I'm a dance mum... but thank goodness I'm not a horse mum

Being a ballet mum fills up evenings and weekends.
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Being a ballet mum fills up evenings and weekends.

OPINION: I can't do a ballet bun, and my hand shakes as I try to paint on liquid eyeliner. As I pull up outside my daughters' dance studio in Wellington to do yet another pick up or drop off, I wonder - how the hell did I end up a dance mum?

When my now 14-year-old enrolled in her first dance class a decade ago, I had no idea that would plunge me into a world of pirouettes, tendus, and jetes, where long weekends would be spent backstage at theatres in Upper Hutt and Palmerston North, waiting for one of my daughters to perform.

Don't get me wrong. I'm proud of my 11 and 14-year-old dancing daughters. With my two left feet, I have no idea where they got their prowess from. I watch in awe as they lift their legs to dizzying heights, and win medals for their talents.

Rowing is one of the more expensive secondary school sports around.

Rowing is one of the more expensive secondary school sports around.

My daughters dance a couple of hours a day, at least four days a week. Along with the time commitment, dancing costs us about $1400 a term.

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The dance schedule is exhausting enough, but we've just finished a week of exams, which were jammed in with the final school week of activities.

We now live in a culture where it is standard practice for middle-class parents to sign their kids up for the latest extracurricular activity. At primary school, my girls tried gymnastics, they danced, one played the drums, they attended art classes, and swimming lessons were mandatory until they could swim.

Sport and culture seem to have become increasingly competitive over the decades, and children are now expected to put in long hours. Two of my friends were professional dancers in the late 1980s, and one reflects that the hours she put in early on are nothing compared with the expectation of kids dancing today.

I wonder whether my kids are overscheduled, and if the contemporary, hip hop, jazz and ballet classes they are enrolled in will help them through life?

As I wash another dance leotard, I wonder about other extracurricular activities - the time, money and parental involvement that's required - and so I ask friends, via social media, for their insights.

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I had no idea what underwater hockey parents have to endure. Along with the brutal early morning practices, underwater hockey parents have to go to a suburban pool on a Friday night to (try) to watch their darling at the bottom of the pool, pushing a puc around with a hockey stick. Underwater hockey is the worst spectator sport, along with road cycling - blink and you miss them.

Every urban high school seems to have a rowing squad, and one friend spends $5000 on top of her private school fees for her daughter to be a rower.

If you want to avoid an outlay the equivalent of a new European car, steer your child away from horse riding. If he or she is happy to ride once a week, that's about $30 for a half hour riding lesson in Ohariu Valley. But if your child is a future Mark Todd, you may be like my friend and fork out for a horse and float, pay weekly grazing and stable fees, along with spending up to four days a week in gumboots in a paddock.

I've always looked with envy at surf life saving parents, who stand on the edge of golden beaches sipping takeaway coffees as their kids power through frothy swells on surf skis. My daughters rebelled against Wellington's icy waters.

Swim squad? You'll need to drop Johnny or Zoe at the pool by 6am and either watch them swim kilometres before school or find a way to get them home afterwards. Swimming is expensive too - one friend spends $360 a term for lessons for her three children.

It's a different world from when I was growing up in Napier, where the basics of dance, gymnastics, swimming, brownies and netball were on offer. They were cheap, rather than the exotic and costly offerings today. By the age of 12, I had dropped everything I had ever attempted for my after school paper run. My younger sisters did more and stuck at things, and one is an accomplished triathalete and black run skier today.

Which is actually my conclusion. Our privileged kids may be overscheduled, but they are learning skills like risk taking, tackling new challenges, striving for goals, and dealing with disappointment. When my 14-year-old failed to place in a dance competition, she was disappointed. But she sprung back, and rehearsed hard for the next one, which she won.

My daughters are being prepared for the disappointment of a job they want but don't get, or a relationship that goes wrongThey love the community that has sprung up at their dance school. They have their school friends and their dance friends.

A 2008 report, The Overscheduling Myth, by an American nonprofit research group Child Trends, found "contrary to popular belief, research rejects the notion that most or even many children and youth are over-scheduled and suffering as a result". The pluses ranged from higher self-esteem to lower rates of drug and alcohol use over time.

The downside is that the pressure and the cost falls on parents, and I don't remember my parents or those of my peers running their children from one thing to the next. We typically got ourselves there - run-of-the-mill sports and activities were often held at school, a sports playground, or in a community hall. Our parents weren't made to feel guilty if they missed being on the sidelines of a sports game.

But the risk of "overscheduling" is very much a middle-class problem, based on studies, which have shown that the more money parents made, the more likely kids are to participate in after-school activities.

The Child Poverty Monitor has revealed that half the kids in the poorest 10 per cent of families can't afford extracurricular activities, while a third of the bottom third of income earners can't either. 

Lynda Stuart, the president of the New Zealand Educational Institute tells me that only about a fifth of children in her former decile one school, May Road, in Auckland, were enrolled in extracurricular activities. "Most of the time, their parents were too busy putting food on the table, or working to put food on the table," she says.

​Instead, May Road School ran the rugby, netball and other sports teams and events to give the children a chance to play sport and learn new skills.

"There's a general assumption that many parents can do this for their children, but it's not just in the realm for many parents in New Zealand. There are 300,000 children living in poverty, and getting them to ballet class once a week is not on the radar."

We underwater hockey parents and dance mums should think about that when we mutter about another pick up or drop off.

 - Stuff

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