Public speaking made me nervous as a kid. Never mind getting on stage to act or sing, just raising my hand to answer a teacher’s question gave me the jitters. I’d often stammer, speak in fragments, and as I felt all eyes on me, I sometimes lost my thread and rambled incoherently.
Getting on stage for concerts wasn’t as bad because I could hide among my classmates. But for many kids, being on stage in front of an auditorium full of parents is a stressful experience, one that we put our children through as a kind of right-of-passage. But in a wonderful essay on The New York Times Motherlode, Devorah Blachor asks, “Should Children Be Forced to Perform?”
In it, Blachor describes how many of the first graders at her son’s school’s Winter Show appear unhappy and fidgety on stage. Her son seems so stressed — his eyes literally rolling to the back of his head — that he looks as if he’s having a seizure. He isn’t, he’s just staring up at the bright lights because he was nervous to gaze at the audience. Still, Blachor wonders, while we expect our kids to read and learn math, should we expect them to get on stage and perform, too? Or might the anxiety be too much for some kids?
I wondered, while reading it, whether we should take into consideration that some kids suffer from acute anxiety. Should these children not be required to participate in public performances, just as we make special accommodations for kids with dyslexia, say?
A psychologist at Case Western University says no. Dr. Amy Przeworski told Blachor that while we shouldn’t force children onstage, “the experience does help a child to learn to overcome his/her fears.”
The fight or flight response that might give us an upset stomach or cause our heart to bang in our ears while in front of a crowd is one we need to learn how to manage. If we push through those uncomfortable feelings, we may arrive at a more rational understanding that while we might not like standing on stage and performing, it’s not actually going to hurt us. That makes us mentally stronger, more confident, and capable; less frightened of public speaking. Sure, we’ll probably still feel nervous, but hopefully it won’t be overwhelming.
Even as a child I recognized that my anxiety about speaking in front of a group didn’t feel right, so in middle school I joined a public speaking club. First I learned John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, which I delivered in classroom competitions at fancy prep schools that left me sweaty and nauseous with nervousness. Then I moved on to debating, where I had to make extemporaneous comments to defend my point. I was pretty horrible at both, but they taught me something: that I could channel my jittery energy into performing for the crowd, making it work for me. I’ve relied on that often, whether I’m hosting a question-and-answer session in my role as a reading series curator here in New York City, or speaking on National Public Radio or The Huffington Post Live about modern fatherhood.
Nervousness is something most performers experience. That feeling, in and of itself, is OK, and totally normal. It’s a sign that the performance matters, that you want to do a good job. It’s what you do with that energy that matters. For Blachor’s son, looking up at the lights was his way of coping with his on-stage nervousness. But if we don’t let our kids have those fearful moments up on stage, they’ll never learn that for themselves. It’s tough, yes, especially for parents who also experience stage fright. But it’s become a part of school culture for a reason.
Performing on stage is a right of passage that helps prepare children from the adult world.More On