By Michelle Markel
Issue 103, November/December 2000
We sat in the bleachers in the clammy stadium watching our little girls learning to swim in the huge pool below. The mother next to me said that after class she was taking her daughter to the ice rink to practice for a championship. Championship? The girl was all of five years old. Perhaps I'd misheard her--the voices of instructors shouting through bullhorns were echoing off the walls. But the woman went on to explain that after a few skating lessons her daughter's talent had become apparent. I pictured the tow-headed lass in her sparkling outfit, skates deftly cutting the ice, the stands full of cheering friends and admirers.
Ice skating classes, I thought. This was what I'd failed to offer Sascha, my daughter. Maybe this was the one activity that would genuinely captivate her. We'd done gymnastics and ballet, ceramics, and theater. Soon I'd be driving her and her baby sister Lana to piano, karate, photography, and tennis lessons, and the list goes on. I wanted them to feast at the banquet of life's recreations, to have the Renaissance childhood not provided to me. Didn't the parenting manuals proclaim that a happy child is active, stimulated, and social?
I wrote my checks and waited for the sparks to catch. But my children could have cared less. A few times they asked me to sign them up again for a class, but it always proved to be a brief flirtation. Sascha quickly tired of the piano lessons and recoiled at the thought of competing in a sport. As the soccer trophies began to crowd the mantels of her girlfriends' homes, I grew uneasy. I would never pick my child up from a match and find her breathless in her diaphanous green jersey, cheeks flushed with exertion and the glow of victory. What had I done wrong?
The answer came to me recently when we moved to another part of the city. There was neither time nor money for extracurricular activities. My daughters would simply have to find ways to entertain themselves in their free time. Their toys and supplies were packed for several weeks before and after the move. This deprivation didn't seem to bother them. On the contrary, it brought on feverish inspiration. They sat on the floor amidst towers of boxes, drawing and writing stories. When I took a break from unpacking to look at reams of sketches strewn all over the house, I found portraits and homemade comics filled with detail and wit.
This was no sudden flowering of talent. My daughters had been doing this for years, but I now saw the extent to which it sustained them and gave them pleasure. I realized why Sascha had given a poetry reading at a bookstore, been a speaker at her fifth-grade culmination, and been published in an academic journal. Not because she took enrichment classes. In part, because of encouragement from her teachers, but mostly because of me. I spent hours reading with her on the couch, and she spent hours watching me scribble words on notepads. With the best books, something almost holy transpired as we read together about loving and wanting to be loved, watching characters use humor to cope with life's cruelty and inconsistency.
It was the same with art, Lana's favorite pastime. I'd often taken my kids to art galleries and museums--the more colorful, offbeat, and fanciful the better. We marveled at how artists found beauty even in mundane objects. At the most tender age, she'd excelled at making assemblages from discarded items, elaborate structures from Styrofoam packaging, gift boxes, curlers, photographs. If I found something of potential interest to her, because of its vivid color or shape, I would leave it out before retiring, certain to find it incorporated into some creation on the living room floor the next morning. Now 11, her creativity is praised by her teachers and has earned her awards in art contests.
Had I ever taken the girls to a ballet? A gymnastics tournament? A tennis or soccer match? No, I'd simply shepherded them to their classes, left them with a peck on the cheek and a cheerful, "Won't this be fun?" The magic ingredient in these pursuits was missing: my involvement.
I know a young pianist whose parents take her to chamber music concerts, a future actress whose mom introduced her to Broadway musicals, and a little gardener who accompanies his mom to farmers' markets. And I suspect the ice skating prodigy I met at the Y years ago had parents who were athletic, too.
The passions we share with our children have lasting value. The softball team I played on gave me a summer's pleasure, but my father's love of travel inspired my career: As a journalist and writer for children, I've written about people from other cultures. Because we're their premier role models, children emulate our enthusiasms.
Now I no longer fret over my children's extracurricular activities. Sascha can't remember her karate moves, but she'll always have a love of literature and writing, a source of comfort she can draw on during life's ups and downs. Lana will always see artistic possibilities in the materials around her. I'm not certain they're well rounded, but I know that they are rich.
Michelle Markel is a writer/teacher and mother to Sascha (15) and Lana (11). She is the author of two children's books: Cornhusk, Silk and Wishbones: A Book of Dolls from Around the World (Houghton Mifflin Children's Books, 2000) and Gracias, Rosa (Whitman, 1995), as well as numerous newspaper and magazine articles. She and her husband, Martin Cohen, live in California's San Fernando Valley.