Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Parenting

Up Front Jitters
by Jan Johnson

Nicole couldn't believe what her daughter was saying: "What if I open my mouth and nothing comes out when I have to say my lines?" Her daughter had squealed with delight when she won the lead part of the snow queen, but now she seemed jittery.

Chris fought back tears as she watched her third grade son's hands fumble across the piano keys on stage. The chords clashed as he played his piece four notes higher than written. I wanted him to love the piano, Chris thought. Will he ever touch it again?

Just before holiday pageants, orchestra tryouts or even Little League games, we hear these reluctant choruses from our children. How seriously should we take their complaints? Is the performance that important? How do we encourage them without pushing? Why does it matter if my children can perform in front of people?

We may want to let our children off the hook, especially if they're shy. But being able to get up front isn't so much a you-have-it-or-you-don't temperament as it is a skill. To survive in our culture, people have to speak up for themselves and defend their positions.

Performing in front of others also builds self-esteem as kids hear applause for what they achieved. It helps them see that they can face a challenge, conquer their fear and win the battle. Even when they goof, says Ken Callaghan, private piano teacher in Gardena, California, they learn to persist, even to laugh about it.

So if your child is not eager to let the world know just how great you know he or she is, you may want to try the following.


- Be an example. Let your children see you get up front, even if it's only to make announcements in a P.T.A. meeting. You may even want to tell your child that you feel scared, but that it's important to you to speak up, so you're giving it a try.

- Talk about feelings. Tell your children that it's normal to feel nervous. Tell them how you forgot your lines in the third grade and everyone laughed. Nervousness is good because it keeps us on our toes. Kids who aren't a little nervous often don't care and don't try.

- Remind them of past successes. They've probably faced similar challenges such as surviving the first day at a different school. Help them remember the coping skills they used for those situations.

- Offer a reward. Looking forward to an ice cream cone after the performance helps your child see beyond the performance.

- Provide practice opportunities. It's important to rehearse on friendly territory. Invite friends, neighbors and relatives in to watch a practice or two. Make sure that the child can practice in the actual performance room and, if possible, in front of an audience. A full auditorium looks like a different room compared to an empty one.

- Honor their small wishes. If a child wants to change songs for the recital or wear a certain dress or shirt, go along with it. Like us, they feel more confident when they're "dressed for success."

- Learn your child's patterns. My daughter used to exasperate me by backing out at the last minute. So I'd push her anyway and then she'd be glad later. Now I expect her to back out and I remind her of how she followed through before. Understanding your children's typical stage fright patterns helps you know how to encourage your children.

If you and your family are stage fright-prone, start your children out early in front of audiences. Talk about performance anxiety tips, such as these: Look slightly over the heads of the audience; pretend you're standing in your living room; zero in on a clock or picture that's at the same level as the heads of the audience; think of a comforting song such as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"; have parents sit in the front row and smile; pretend that the members of the audience are more embarrassed than you because they're wearing pajamas (or some other embarrassing feature -- the more ridiculous the better). The child's "mission" is to put the embarrassed audience at ease.

Most of the time, children feel just as confused as we do. Even my bold son has doubts. Part of his inner self wants to perform, the other part doesn't. Our goal is to help our children face their fears and move past them to confidence and success.



Help your children talk about why they're afraid. Here are the most common reasons.

LACK OF PREPARATION They know they need more practice.

FEAR OF FAILURE Everyone fears making mistakes, especially in front of people. "Bright kids often set perfectionistic goals for themselves," says psychologist Michael Dolgin, Ph. D., an assistant professor at the University of Southern California.

"Even if hard working parents are careful not to push their children, the kids imitate their parents and drive themselves anyway."

POOR PREVIOUS EXPERIENCES Third grader Jeremy cries every time his class sings in front of the school. Otherwise, he's an outgoing kid. His problem began in his kindergarten graduation when he had to say certain lines and move a chair at the same time. Moving the chair was a signal to another child to come forward.

Jeremy worried so much about moving the chair so his little friend would come forward that he forgot his lines. Then he cried on the stage. He relives that first performance every time.

DISINTEREST Sometimes parents mistake disinterest for stage fright. Their children would rather ride skateboards than be in a play. Other times, the children dislike the teacher or boys think the songs are too effeminate. Laziness is common too. It's too much work to get out there and try. PROPS FOR A STAGE MOM

Here are some tips for those moments when you wish you had the patience of June Cleaver, but instead you feel like turning in your mother button!

What if they want to quit? Try a compromise first. When second grader Dawn refused to sing in her school's holiday program, her teacher asked Dawn to sit by her and hold her purse during the performance. Dawn agreed. At the performance, Dawn saw her friends get up on stage and so she did too.

If you think quitting is best, show your child how to quit responsibly. Help them rehearse what they'll say to the teacher. Encourage them to help with the performance in behind the scenes ways.

What if my child says I'm pushing too hard? Evaluate your motives. Do you ever think to yourself: I was the star of all the school programs as a kid, so I want my daughter to be the star too; I want to give my child opportunities I didn't have; Barbara's kids do this all the time; I paid for this; why isn't he enjoying it;

These are normal feelings for parents to have but when they dictate what we expect of our children, it's time to pull back.

What if my child blows it? Focus on the child. It's easy to be more concerned about keeping our kids from embarrassing us than meeting their needs.

If you start clapping, the audience will usually join you. Most people accept nervousness in children and want to encourage them. Learning to fail graciously may be as important as learning to perform eloquently.


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