It was the violin practice, in the end, that broke me. I hung on, last year, through clashing after-school activities entailing frantic cab rides between venues so we were never there on time. I sucked up complaints from my children who would have rather been at home. I put down amazing amounts of money to furnish them with useful skills (official rationalisation) and (actual case) avoid having to watch them in the playground. “This is a hostile environment,” I muttered after the first day of term, as 500 kids converged on the park near the school. The mum standing next to me looked around in alarm. “Oh, sorry. I meantjust I guess I didn’t miss it.” And then, two weeks ago, I quit everything cold.
A lot has been written about parental overinvestment in extracurricular activities, and the anxiety that underpins it. Happiness isn’t strictly the goal. We can talk about enabling our children by helping them identify their passions – such a wily phrase – but under the age of about 10, what we’re really referring to is competitive advantage. “Passions” in children at this age are largely transient, cultivated and massaged by parents. Left to themselves, my children’s passions are playing Roblox, watching Henry Danger and writing each other spiteful little notes. How is any of that going to help them when all the jobs become AI?
None of this would matter, perhaps, if the cost was less acute. Americans invented the term “tiger mom” – dads get off free in this scenario – to describe the overbearing parent who burnishes their five-year-old’s CV, a dynamic you can drift into without ever fully meaning to. In New York, where I live, if you want your child to swim, read music, or have exposure to a second language before high school, you have to pay for it yourself, and the sticker price can run into thousands. Demand for services is so high that even getting them into a programme requires Darwinian skills. You need an alert on your calendar for the second a good swimming class opens, at which point you’ll refresh the page until you lock down your place. My children are seven-year-olds. You would think they were trying out for the Olympics.
A result of this feverishness is to change the colour of the experience, both for parents and children. It raises the unhappy spectre of investment return. If I am simultaneously bankrupting and killing myself to make karate happen for one child, uptown, at 4pm, and French, downtown, for the other, I want to see results. Fun is an inadequate metric. I want to see badges, certificates, league tables. I want some kind of externalised measure of success.
The business model for child activity centres in the city understands and exploits this intuitively. Martial arts, swimming and, notoriously, gymnastics programmes are tailored to fan the flames of parental vanity. If your child shows even a hint of ability, they are earmarked as “talented” – be still your parental heart – and invited for “squad training” and the privilege of paying many extra hundreds of dollars a month. It’s a more expensive version of why we slogged through Duke of Edinburgh all those years ago, weeks of our life we’ll never get back.
The cost of living crisis on both sides of the Atlantic may force a rethink on all this, where stressed-out children has not. For us, it has been a combination of both. My daughter didn’t want to practise violin. I wheedled and pressured. I told her it was supposed to be hard, and she might take a while to improve. To my shame, I reminded her it was costing $75 an hour. On the brink of uttering the immortal line, “You’ll thank me when you’re older,” I had a sudden, seditious thought. What if we didn’t do this? The child who likes piano can keep up with that, but why force the other one to learn violin? What was this compulsion to furnish them with a suite of accomplishments like tiny Regency ladies in a Jane Austen novel? Why not needlepoint?
We quit violin. (Take the feeling you get when someone cancels a dinner and quadruple it.) We opted out of taekwondo (initial enthusiasm, followed by endless weekly foot-dragging). We’re about to exit dance (loved it, then didn’t love it). I put it into Google: “What’s the opposite of a tiger?” Google suggests jellyfish. Jellyfish parenting – boneless, diaphanous, endlessly flexible. I’m almost there. There’s a climbing wall near our house and a few weeks ago, one of my children shot up it like a pro. Obviously, I put her in for team try-outs – there’s only so much I can do with my personality – but if she gets in and doesn’t like it, we’ll do the wildest thing. We’ll quit.
Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist