Yoga and Latin? Give them a break

14th December 2012 at 00:00
Every child will find their own aptitudes in the end, so don't force it, says Chloe Combi

A few Saturday mornings ago, I was standing in line for my first - and last - yoga class. Maybe I'm missing something but it looked and felt like a dance rehearsal for the chorus of the world's first all-zombie musical.

Queuing in front of me was a woman with her daughter, who couldn't have been older than 8. The woman was making the child practise Latin verbs over and over again, which she did in robotic fashion. As a reward, her mum gave her an oatcake.

Now, I'm as ambitious for the next generation as any educator, but I believe that on a Saturday morning an eight-year-old should be in her pyjamas in front of cartoons stuffing her face with Coco Pops. She's been at school all week: she deserves a break, not yoga and Latin. It was all I could do to stop myself tapping the mother on the shoulder and saying, "Seriously, lady, different ancient language, but did you know they put Socrates to death basically for being an overly pushy teacher?"

Considering your child's future in today's world must be terrifying: the shrinking job market, the rising costs of higher education, the armies of child geniuses in China and India apparently poised to take over the world. But this fear should not come at the price of children's happiness or well-being.

As many secondary teachers will attest, the most frequently asked question at any parents' evening is not "Is my child happy?" or "Is my child doing well at what he or she is good at?" but "Is my child bright enough to get into medical school?"

Given that the number of applicants accepted into medical school is vanishingly small, a lot of the time the answer is "probably not". Aspirations for your child to be a doctor are fine if they want to be one and are suited to the role; less so if their ambitions and talents lie in carpentry or ballet dancing.

A friend of mine who teaches in an extremely competitive, high-achieving school was met at her first parents' evening by a mother and father with a video camera, who barked questions at her about their "prodigiously clever" son's abilities. Out of terror, and because she had taught him fewer than a dozen times, she assured them he would get the grades for Cambridge. When he failed to do this, the father actually produced the tape of my friend making this claim and threatened to sue the school.

One child I taught had to hide his stunning art portfolio because his dad "would be angry with me for being good at art and neglecting sciences" (which he wasn't good at). Another had to hide the fact he had the lead role in the school play because his parents would have been furious at him "for wasting time".

France shocked the rest of the world a few months ago when the government banned homework for primary school children. Despite mutterings along the lines of "unambitious cheese-eaters" from other, more pious countries, I believe France has it right. With support and nurturing and a good work ethic, children will find their natural level. All the bullying and pushing in the world is not going to turn a moderately bright child into a genius, any more than 10 hours' training a day is going to turn a so-so footballer who likes a playground kickaround into the next Lionel Messi. Children need to be celebrated for their strengths not criticised for their weaknesses - and some kids take more time than others to discover what those might be.

And frankly, if you force your eight-year-old child into yoga, you deserve that pretentious Sanskrit tattoo they are going to come home with in a decade's time that actually translates as "I am a massive twat."

Chloe Combi teaches at a comprehensive in London.

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