It’s 4:10 on a Tuesday afternoon, and that’s go-time for suburban moms. Today, Lori Bagley has to pack up her younger daughter from her piano lesson.
Then she needs to get her to dance class, but not before she has picked up her son and older daughter — one from basketball, one from band. If she’s lucky she might get someone to eat something before they head back out again for the elder daughter’s dance class and her son’s church meeting.
“Trust me, that’s a slow day. There are nights when the front of my van is all I see,” Bagley said, laughing.
If you think today’s kids are busier than ever, you’re right. According to the National Child Alliance, three out of four schoolage children now participate in two or more extracurricular activities regularly. That’s up from just half in the early 1980s and less than a quarter at the start of the 1960s.
And they’re starting earlier. That same survey found that close to half of 6-year-olds participate in some organized afterschool activity, including music lessons, dance and team sports.
All of which has many parents asking, are we doing too much too soon?
THE GRADE SCHOOL JOCK
Lori Bagley’s husband, Phil, lettered in football and basketball in the ’80s and even played intramural ball in college. But as much as he’d like to see his boy follow in his footsteps, he’s not certain he’s willing to keep up.
“It’s just what they seem to expect from these kids now. It’s like they’re training for the pros at 5. And if you do everything these other kids do, you’ll never get home,” he said. “I don’t remember playing any team sport until I was at least 9 or 10. Now they’re starting at kindergarten.”
The Bagleys’ 9-year-old, Kyle, has been playing some form of organized baseball since he was 5. He’s played soccer for two years and asked to play little league football, but his father balked.
“We’re sticking with one sport at a time. Besides, to be honest, I don’t think football’s something you learn much about at 9. I’m afraid he’s just going to get hurt again,” he said.
Like many families, the Bagleys have spent their share of time in emergency rooms. A few years ago it was the eldest daughter who fell during gymnastics practice and broke her wrist. Then came Kyle with a sprained ankle from soccer. And it goes on. They estimate they have been to the hospital at least eight times with their three children.
Injury is one reason many parents fear starting too soon. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 3.5 million sportsrelated injuries in children under age 15 were treated in the United States in 2003.
Dr. James Nieman sees his share of those injuries. A surgeon with the Orthopaedic Institute of Ohio, he sees a regular roundup of sports-related injuries “from kids younger and younger. The majority of that is in boys who throw,” Nieman said. However, “Sports are great. Supervised contact sports, things like wrestling, is really OK. It seems like it’s really the unsupervised programs or program where the adults don’t know what they’re doing where we see the trouble.”
THE NEXT MOZART
Just as many parents hope to see their children become great athletes, others hope for the next great musical prodigy. And just as pushing a child too hard in sports can lead to injury, pushing a child into music too soon can have its negative results. “If they’re too young or if they just don’t have the attention span, well, you’re just wasting your time,” said Don Hurless, a piano teacher in Lima, Ohio.
Hurless has taught hundreds of children in his more than 40 years of teaching. Some of them started as young as 4, but most have to wait a few years before they’re ready, he said.
“I tell parents, if they can sit at the piano for a half-hour and I can get 10 minutes of real attention out of them, then I have something,” Hurless said. “But I’ve had 10-year-olds come in who can’t do that. Then it’s no fun for anyone.”
Beyond attention span, there are some basic skills a child needs before he can start music lessons. At the very least they need to be able to count to four and know the alphabet through “G.”
But the most important key to success in young musicians is sometimes the toughest. They have to enjoy what they’re doing.
“If a kid is doing this and not enjoying himself, then he’s not going to do well,” Hurless said. “They’re kids, they’ve got to dig what they’re doing or it’s not going to work.”
Starting kids in sports
• Group children by their skill level and body size, not by their age, especially for contact sports.
• Match the child to the sport. Don’t push the child too hard to play a sport that he or she may not like or be able to do well.
• Try to find sports programs that have certified athletic trainers.
• See that all children get a physical exam before playing.
• Don’t play a child who is injured.
• Get the child to a doctor if needed.
• Provide a safe environment for sports.
Starting kids in music
• It is never too early to introduce children to music. Sing, dance and play music around the house.
• Children under 6 can start with Suzuki method on piano or string instruments.
• Between ages 6 and 10, consider piano, string instruments or recorder. Look for instruments in your child’s size.
• By age 10, most children are large enough to learn most instruments.
• Make sure a child’s life is well-rounded. A child who spends all day at the piano will learn to hate playing.