I became a parent for the first time eleven years ago. Up until that moment, I had very little experience of children, and frankly even less awareness of what might be important to their wellbeing beyond love and the most basic of human needs: food, clothing, sleep. But I did have one blinding revelation as I held my new son in my arms: ‘if I could give my child two defining attributes at this moment, I would choose the two Cs: Confidence and Compassion.’
Many more revelations, misconceptions, trials and errors have come and gone since then, but surprisingly, since it was probably fuelled primarily by a mad rush of hormones and the lingering remains of the anesthetic, that first one still holds true for me. I want my children to have the kind of confidence that enables them to stand up for themselves, to articulate their thoughts and needs, to know that they are worthwhile human beings with gifts to offer; and I want this confidence to be tempered with the compassion to recognize those less fortunate, so that my children can both appreciate their own abilities and advantages, and learn to help those who stumble along the way.
The arts, to a receptive child, are uniquely designed to engender both the ‘C’s. All children the world over love a good story, and all of the varying artistic forms have at their heart a story to tell. Well-crafted stories, be they in books, theatre, music or a painting, teach a young child how the world works. They flesh out the nature of good and evil, establishing a system of moral values that will stay with the child for life. And as the child grows and the stories become more sophisticated, they teach the meaning of heroism, love, kindness and generosity, stimulating empathy in a young mind and offering ways to deal with the real-life issues that await all children in the playground: bullying, unfairness, negotiation, the reefs and shipwrecks of friendships. None of these issues are covered between the pages of a biology text book, or in a set of algebra problems, or on a map of the world, valuable in other ways though these may be. Nor is compassion a defining characteristic of behavior on the sports field, though team skills and a certain type of confidence may be highly developed, if you are talented and successful, with the flip side of a lack of confidence if you consistently fail.
Watching a play, listening to a story, exploring a great painting can all plant in a young child the seeds of compassion. Confidence comes when the child elects to participate. I’ve seen young children, my son included, take their first steps on stage, and felt their triumph when they have remembered that single (but vital) line. I’ve witnessed the unparalleled joy on their faces when the applause rips through an encouraging and loving audience. I’ve also worked with young children on writing individual stories, helping them to shape their thoughts and follow the arc of their tale, and I’ve seen them stand up and present it in front of their classmates with the confidence that comes from knowing that their story is both interesting and unique. Much the same confidence comes from playing the trumpet in the school band, or seeing your painting on display at ‘Back to School’ night. In each case, the message sent to the child is clear: You have something to say, and the world wants to hear you say it.
Once a week, I tutor young adults with literacy problems. In every case without exception, the teenager in this situation, now struggling to navigate through High School, has grown up in a house without books, without theatre, without exposure to the arts. It’s not acceptable to assume that if the schools don’t provide artistic opportunities, the parents will fill the gap. Many will; but equally, far too many won’t, for lack of time, education, or inclination.
Eleven years ago, I wanted my child to learn confidence and compassion. If I could give a gift to the world today, it would be to teach the same things to all our children. They aren’t easily discovered in text books, or on the athletics track. But there is an abundance of opportunities to learn them through the arts, for each new generation of open hearts and minds. It’s our job to make sure our children have the chance to find out.
Jenny Hollingworth is the Assistant artistic director for Arclight Repertory Theatre. She will be directing Arclight's upcoming production of Zahsman.