How much time should we, as parents, put into our kids’ extracurricular activities? Gerry McGuire raised this question during Episode 49 of Real Life Survival Guide as he and fellow conversationalists savored the excellent estate-grown wines, panoramic Connecticut hills and unspoiled air atop Gouveia Vineyards. Moved to speak freely, perhaps, by the atmospheric openness and open bottles, our hosts and guest editors confessed to feelings of entrapment and asphyxiation when it comes to hours spent sidelining on the fields and in the gyms. Gerry lamented three-inning T-ball games that turn into six-inning, three-hour marathons especially when you need to be at the next event. Bruce bemoaned those four-hour swim meets spent inhaling claustrophobic and chlorinated pool air to watch your kid swim for, like, eight minutes. Duo admitted to “diving in to the point of suffocating commitment” when it came to nourishing his boys’ interests. Eric, the product of an over-programmed childhood, wished his parents had let him stick with his passions—writing and soccer—rather than load him up with piano, French, and extras “that wasted their time and my time.”
They’re killing us, these extra-ridiculars! They’re causing a silent epidemic of parent-child suffocation and hyperventilation. Which one of us has not experienced that sudden urge to breathe into a paper bag when we learn that the Sunday dance recital conflicts with the Travel-Rec lacrosse game an hour away (if I-95 isn’t bottle-necked) and the Boy Scout Award ceremony? (And don’t forget to bring the refreshments, the healthy snacks and the side dish!) How many of us have prayed for rain to wipe out the all-weekend soccer tournament? And winced when, yet again, we apologize to the music teacher because our child hasn’t practiced a whole note all week, not to mention an eighth or sixteenth-note?
We’ve got our hearts set on helping our children discover their lifelong passions. We lob one activity after another at them, gently, not too much pressure but enough, as if shooting Velcro darts in hopes that one will stick on the bull’s eye. Underneath though, is that sense of urgency: Do this and do it well. College is coming, competition for slots is intense and time’s a- wasting. We impale ourselves on our children’s futures. We stress out because it’s our job to get them from here to there and we’ve got to do it fast. And underneath we’re frustrated and maybe even a little angry because we know better. Things used to be different. They weren’t always this way. It doesn’t have to be like this.
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I’m the oldest of six kids who grew up in a walking town. My family lived on Fifth Street in Corning, New York, home of Pyrex, Corelle, Corningware, Steuben Glass and the world-famous Glass Museum. The corporate culture brought in, well, culture. When I was a kindergartener, my mom happened to walk by the First Baptist Church at the corner of First and Wall and heard music. She wandered inside and saw children playing the Vivaldi Violin Concerto in A Minor together. If only . . . she thought. And because I was the oldest, she signed me up for Suzuki Talent Education.
Mom didn’t ask us whether we wanted to play violin. We had no innate talent or musical inclinations other than fascination for the retro-glam, dirty lyrics we found on the old 45’s an elderly next-door couple handed down to us: “Have you heard of Mimsy Star? She got pinched in the As(s)-ter-bar!” But Mom was a dreamer. It was the Golden Age of Muzac, after all, and her children had just as good a chance as any of soaring up, up and away, in our beautiful balloons into rhapsodic nirvana with these stars.
So began years of Suzuki violin submersion in the Mother-Tongue Method, of my parents and five younger brothers and sisters piling into the Buick with our violins to attend lessons, group sessions, auditions, church services, youth symphony, concerts, camps and usually, around the holidays, to play back-up for a Hallelujah-belting Messiah chorus. It was a rich experience that changed our lives and has left us feeling nostalgic for the good old Polaroid-colored days unless you count having to wear scratchy pantyhose for the formal recitals and that time when I whipped my bow against the front hall door and broke the tip. I was angry and close to tears because I couldn’t play some Bach first movement fast enough. My parents believed me when I said I accidentally knocked the bow against the piano bench.
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Somehow this happened: Almost every evening my Dad left the office at five, walked up the hill, and we ate dinner together as a family. We cleared the dishes and cleaned the kitchen by six; then my parents unwound for an hour to watch NBC News, Mash, and the first few minutes of Wheel of Fortune just to see what Vanna was wearing tonight. This recurred enough where it’s engraved in my memory as the routine.
How did they do that? How many of us parents with activity-engaged kids would have time for that hour today?
Maybe they sensed the world was speeding up and this was their last chance to anchor themselves in. They went still as my brothers and sisters and I sawed away at our strings. (Over the years we came to realize that the violin was our “ticket,” the shiny star on our curriculum vitas, that critical step up the ladder to a respectable corporate-American career or—for us girls—a “career to fall back on” if our husbands kicked the bucket too soon.) We played with desperation.
“Slow down,” my violin teachers said more than once. “You’re going too fast.” I loved my teachers, and it would crush me upon hearing that the big surprise I’d planned for them, my piece-de-resistance with all its drama and flourishes, sounded panicked. “You missed every other note,” I was told. The stress showed on my teachers’ faces. I was prematurely wrinkling them.
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My point is this: I grew up in a walking town and I’m out of space and time to tell you about the textures because life’s too fast now. About the autumn reds, yellows and oranges that were so saturated they could barely exist in this universe—and how I try to cling to those colors still and feel their edges against my skin. About the textures—the way the cool counter felt in Woolworth’s—how we walked there after our lessons—and about the ceiling-high shelves of typing papers and notes and envelopes in Cunning’s Stationery Supply Shop. The enormous and tactile gravitas of it all when we practiced hand-writing our letters to the world: “Gentlemen: I would like to order the blender, in white and beige, found on page 17 of your Spring Catalog.”
Mostly it was safe, walking half a mile to kindergarten in the fall, to Newberry’s, to the old library with its mystery novels shelved behind sliding iron gates. Safe unless you counted the scary guys who shouted out their fast-car windows and ogled me on my way to religious education class, and unless you counted that time the Fulkerson boy, scion of a local car dealership magnate, was kidnapped. He escaped by chewing through the chicken wire.
I want to write you a letter about it, tell you about the warm, deep tones back then that were already slipping away because we were all starting to play faster and faster. My teachers saw it. Shinichi Suzuki must have known the value of tone when he said, “Beautiful tone, beautiful heart” and “Tone is a living soul.” My mom felt it in those kids playing Vivaldi—she just ambled in and heard them—and there was no rush, no urgency, no pressure—although that did come later. And when I felt the pressure I’d hang out longer in the bathroom studying our beaten-up copy of The Unauthorized Biography of Farrah Fawcett-Majors, and sometimes I’d meditate there by sort-of-crossing my eyes and staring at the floor’s tile lines. If you stared long enough, you could create this magic-eye miracle where the tile lines appeared to lift off and rise into the air—and you could stick your hand through them and reach for the white floor beyond.
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How did I get here, trying to answer that question about how much time we should put into our kids’ activities? Maybe it’s not so much about our time as our outlook. What I want to tell my children is this: I grew up in a walking town. It was different because we had to go slow. My parents watched the news and Mash, and every night Vanna wore a new dress. We practiced our violins and rode all over the Southern Tier in the Buick with our cases on our laps and, yes, eventually all the activities took on a life of their own and swallowed us up. Over the years, faster and more frantic meant fitter.
I wish, through some miracle of epigenetics where a parent’s lived experience is absorbed into DNA, that my own children could know this slowness and texture and that I, too, could feel it again. Now, when they play their violins, I tell them “Slow down, you’re stressing me out!” And just like my teachers: “It’s not a race. Let’s work on tone.”
Mary Elliott is a stay-at-home Mom with four children, one husband and two leopard geckos. She has a Yale B.A., a Ph.D. in English from Boston College, and—in her old life—taught writing, English and American lit courses at B.C., Gonzaga University & Whitworth College in Spokane, WA.
Upon the birth of her twins in Colorado, she perished rather than published, but has written a couple of novels that need serious rework before they see the light of day. She contributes to Real Life Survival Guide’s Guest Editor blog, is active with the Madison Land Conservation Trust and likes to play the fiddle, hike, bike-ride and unwind with good friends.