Where a kid can be a kid?

Posted on February 18, 2011


Ah, yes. Chuck E. Cheese’s. Where a kid can be a kid, right? If you’re around my age or have kids that are around my age, commercials like this one are etched into your memory forever because you saw them so often. (I STILL want to sing the end of the jingle every time I see a Chuck E. Cheese’s). I was “fortunate” enough to get to go to Chuck E. Cheese’s a time or two as a kid, and I remember it being just about as glorious as that 1990s commercial above made it out to be.

I went back to Chuck E. Cheese’s this past Sunday just to see what it was like after 20-ish years since my last experience. To be sure, it was different. A lot smaller than I remembered. And creepier. And dirtier. (Just like my wife said it would be). And the pizza wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t any better than anything I could find in the frozen pizza section of my local grocery store. Not quite what I remembered. How could a place so epic in my childhood mind turn out to have been sitting on a throne of lies all along?

I’m not a parent yet (though I hope and pray that someday I will be), but I’ve observed that here in America, we like to let our “kids be kids.” In fact, we often take a certain degree of pride in doing that, and we occasionally keep our kids out of certain activities because we want them to be as “care-free” as possible until the real world starts smacking them around sometime between puberty and graduating from college. As I get older and farther removed from “care-free” activities like Chuck E. Cheese, I’m starting to realize that no action or experience is care-free. If I go to Chuck E. Cheese’s as a kid and I have a good time, that’s not a care-free experience; rather I’m actively learning to care a LOT about Chuck E. Cheese. And if I have a REALLY good time there, I might even want to go back someday, causing my parents to be less “care-free” towards Chuck E. Cheese than they already were. (Parents everywhere are nodding their heads vigorously.)

Think about the fun, “care-free” things in this life that you are the most passionate about (I’m going to use sports and music for this example). Imagine a child quitting a sports team that you are coaching because they just want to “be a kid” for a little while. You of course understand that you can’t stop the kid and the kid’s parents from doing as they please, so you let them go and wish them well. But if you’re like me, you leave the conversation with the parent dumbfounded and scratching your head because in the back of your mind, you’re thinking: That doesn’t make any sense. Isn’t playing sports part of being a kid?” We think of youth sports as being care-free (well, except for a handful of obnoxious, over-the-top competitive parents), but remember: if we feel like sports is part of being a kid, it’s not really care-free. Really what we mean by that is that we consider sports to be something worth caring about.

Now, I want you to mentally walk yourself through this same hypothetical scenario of the quitting kid/family, but instead of having the kid and parent quitting your sports team, imagine them quitting your band/choir/piano lessons/community theatre for the same reason (they just want to “be a kid”). Now for the moment of truth: did you respond the same way to the kid/family that quit music as you did the kid/family that quit sports? Were you more sympathetic to the kid who wanted to quit music than the one who quit sports? Vice versa? Even as a musician I find myself being much more sympathetic to the person that quits music, so I don’t blame/judge you if you reacted like me. But I would ask everyone who reacted like me to consider admitting something to yourself: maybe you answered the way you did because deep down, deep down, you don’t think that the act of making music- whether it’s in a structured, “serious” setting or in a “care-free” setting- is really part of being an American kid these days.

And that, planet Earth, is depressing.

Where can a kid be a kid, you ask? Chuck E. Cheese’s. A baseball field. Doing hours of homework each night after spending 40 hours a week in school. But not in music for one or two hours a week. Music is not where kids are kids, you say. Music is where a small handful of “talented” people can hone their skills and do what they love to do with people who are like-minded.  (Also depressing.)

How did we jack this up for today’s kids? At what point did music become only for the “serious” and structured? For the “talented” (what ever the heck THAT means)? At what point did we decide as a people that singing or playing an instrument (aka being expressive) is far less natural than swinging a bat or playing skee ball and “Deal or No Deal” at Chuck E. Cheese? When did singing or playing an instrument in a group become less care-free, more stressful, less kid-like and less socially acceptable than having a birthday party with a freaking mouse?

I guess here’s my point in all of this: if you don’t feel like making music is part of being an American kid anymore but rather you feel it’s sort of a niche activity for a handful of people that for some strange reason are drawn to it, you’re certainly entitled to that belief, and I wish you no harm (believe it or not). But if you do feel like participating in musical activities (as opposed to just enjoying listening to music) should be part of the lives of American kids, I want to challenge you: do your words and actions reflect that belief? Do you instill that belief in the hearts and minds of your children and/or the children you come in contact with, past the age when it’s easiest and most “natural” to do so? One of my favorite things about teaching music at East Ward Elementary School- a Title 1 school in Killeen, Texas- was finding ways to convince the most “unlikely” of kids to join the choir, and seeing the look on the faces of certain teachers when they found out that not only could “so-and-so” sing, but that he/she was enjoying the heck out of it. For 30% of East Ward’s 3rd-5th graders in my last year there, choir was a place that they chose to be a kid. Every day. Before school. Everyone from the smartest kid in the school to the 13+ year-old 5th grader from Louisiana who could hardly read when he came to us, was a foot taller than just about anyone else, and could be a pretty serious discipline problem.

Kids can be kids in music, even when it’s structured. Heck, adults can be adults in music too. I just think that sometimes as a society, we forget that that it can (and should?) be that way for just about everybody. Quit that choir or that sports team, and the time you used to spend singing or playing is just going to be replaced with something else “care-free.” I just hope whatever it is that replaces it, in the long run, is where you can be you.

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