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I find myself in the grossly uncomfortable position of agreeing with A A Gill on the subject of educating children, which information I impart solely in the interest of full disclosure. I trust neither of us will ever mention this unpleasant coincidence again.

Mr Gill wrote an article in Vanity Fair this month on the idiocy of overstimulating children with ballet and violin lessons and courses on film appreciation and all manner of relentless “improvement.” Force your child to play the violin to a level of moderate proficiency, he suggests, and s/he’ll end up in the orchestra pit of Phantom of the Opera playing the same Andrew Lloyd Weber overture for 37 years in a row. Which really, you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

I ran into a new parent friend in the park the other day, who had to run because his wife was taking their baby (three? four months old?) to something called From Bach to Baby. The mere title caused a wave of existential despair.

Obviously, if you want the best for your child, the thing to do is to make certain that he or she is somewhat tormented, a little bit lonely, a bit of an outcast, without the latest gadgets, with lots of books to read and some reasonably sound-proof headphones.

You can also make your child quite unhappy with a relentless regime of gymnastics, extra languages, music lessons and special maths, but it’s much more expensive and work intensive, and in the end, not nearly as effective as letting him or her sit in a darkened room listening to Nirvana full blast and reading everything ever written about sexy vampires.

The other option is to foster your babies out at three or four weeks to China, to be reclaimed a few years later with perfect pitch, a marvellous work ethic and facility in the most difficult and most useful language in the world.

But they won’t thank you for that, either.

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16 thoughts on “How to have the smartest kid on the block.

  1. jackie 4 years ago

    I taught my children how to cope with boredom by providing enough books for a small library and then indulging in benign neglect. Seems to have worked.

  2. Nicola 4 years ago

    I’m a great believer in boredom as a creative stimulus myself. Everyone needs to be left alone from time to time with nothing particular to do. My kid’s primary school was well stocked with professional mothers – all that running around doing stuff for the kids was as much about them as their kids. They turned parenting into a kind of a competition. I’m still not sure what counted as winning.

  3. Lauren McLaughlin 4 years ago

    I take my 3 year old to ballet because ballet is fun. She loves it, but I kind of hope she doesn’t become proficient because a dancer’s life is a brutally hard life. I hope she enjoys it as a hobby like me. As for all this so-called “enrichment” stuff? What nonsense. Making your kid smarter is just a code for making sure your kid gets into a better school than your neighbor’s kid, so he or she can eventually make more money. Its status whoredom. And no lesson to teach your child.

    1. Meg Rosoff 4 years ago

      Fabulously said, Lauren. Maybe you should’ve written the blog…..

  4. bookwitch 4 years ago

    I was told off by a ‘friend’ for not being able to drive a car. I had to, in order to take my children to ballet and to Beavers. I replied they could go to whatever was near us, within walking distance. So one got Beavers, the other didn’t get ballet. Thankfully.
    I was deprived as a child. Did me no harm. (Did it?)

  5. Mieke Zamora-Mackay 4 years ago

    I used to feel so guilty to my children when I couldn’t enroll them in dance or music lessons at such an early age. The fact of the matter was, we just couldn’t afford it. But the guilt stayed, because everyone would ask what music lessons they were taking, or what sports they were playing.

    It took me a while to realize and accept that they didn’t really need all that excess activity disguised as enhanced learning. They eventually chose specific extra-curricular programs that they wanted for themselves, and are quite happy whith what they’ve chosen. I’m a happy mama too, because I don’t have to drive myself crazy getting from one place to the other, nor have to take a second job just to pay for it all.

  6. EJ Runyon 4 years ago

    Give a child access to a book and you give her the world. Ask her about what she’s read and you give her the best gift of all – You.

    Her own mind, and your support – that’s what the world should start offering any generation coming up.

  7. Vanessa Harbour 4 years ago

    This is a great post Meg. I am a great believer that children should NOT have every minute filled in the day. Boredom is good, it encourages imagination. My children did some activities when they were older but not as babies/toddlers.There was, however, always time for them to do what they wanted to. I wanted them to learn to play on their own and with others. I sometimes watch others I know who micromanage and orchestrate every second of their child’s day and wonder how these said children are going to manage as adults. Thank you for posting about this.

  8. Polly Ho-Yen 4 years ago

    Thank the universe my parents often left me to my own devices when I was a wee thing. I remember many happy hours making odd, bizarre creations out of carefully crafted (or so I thought) bits of paper and sellotape. I was the queen of Fimo, the master of turning a dairylea box and a cotton reel into a coffee table (for a doll’s house.) These busy, busy hours of my younger days gave me the chance to do just what I enjoyed doing. It wasn’t for anyone else, purely for my own enjoyment … isn’t it essential for children to be given some time to enjoy what they like doing? Rather than parents projecting what they think their offspring should like doing. There’s plenty of time for that later on.

  9. cathi rae 4 years ago

    how soothing to know that I’ve finally managed to so something competent as a parent – the teen is an obsessive reader of dark fiction, only listens to miserable music and leaves her bedroom only to be loudly miserable ……..success then – i await her flowering into genius

  10. Kate 4 years ago

    OK, so I read this on a Saturday afternoon while waiting to pick my daughter up from a day-long embroidery session … I agree with all this in principle but … oh, but … my daughter does stacks of music (because she loves it). My son studies Russian – his choice! He also does extra maths – not his choice but without the GCSE he can’t get into sixth form. So now I tick three on your list! Help! That’s not all they do and if we didn’t have to faff around going to school, there is so much more. When I was a child, there was little on offer – so yes, I wrote two novels and read my way through the entire children’s library, but the world is such a big and exciting place and when you’re young, you have so much to explore. The key – back to AA Gill – is that word ‘force’. When I hear people talk about how to ‘make’ their child practice their music, I start to twitch. I could not be bothered with the time and money involved in music – never a cheap hobby – if the impetus didn’t come from my child. And certainly not the Russian! I follow where they lead and along the way, I have discovered some fascinating new things. I know lots more about obscure wind instruments, I have been to a Russian festival of spring in Trafalgar Square, and last week I discovered that the internal angles of a triangle add up to 180!

    1. Meg Rosoff 4 years ago

      If it comes from the kids that’s great. Some kids love ballet and Russian and music. Lots don’t. And it also must be said that dragging a teenager out to see a new sort of film or play or museum that they wouldn’t normally go to is essential every once in a while. Even if they do hate it. Sometimes….they don’t.

  11. Deborah 4 years ago

    I’m a preschool teacher and love to learn about how kids thrive. New research shows that kids do NOT thrive when they are ‘ghettoized’ into kids-only culture (enrichment classes, preschools, kids’ media, etc.). They thrive when they are part of the whole world (‘helping’ to cook, to garden, to run errands, etc.). Too many parents mistakenly believe kids need their own world of Disney princesses and Superheroes and kids’ TV shows. They do not!!! They need to feel part of the whole world, which used to be easier (help Mom bake bread, help Dad feed chickens, etc) but how can you help mom do a statistical analysis or dad run an X-ray machine??

    1. Meg Rosoff 4 years ago

      So true, Deborah, thank you for that. It’s much harder to spend time talking to your kids, teaching them to cook or help in the garden than to just sign them up for something and drop them off. That’s the insidious truth….

  12. Eliza 4 years ago

    I think that there are positives and negatives for every form of upbringing.

    I have done ballet and violin from the age of five and still do them because I love them and are a really important part of my life. I was also given as many cardboard boxes and pots of paint as I could use and would spend days making dens or tree houses. I think that I have had a good balance between art galleries and illicit cinema jaunts. I was encouraged to read anything I wanted and as a result I have read everything from Henry James to badly written dystopia rubbish.

    An overriding fact about my upbringing was that I was taught to be open to everything that came along. I think that people who only take an interest in popular culture miss out on the joys of high culture, for example, and visa versa. I thing a mixture of both create the right sort of upbringing.

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