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Home > Culture and Society

Give me a child and I'll give you a burnt-out husk

11 December 2004

'[Joe] is in Year One at primary school and he is five years old. He is also my son... The karate lessons were the tipping point. Until then he had gone along more or less obediently with every extra-curricular activity I signed him up for. Starting out pre-school with music lessons and baby gym, he progressed willingly through Tumbletots and Paint-and-Create to football, swimming, drama, French, piano lessons and karate... When he emerged [from a karate class] after 45 minutes, he was pale and near to tears. "Mummy," he said, "I don't ever want to go to that class ever again... I want to come home and play with Molly [his sister] and Scrumptious [the cat]."'


So writes Lisa O'Reilly in the Observer, explaining her young son's packed schedule and unhappy experience of karate. Not only an obvious sadist (who signs their child up for 'baby gym'?), O'Reilly also appears to be mind-bogglingly naive in the way that only Observer contributors can. ('I spent three hours looking for organic Guatemalan coffee in my local Happy Shopper but failed to find any.')

You don't have to be a childcare expert, or even a parent, to realise that extra-curricular activities for children might not be fun. Just cast your mind back to being a child. Most of us suffered some form of extra-curricular, parentally led activity. And, sorry, Mum and Dad, it was a waking fucking nightmare.

Even the average adult finds it a bit daunting to socialise with complete strangers, as we're sometimes forced to do at not-there-by-choice social events: extended family gatherings, partners' friends' weddings, residential training courses, etc. So what the hell do parents think it must be like for a seven-year-old?

Part of the problem is probably that children don't have adult social skills. Up until quite a late stage in their development - possibly the late teens - children are nasty and brutish. Even a group of 13-year-olds could quite easily turn cannibal, given the right sort of peer pressure. As an adult you may find yourself feeling uncomfortable at a dinner party where you don't know anyone, but at least the other guests aren't going to chant 'BENDER!' at you all night, or gob in your food when you go to the bathroom.

With this in mind, Ms O'Reilly's choice of post-school activity seems particularly wrong-headed: karate lessons. Why stop there? Why not enrol your little one for Chinese burn lessons? Or head-kicking lessons? Or Samurai lessons?

Unfortunately, horrible extra-curricular activities are not even something that's confined to the bourgeoisie. We're all middle class these days - or at least a lot of people would like to think they are. So children from all sorts of backgrounds find themselves press-ganged into ballet lessons, tap lessons, piano lessons, violin lessons, chess clubs, school plays and innumerable sporting activities, not least the horror of lads-and-dads' football, which is just an excuse for grown men to compensate for the fact that they never made it into the school team as children by competing against players who are exactly half their size.

In most cases these activities are a triumph of careless-minded parental optimism over common sense. Many parents seem to believe that these activities might actually lead to something. If that were the case, 90 per cent of the female population would be starring in Chicago and 90 per cent of the male population would be David Beckham. Even if parents don't believe these activities are going to produce the next generation of child prodigies, they believe that extra-curricular activities will do two things for their kids:

 help them 'get on with' other children

 boost their confidence

To tackle the second point first: doing something you're crap at with strange children doesn't boost your confidence; it gets demolished quicker than a Hamas house at an Israeli Bulldozer Festival. To use another weird but valid comparison: if you're a diligent but badly paid social worker, would you like to be forced to socialise with a bunch of braying City hoorays on three grand a week? Probably not. And by the same token, if you were a braying City hooray on three grand a week, would you like to be forced to socialise with the SAS? It's unlikely they'd have much time for your corporate paint-balling anecdotes.

Nor do extra-curricular activities help children get on with each other. This contributor went to a chess club once or twice as a child, and with hindsight the difference between child and adult behaviour was horrific. If adults meet to play chess, they play chess. When children meet to play chess the actual chess is incidental to the main activities of minor bullying, temper tantrums, arguments, crying and running around. It was basically Lord of the Flies, but with arguments about the rules of castling and en passant.

If the true horror of extra-curricular activities is lost on Ms O'Reilly, then we can only fear for her child. It might even be worth avoiding fast food restaurants for a few decades, just in case Joe, by now an aggrieved middle-class drop out, gun-nut and embittered postal worker, decides to settle a few scores with humanity.



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