my daughter — she’s a different story.
Mel and I looked into a dance studio. We showed Norah a few videos of tap dance, and rock dance, and all the other flavors of dance that the place taught, and she was totally transfixed by ballet, so we signed her up. We bought her a cute little ballet outfit with tights and a skirt, and sweet little ballet shoes that slid on her cute little feet. We put her hair in a cute ballet bun, and we bought her a cute ballet T-shirt with two ballet shoes that held the caption “I Love To Dance!”
By the time we’d paid for everything, got her all dressed up, and took her across town to her first lesson, I felt confident that this whole thing was going to work out very well. Never in my life had I wanted my daughter to be a ballerina. I’d once attended a high school production of The Nutcracker, and I remember leaving with a rich “I don’t get it” feeling. Perhaps I’m not cultural. But with Norah, I wanted her to be really good at something because…well…she’s my daughter and I want everyone to know how special she is, and if that took the form of her being a famous dancer, so be it.
My dreams of her becoming a famous dancer, however, faded about as quickly as they developed. A handful of lessons in, and all Norah did was bitch about how the teacher made her dance in ways she didn’t want to. “I know how to dance!” became her refrain.
At first, she went to dance class because she was excited. But eventually, it turned into a complicated mix of bribery and arguments to get her to throw on those cute little pink dance tights. And each time she went, she stood out on the dance floor and glared at me with straight lips like I was an asshole for dressing her up and making her dance.
And perhaps I was.
She clearly wasn’t interested in any of this; all of it was a passing fancy. She just wanted to dance in the living room with me, and I think that was the extent of it. Naturally, it took me awhile to catch on because after investing in all these lessons and outfits, and after imagining my daughter as some great ballerina, I started to get really frustrated. I started to feel like there was more at stake in all this than there really was.
As she glared at me, I mouthed the words, “Have. Fun.” As if fun was something that could be commanded the same way as “pick up your shoes.” But when I really get down to the core of things, I think there was a part of me that worried that there was something wrong with my daughter. All the other girls in the ballet class appeared to be having fun. Whatever extracurricular we threw at my son, he got into. He didn’t complain. He “had fun.” But Norah wasn’t that way, and honestly, I just hadn’t realized it yet.
This is one of the problems with the social pressure for children to participate in extracurricular activities. When your child isn’t interested, you feel like there is something wrong with them. Some parents try to push their kid harder, to force them to have fun. You can see them on the sidelines telling their sheepish child to use their game face, or lecturing them in a minivan on being aggressive, or glaring at them across a dance studio mouthing the words “Have. Fun.”
In reality, your child is just fine. They simply aren’t interested.
I believe it was at her third recital when I gave up. Honestly, if I had two hours left to live, I’d spend them at a dance recital, because those things feel like an eternity. The 10 minutes that my daughter was on stage was both adorable and depressing. She looked adorable in her outfit, but her straight lips, slumped sounders, and sad little eyes seemed to say, “I’m in hell right now.” And after that, waiting for all the other dancers to finish up was simply painful.
Her departure from ballet wasn’t anything really dramatic. The whole family was tired. We were exiting the high school where the recital was being held when my wife said, “Did you have fun?” and Norah said, “No.”
“Do you not want to dance anymore?” I asked. Honestly, I think this was the first time I’d asked this questions since all this began.
“No,” she said.
And that was it.
I think the real problem was Norah just wanted to play, and we felt pressured as parents to turn it into more than that. I also think she didn’t like people watching her dance, and the transition of moving dancing from the comfort of our house to the studio made dancing feel like work. And I assume there is going to be some dance instructor out there who will comment about how they really know how to make dancing fun. Well, good for you. I don’t blame the instructor, just like I don’t blame Norah or myself for her lack of interest in ballet.
In fact, there isn’t anyone to blame. My daughter just wasn’t interested.
The sad thing is, she figured that out long before I did.