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I saw my daughter’s first school play, and it was awful.

A play makes perfect sense. We want kids to read stories, engage with them, internalize them, and make them their own. It’s a wonderful thing to see happen, and my daughter does it all the time organically, these days usually with us playing Star Wars or Wonder Woman characters. Don’t get me wrong, I internally dread playing this with her, but I understand that it’s developmentally appropriate, and it isn’t her fault that there aren’t other kids around for her to play with. So, I grin and play Queen Hippolyta or whoever for a few minutes.

This isn’t anything close to what I saw at the school play.

There, I saw rows of children trying vainly to sing alongside a score of pre-recorded voices of other children. There was one girl front and center who knew all of them by heart and was engaged. Success here means literally going through the choreographed motions.

The source content itself was chosen purely because it easily accommodates a variable number of children and the teacher’s curriculum scripts what the teacher must say and cue to get the children to do their part. The end result is a plot that is sensible, well-organized, and easy to follow even if you haven’t read the book.

What it lacks is any element of fun. The children are not freed to be actors. They are actors with scripts. There’s no room for them to do anything other than their memorized lines and gestures. The children were clearly performing to the packed room of their parents, not for themselves. They made a product for their parents’ consumption that contains almost nothing of them. They are five and they are already alienated from their labor.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The kids could be put in charge and choose their own story. They could decide as individuals what to say when and see how it goes. It might not be as organized, and such a project wouldn’t find its way into the sort of expensive, scripted curriculums that appeal so much to busy teachers, but it’d at least be theirs.

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Image by Illumistrations I saw my daughter's first school play, and it was awful.


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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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11 thoughts on “I saw my daughter’s first school play, and it was awful.

  1. Expect more in your future for the next decade of your life!

    I had a terrible youth play experience last week as well. I invited a local Shakespeare company to our school to perform. They are a reputable group; an institution in this area. We knew this was their youth wing, but we didn’t expect them to be 12-13-year-olds. They insisted on not using microphones.

    While they gave passionate performances (you could see that all the children performing wanted to be there) it was an indecipherable performance. Not only was it impossible to hear them, they were too young to understand the finer aspects of acting and Shakespeare and thus it appeared to be one child running through their lines quickly with another child then going through their lines. The student audience was baffled for an hour and a half.

    It was the worst thing I have ever subjected my students to.

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    • >you could see that all the children performing wanted to be there

      That would have been such an improvement. I really wish they just hadn’t bothered. It’s not like I really had that extra night free with nothing better to do. Neither do I feel any particular pride in seeing my daughter up there yawning. The whole thing seems to benefit no one, least of all the kids.

      >Expect more in your future for the next decade of your life!

      I could always just not go! Trust me. I’m tempted

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        • I don’t really get why showing up for this kind of stuff is supposed to be an accurate measure of how much you care about your kid. It’s one of the least effortful things you can do as a parent, and it doesn’t even involve you interacting with your kid (though my daughter did wave a few times). But if she’s not into it, I’d rather spend time with her doing something else

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          • You’re preaching to the choir, sir.

            My kids were involved with all sorts of stuff when they were kids. My wife went to the sports stuff only under extreme duress, and I went more often than not because I had nothing else going on. I was often a bemused onlooker, while other parents really got into it. At one of my son’s football games his coach got flagged for the antics of one of the dads. Was the call bad? You bet, but ranting at the officials wasn’t going to get it reversed, and it probably embarrassed the hell out of his son. Sports parents are the WORST.

            The non-sports stuff, like your daughter’s play, we were the parents checking the program to tick off the stuff making sure we’d get to the end before we gouged our eyes out.

            Cat’s in the Cradle wrecked it for all of America.

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  2. Teacher: We’re going to let you, the children, write the play.
    Kid 1: We want to do Game of Thrones!”
    Kid 2: I want to be Renly!
    Teacher: No, no, no. We want it to be a nice play!
    Kid 1: We want to do Hunger Games!
    Kid 2: I want to be President Snow!
    Teacher: You know what? We’re going to sing along to the Nutcracker.

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    • Schools do what I call horse-and-pony shows often. I don’t like them. They’re of very little, if any, educative value… especially when accounting for opportunity cost. But, unlike Vikram, many parents eat that shit up. “Little Jackson Pepper sang ‘Over the Rainbow’ wearing the cutest little Cowardly Lion costume! Our tuition dollars at work!”

      Sometimes teachers are required to put the kids through these. Sometimes the teachers actually think they’re valuable teaching/learning experiences. Rarely do they offer any benefit to the kids and they even carry the risk of (short-term, minor) harm.

      If you’re comfortable doing so, make your feelings known. Most schools do this because they think all parents want and love it. If enough speak out, maybe they’ll change. Skipping it altogether with a quick, thoughtful message why can be effective BUT sometimes it is important to the kiddos that family attend — even if only because everyone else’s will be there — so tread carefully there. In that case, show up, clap and smile, tell them you loved it and are proud of them, and address it behind the scenes if at all.

      Vikram is a bit rare in his willingness to be honest (I love kids — my own and kids in general — and derive unique value from observing and participating in their play and even I get bored with it) and to see beyond the cuteness of something for the real value, so unfortunately most parents eat this shit up and the cycle continues.

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