14/08/2014 12:49 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Flogging A Dead Hobby Horse: Should We Insist Our Children Continue With Extra-Curricular Classes?

Flogging a dead hobby horse: Should we make our kids go to classes?

I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine a while back regarding the uneasy feeling parents seem to get these days about their children having any free time whatsoever.

My eldest daughter was only about two-and-a-half at the time, and I hadn't enrolled her in any classes at that point, but those were the pre-nursery days and I was feeling a bit run ragged with endless visits to stay and play groups, dressing up mornings and soft play centres, lest she ever get (gasp!) bored.

I'm pleased my friend told me that actually boredom itself can be stimulating for children – it gave me some perspective. Well, of course!

Of course it's OK for a toddler to sometimes to not be prescribed an activity and to simply use their own imagination. In fact, it's not only OK, it's important.

But what about as they get older? Now I'm wondering if I'm beginning to do what many parents do, as I help my girls to start building an impressive résumé of skills and interests.

Ruby, who is three, does ballet and swimming.

Ava, who is four, does French lessons at nursery and, at the weekend, also does swimming and ballet, and has an hour long Spanish lesson.

OK, it's not loads and loads – but they are still pretty little. Despite that, I'm oh so tempted to work out if I can afford (and get them places in) gymnastic and drama classes. And maybe also climbing for Ru.

One thing that's holding me back is our current, shall we say, conflict of opinions about whether swimming is fun. I say it is, Ava and Ruby say it's not.

Every week, we have the same conversation, which goes like this:

"Swimming becomes more and more fun as you get better and better, and you get better and better by going and learning!"

Ava / Ruby: "I don't want to goooooo!"

Me: "Sigh."

They just don't like it, and despite having already paid the money for the lessons, after weeks and weeks of cajoling, and several instances where we've missed it anyway because of illness, I'm leaning towards not forcing them to go, which I sort of hate (in that *fail* kind of sense).

It's not only the swimming – Ava always gets a face on before her Spanish lesson. It might just be because she goes and Ruby doesn't (she will do when she's four though, mark my words), and so far I'm winning on that one.


But is it right to make them do these things when they're so little and when they say they don't really want to? They didn't choose their classes, we did, so it's not like I can wave the 'you must see your decisions through' stick at them. Not yet.


I was pondering how things will pan out as time goes on, realising these decisions and conflicts might only get harder. So I did what many a mother does these days, when faced with a parenting quandry, and asked Twitter.

Nikki made me feel better: "At the age of five I made my eldest do swimming lessons, which she hated. In the end, with the aid of a snorkel and flippers she taught herself on holiday and now loves swimming.

"I didn't make her brothers do the lessons because I felt like they took the joy out of it – I just took them swimming a lot and gradually reduced the air in their armbands, which seemed to work. Neither drowned, they're all good swimmers now, and I saved a lot of money."

That hit the nail on the head for me, I think. What's niggling away at me is the possibility that forcing them to go now could be detrimental to them ever enjoying swimming or even the idea of it. Maybe swimming, while an essential skill, just needs to be learned in a different way.

What about other things though? Yes my kids are tiny, but I feel really passionate about them learning other languages (or at least getting a grounding), and it seems to me the younger we start the better. I want to introduce them to all kinds of activities as they get older, too.

Nikki sounds like she's done it all – her children are 10, 14 and 16 now and, between them, they have experimented with (deep breath) French club, Spanish club, Chinese, gym, Kung Foo, Tae Kwondo, ballet, tap, modern, drama, circus skills, pottery, felt making, piano, keyboards, clarinet, guitar, saxophone, drums, violin, singing, brownies and Woodcraft Folk, with varying degrees of success.

She says: "I suppose I've always let them try out whatever they wanted to do and I guess most activities lose their appeal after a few months. I've tried to keep them going a bit longer 'cos I hope it's a blip, and it feels a shame to give up so easily.

"I worry that letting them get the idea it's okay to give something up, just because it's not immediately gratifying, is a big mistake, but there are loads of things they do every day that are boring and difficult and they have to just get on with it.


Forcing them to do an extra-curricular activity is a bit pointless.


I want them to develop their own interests, and if they have to kiss a few hobby frogs to get to whatever really sparks them, then so be it. No one ever said finding out who you are is easy, quick or cheap!"

That's definitely partly the trouble though, isn't it? Very few classes come for free – if you can spare a certain amount of your income to broaden your children's horizons, you'll start getting a bit miffed if all you end up with is hobby frogs.

Sarah W has two boys, aged eight and nine, and she thinks once they have signed up, they should see it through. "If you have paid up front, and it was their choice to go, then I think you should make them go so they learn it's not okay to be a quitter. Also, sometimes, mum just knows best."

I share that feeling somewhere in my gut, and I know there were classes I gave up when I was little that I wish I hadn't.

That said though, I think at the stage we are at now, with the girls being so little, I could say to them: "Hey! Do you want to go to a class that teaches you how to unblock toilets?" and my girls would say: "YAAAAAAY!". They have virtually no comprehension of what anything is, or will involve, right now.

That'll change though, and as they get older I guess the key is going to be in talking and helping them to understand committing to an activity for a certain amount of time – but also trusting them a little bit.

Sarah B has a seven year old daughter, who does all sorts. "When I list all the things my daughter does on a weekly basis , it embarrasses me because it seems such a lot! Ballet, swimming, piano, violin, drama, Brownies, Latin dance and she has recently joined Beavers. She doesn't do a language class, but that's because I lived in Spain for a few years and I'm teaching her a bit myself.

"She did start one musical drama class and didn't like it and asked to stop – I hadn't paid too much, so I said yes, mainly because she gave valid reasons (they did the same thing every week and she was getting a bit bored).

"If her reasons hadn't been so valid, I might have encouraged her to keep going, but I try to give her credit for knowing what she does and doesn't like, and not just think about what I would like her to do."

Finally, there's Fiona, and she and her little boy, who is four, just like Ava, sort of bring me back to square one.

She says: "There's a fine line between being pushy and encouraging commitment.

"I paid for Henry to do swimming lessons from early on and there was a period when he didn't enjoy it. Now he's brilliant and he loves it."

I might have to go back to Fiona and ask exactly how fine that fine line is. In the meantime, I guess we shall see what the weekend brings...

Where do you think the line is between being pushy and encouraging commitment is?
Are there any classes you insist your children continue, eg, swimming?