We’re all familiar with the stereotypical stage mom. She may push her child into performing arts despite his or her complete lack of interest. She may assign worth to her child depending on how well he or she does during an audition, casting or performance. She may expect her child to go quickly from singing into a hairbrush to nailing a Disney audition.
“There is always that kid who knows what he wants to be when he’s just eight years old,” reflects Valley actress Michelle Hakala, who also has many years of experience teaching in an arts setting and training youth in vocal performance. But beware of pushing a child too early or too hard.
Some performance arts are generally better suited to the very young than others, observes Hakala. Dancers often begin training early, though classes for the youngest children typically focus on movement and musicality rather than exacting technique.
Similarly, early theater classes often focus on storytelling and imagination. Formal voice training usually begins a bit later when the vocal cords are more fully developed (generally age 12 or so, says Hakala, although there can be exceptions).
If you find your child resisting a performing arts activity, ask yourself a few questions. Did your child initiate the activity or was it something you were pushing for? Is your child physically, socially and emotionally ready for the activity? Does your child have ample opportunities to explore his or her other interests too?
Be sure your child’s performing arts teachers are well versed both in their craft and in children’s developmental needs and abilities. The fact that your ten year old insists on going on Pointe in ballet class doesn’t mean she is physically ready. The best teachers balance what they teach with the way they teach it—assuring children gain not only skills, but also self-confidence and a healthy well-rounded attitude.
As children get older, even those who genuinely enjoy their participation in the performing arts can face pitfalls. “Sometimes big stars of local theater go on to college and they are no longer the stars,” quips Hakala. “A lot of kids get ripped apart in college with negative comments.”
Students who outperform their peers in high school may be distressed to find themselves at the same level as their college peers. “It can be a huge blow to their ego and identity,” adds Hakala. “There is a lot you can do to give your child experiences of the arts without the focus on becoming a star.” Hakala says she prefers companies like Greasepaint Youtheatre that give young performers “a whole child experience.”
Whole parenting is equally important. Volunteer but don’t hover. Drive to and from rehearsals but don’t direct your child on how to read lines. Help your child find age-appropriate music for auditions but don’t tell your child what he or she has to sing. (Discouraging a few of the songs from Avenue Q is fine—but anything beyond that is stage mothering.) Help with sewing costumes but don’t swap your child’s costume out for another you like better. If you think you might be crossing the line, chances are that someone else thinks so too.
Should your child choose a career in the performing arts, observes Hakala, it will involve a whole lot more than being talented. Your child will need the character and other skills to endure periods without steady work in the arts, to balance the demands of performance art with the demands of family, and more. Training a child in technique to the exclusion of other qualities isn’t doing a child any favors.
Even the child who dreams of being a star, and wants to do the work it takes to get there, needs plenty of time to enjoy being young. “Every child should have a childhood,” says Hakala. “Every child needs to be a child.” Think playing tag, roller skating, riding bikes with friends.
Plenty of good things happen outside of studio and stage—and many foster the very personal and professional qualities your child will need if he or she wants to enjoy fulfillment and success as an artist. Physical activities are especially important, notes Hakala. Singing, dancing and acting are much more physically demanding than many of us realize—so things like stamina and muscle development really matter.
Some children enjoy early acting careers, but they’re children who are self-driven, not parent-pushed. Those who attain very early success often sacrifice bits of their childhood they may never reclaim. “The danger of being a childhood star,” cautions Hakala, “is that you are older much longer than you are young.”
Beware of setting unrealistic expectations for your child. Few children go from singing along with their favorite pop star to singing with exceptional technique within just a short period of time. The performing arts are demanding. Progress isn’t always fast, and it isn’t always cumulative. Your child will experience ups and downs. Preparing for each is important.
Don’t push, cautions Hakala, saying she doesn’t believe in making all of your life decisions before you are eight years old. Suppose your child is a wildly successful performer in his or her youth, but goes on to feel a sense of failure in early adulthood. It’s not good. “No one,” says Hakala, “wants the best moment of their life to be when they are eight or twelve.”
Coming soon: Dance studios with competitive programs, Art experiences for children who are hospitalized, Little House on the Prairie cast builds with local Habitat for Humanity, Arts advocacy 101