Rituals Empowering Nurture: An Example From Elementary School Theatre

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We often hear people say things about “kids these days” and how “everyone gets a trophy” and that we should encourage our kids to truly compete and only reward them for actually achieving, not just playing.

I don’t necessarily disagree that we should be training our kids for life in the real world by allowing them to experience what it’s like to win and lose. But what I do think is important for all of us to remember sometimes, is that trying something scary or hard or new and committing yourself to a discipline of practice can require some loving nudges and support.  Because, as I read in a book recently, “you can be outstanding or you can be comfortable, but you can’t be both”.  And stepping outside one’s comfort zone is not always easy.

My wife teaches children and teenagers who to sing and play piano (among other life lessons that tend to come with the territory) so we spend a healthy amount of time attending high school, middle school and elementary school musicals among other types of recitals and performances.

Whenever you attend a school event like that there is always some positive reinforcement and encouragement built in to boost the self-esteem of the kids performing and reward a job well done: things like “fan-o-grams” you can post on a bulletin board to your favorite star or starlet.

But my favorite rituals are the ones they have at the elementary school shows I have been to. This weekend’s performance of Oklahoma (the lead, Curly, is one of my wife’s youngest students) was no different. Before the lights go down and the curtains go up on the cast of pre-tween performers, the teacher / director plays a few games with the audience that go something like this:

Recognizing relatives: everyone in the audience who is a family member of someone in the performance is asked to stand up and be recognized with applause. Then those for whom this performance is not the only one they have attended (usually there are 4 or so shows in the “run”) are asked to remain standing, followed by another round of applause for supporting their kids, nieces and nephews. After all – you can spend a lot of weekend time in school auditoriums of you are the parent of a theatre kid.  The idea is we should encourage the committment to your kid’s growth by showing them you are proud to be there.

Travel challenge: those who traveled more than 5 miles to see the performance are asked to stand. The mileage continues to go up and up as rounds of applause and “oohs” and “aahs” resound when ultimately the proud grandparents who have traveled from across the country to see thier namesakes sing their heart out on a tiny stage are recognized for their commitment to family by the room.  Sometimes all you have is family.  It’s important to be there for someone else sometimes and family is one of the few opportunities we have to challenge ourselves in that regard.

Finally, we are reminded by the director about the importance of audience engagement: “the more you respond to them the better they will perform and respond to you”. A round of applause or some clapping along does a lot to remind those kids that they have the power to do something that moves people. Helping them out lets them know it’s working – even if they are not yet the best they can be. But that kind of empowerment will at least encourage them to continue to try.

Even as we grow into adulthood and (in theory) mature into our sense of self and find our niches, we still continue to encounter new challenges. Sometimes we need to allow ourselves to let others go out of their way to help us build our confidence or vice versa. The more we put ourselves out there and make ourselves vulnerable from time to time, the more we open ourselves up to real growth.  A curtain call every now and again reminds us the importance of others in making our lives meaningful.

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