Choosing Meaningful Experiences for Your Kids
Janie Barnett reflects on raising her daughter in Park Slope and how to encourage the most meaningful experiences for our children in this community of abundant options.
When my 5-year-old daughter, Adrienne, walked into her first class at Jennifer Kliegel’s Dance Studio of Park Slope, she became a member of the best girls’ club in the city. Adrienne said yes to any class we could give her. From that very first tumbling class, to the jazz/tap/ballet combo class, to the diversified classes for the older students, my daughter was in a kind of bliss for over ten years. It was funny, sweaty, silly, and the costumes were exotic and shiny. But the work became disciplined, and for all practical purposes, the environment was professional. Each teacher was a choreographer. The dancers took the routines very seriously. And they got good! The shows out at Brooklyn College began with adorable little kid tappers – both female and male – but eventually the 11 -16 year olds would take the stage, and they were darn good. Disciplined, expressive, strong, and working as a team.
What made this dance studio so extraordinary? The hard-working teacher/dancers? The studio two stories above 7th Avenue, with bright sunny windows? Great exercise for the kids? Jennifer herself? All of the above, of course. We, as parents, wrestle with the same ongoing questions about our kids’ after school activities. Is this just for fun? How far do we go with this? Is this time best spent? It’s hard to argue with the pure merits of dance class for a growing child. But most of us do come to understand that the club environment of a place like the dance studio, with its routines and rituals, its comradery and teamwork, and the striving over many weeks towards a goal, is worth its weight in gold.
At about the same time Adrienne began dance class, she joined her first AYSO soccer team. Within two years she had also joined Carmelo the Science Fellow’s afterschool science club at her public school. The AYSO team morphed into a competitive travel team, trained by Harry Triana and his brother John Triana. There were some seasons where I was picking Adrienne up 20 minutes early from soccer practice in Red Hook, to get her to Jazz class at the Dance Studio back on 7th Ave.
To all of these hard-working professionals who have dedicated their time to working with youth, I send this love letter.
Out on that soccer field, my 6-year-old ran in circles and got a trophy. But a few years in, her coach, who would be involved in her soccer world until she graduated from high school, said “you know, at some point, it kind of should matter whether they play well, and whether they win.” To me, this qualified, parsed comment was absolutely ideal. So yes, it kind of did matter, because children should learn to work hard and take pride in that process of improvement. But it takes smart and gifted professionals working with youth to balance the challenge to grow with the challenge to succeed or, perhaps, win. These soccer coaches wanted their teams to win, no doubt. But more importantly they wanted their teams to improve, and to work as a team. When my daughter considered leaving her team that she had played with for so many years, two of her teammates arranged a 3-way call, asking her to stay. My daughter was a good player, but she was not indispensable. What she was, was a beloved teammate. Adrienne stayed on the team.
Carmelo the Science Fellow, aka Carmelo Piazza, well known to many brownstone Brooklyn families, has had a winning way with students for a long time. This young teacher excited my daughter about science, so much so that she is now a science teacher herself, part of the movement to find new and better ways to teach the science in our schools. But at the time, what I witnessed above all was Carmelo’s ability to get the youngest, and sometimes the most troubled kids to focus. Focus on that bug he was holding. Focus on that slippery slimy lizard. Laugh about that owl pod that encased mouse bones. (“Ewe!! The kids shrieked.) The 2nd grade science class at PS 261 was about discovery, laugher, and focus. There was always some small wonderful task to perform, and these little ones learned how to perform them.
In addition to my life as a performing musician, I am also an arts educator, and I have been profoundly impacted in my own teaching, observing these professionals work with my daughter and her friends, classmates and teammates through the years. Our children witness so much messaging that suggests they must attach a significant goal to each activity in which they engage. A goal is by no means a nasty thing, it’s a good thing. But what a talented professional working with youth understands, is that there are many kinds of goals, short term and long term, and long term goals that masquerade as short terms goals. We as parents receive our own messaging. Get your kid involved in something early that they can get good at. Maybe there’s a prodigy in there!! The years go by, and before you know it you and your child are feeling the pressure to build a resume for college, get an athletic scholarship, show off a “talent” in a portfolio. And we all have a secret wish that our children find something early that suggests a brilliant career. Sometimes we get carried away.
I have reminded myself many times through my daughter’s upbringing that these wonderful activities are there for her to enjoy, first and foremost, but also to learn what it feels like to grow, to rely on and give support to fellow teammates, to look up to a coach or leader, to develop a passion for something that you can love for a lifetime. These are true measures of meaningful experience for our children.
Janie Barnett is a Brooklyn mom and Americana singer-songwriter. She rose in the NYC music freelance world, singing backup for iconic stars like Linda Ronstadt, Celine Dion, and Rickie Lee Jones and appearing on SNL and The Today Show, all while continuing her search for her own essential expression. Her latest album “You See This River” is the culmination of Barnett’s years of searching and exploring. The album made the first round Grammy ballot in the following categories: Best Folk Album, Best American Roots Song and Best American Roots Vocal. Janie currently splits her time between Brooklyn and Boston, where she has been an associate professor at Berklee College of Music for close to 15 years. Connect with her on FB or Twitter.
Featured Photo by Krista McPhee