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Out of nappies and into culture

Middle-class parents are spending a fortune giving their under-fives an impressive CV. Adi Bloom reports

Tilly is working on her CV. She attends flute and piano lessons once a week. She takes ballet classes and is learning to swim. And, between French and German classes, she attends expensive drama lessons.

Tilly is four years old. Academics from London university's institute of education have proven what social commentators have long suspected: that middle-class parents are desperate to make their little darlings Renaissance men and women, accomplished in everything from karate to crochet. They wish to furnish them with all the social skills that money can buy.

Researchers interviewed 57 mothers and 14 fathers from two areas of London.

Working on the premise that children are not well rounded unless they can recite nursery rhymes in at least two languages, many parents admitted that they had signed their children up for extra, CV-boosting classes before they had even begun primary school.

One mother said: "I took her to ballet about the same time that I started her at playgroup... I sort of want to start her on the violin, but I'm still debating, because it's a big undertaking."

Another said: "French at the age of two and a half... They have to sit around the table and spout French words for half an hour."

Even the researchers acknowledged that they too had succumbed, with one submitting her eight-year-old daughter's timetable (Monday: piano; Tuesday: play date) as evidence.

For most, the goal of these activities is to give the child a headstart, an aim which they associate with good parenting. And enthusiasm is often repaid. Researchers highlight a selective state school in London, which considers children's extra-curricular activities when deciding which pupils to admit.

Other benefits are less obvious. Some mothers felt ballet classes imbued their daughters with grace, style or good posture. Others believed that they were presenting their children with a range of options, which would help them identify their strengths.

One mother said: "Today I bought her a little tennis racquet, because...

she shows an interest in tennis, she likes kicking a ball. We go to music class. She likes swimming. I like to give her a taste of different things, to see if it's something she's interested in."

Parents acknowledge that the cost of these lessons is often prohibitive.

Researchers said: "Working-class parents are much less likely to see their children as a project for development. Instead, the children just are, with characteristics, skills and talent being understood as more fixed."

The buying-in of expertise therefore perpetuates cultural advantage. And, for middle-class parents, this is the real benefit.

Researchers said: "Enrichment activities are about the acquisition of cultural skills... the beginnings of a Renaissance child... The line demarcating what is for the child's benefit and what is for the adult's benefit is often blurred."


FEFocus 6 'Making up' the middle-class child: families, activities and class dispositions, by Stephen J. Ball and Carol Vincent, Institute of Education

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