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How to get your children to rehearse before a performance

By the time my kids were 4 and 7, they were used to the sound of applause. My husband and I clapped for their first steps, first words, when the pee pee first landed in the potty, when they scribbled on paper instead of a wall. Higher praise still when they pretended to read, recited a poem, or sang a song. I admit it, almost anything my daughters Abby and Elana did seemed utterly delightful and worth watching again and again without ever becoming dull.

I realized that not everyone felt that way when my friend Denise cracked. Several moms were chatting blissfully on the porch when my daughters and some other girls announced they were going to "do a play." As we all turned around with hands in the clapping position and plastered-on smiles, Denise snapped: "Dear God, not again!" The mothers of the other girls looked shocked, but for me a light turned on. Perhaps people were just being polite at dinner parties when my daughters interrupted to sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" three times in a row, row, row. I could suddenly recall the lack of joy I felt watching some other person's kid demonstrate for 10 minutes that he was Superman.

That was when the concept of "short and well rehearsed" came to me. My children were no longer allowed to interrupt us with "Watch this!" unless whatever we were going to see was short and well rehearsed. When applied to a dinner party, that meant rehearsed for, say, an hour, and performed for, say, three minutes.

The results were amazing. Not only were dinner parties more fun, the kids rarely complained that they were bored — they were rehearsing. They spent less time in front of the TV, and best of all, the three-minute shows they performed were actually worth watching.

Instead of a jumbled stream of consciousness loosely imitating whatever story they'd just heard, with one kid interrupting the other, they came up with thought-out scenes that had simple (dare I say) plots. Instead of songs sung out of tune with only half the words, we got shorter ditties that were often identifiable. They even started creating something like a real show, with an announcer and a curtain call. They took turns. Those fun little kid mistakes that let you see the world through their eyes were still there, but eureka! In a world where their every mindless pen stroke had been applauded, I now saw my children flourish from greater expectations.

I decided to apply the concept to other situations — sitting in the park, for instance, trying to have a coherent conversation with another mom. When the children screamed, "Watch this!" I screamed back, "Practice first!" Not exactly June Cleaver, but it worked: Five more minutes of finished sentences were mine. Other mothers began to apply my credo.

Occasionally I met resistance. I went to pick up 7-year-old Abby after a playdate, and the other child's mom met me at the door to regale me with tales of how fabulously the girls had played together and how creative they both were. In fact they'd been rehearsing something special; could I possibly stay a few minutes to watch? I hesitated. My daughter emerged and I whispered, "Is it short and well rehearsed?" She looked a little guilty. The other mother assured me it would be fun. It wasn't. Minutes of my life were passing by watching a disorganized dance effort — no plot, no character development, no direction. I could take no more. "Okay, clap, clap, that's it, we're done. Next time, you two need to rehearse a little more." The other mother nearly fainted.

When I explained my philosophy she said, "But aren't you worried you'll stifle their creativity or stomp on their self-esteem?" Not at all. I think real creativity takes thought and diligence, and self-esteem comes not from applause, but from doing your best work. As my girls get older (they're now 15 and 12, and still miniature Neil Simons), I grow more convinced this is an idea whose time has come. Kids, parents, and educators could all be a little more "short and well rehearsed." I have a friend who had to sit through a three-hour choir recital. I don't care how good the choir is, an hour would do. I've survived years of an elementary school "Columbus Day Poetry Festival" where by the 16th poem on global exploration you want to violently eliminate the holiday. And imagine if moms at PTA meetings put this philosophy into action: Instead of 10 heartfelt minutes on every event, we'd get a one-minute summary and a thank-you. I did it once and got applause.

"Short and well rehearsed" is now my mantra. I'd like to think that someday my kids will thank me. I'm picturing something long and heartfelt, but I'd definitely settle for short and sweet.

On Stage at What Age?

Expecting anything other than chaos from the pre-K set is not only unrealistic, it's unfair. "Performance has the initial function of attracting adults to the child," says Sam Odom, Ph.D., a professor of child development at the University of North Carolina. Babies develop social smiles, initiate games like peek-a-boo, or bring a parent a toy in order to engage them in play. But very young kids are unlikely to be aware of what they are doing, or know how to make their performances better.

As children move into kindergarten and elementary school they become more aware of how they think about things, how they're behaving in certain situations, and how others perceive them.

Parents help kids to see how they're being perceived. By asking children over 4 to hone and rehearse a performance, parents are starting them on the track of self-evaluation, impulse control, and more inspiration. As J. Kevin Nugent of the Brazelton Institute puts it, "Real creativity needs some structure and form."

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