It’s a challenge all too familiar to parents. A child, usually though not always a son, who is quiet, socially withdrawn, more likely to follow than carve out his own path. Ironically, this is where the stage comes in and why theatre is great for kids.
In Hollywood-speak, we might call these kids ‘the Outsiders,’ kids live spend so much time on the periphery we often don’t even know they’re there. They aren’t bad kids nor do they hail from troubled homes – they’re simply shyer than most.
Unfortunately, research shows that these kids are more likely to struggle:
- Developing meaningful relationships
- Finding fulfilling jobs and careers
For one reason or another, these kids have never found their voice. And while it may seem counter-intuitive or even cruel to nudge these kids toward theatre, it turns out that this may be precisely what they need (and actually want).
Using the Arts to Find Personal Expression
First, the good news. Children who participate in the arts (music, theater, dance, painting, etc.) are far more likely to become confident, perform well in academics, and suffer from lower rates of anxiety and depression. The sooner they start, the better the results.
When kids walk in the door they feel accepted, they feel welcomed, and the kids that have more experience help the kids that have less experience.
(It should be noted that cultural exploration – visiting museums, attending plays, listening to live music – can have a similarly positive impact on kids.)
In a landmark study of Irish children by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), researchers found that a child’s participation in the arts and/or cultural activities proved to be a powerful indicator of his or her subsequent feelings of confidence, wellbeing and happiness. The study “clearly demonstrates a strong correlation between participation in arts and cultural activities and a child’s wellbeing,” said Orlaith McBride, director of ESRI’s Arts Council.
Says 17-year-old Marie Lynch of her time with the Backstage Youth Theatre: “Not only have I gained so many friends who are like-minded and enjoy theatre like me, but I have also grown as a person. I’m not the same shy girl anymore. I’m now confident in my thoughts and opinions. I have learned how to express myself and share my ideas.”
Boys Are Under-Represented
Unfortunately for boys, many of the same cultural biases that once led parents and educators to unconsciously steer more boys than girls toward sports, plays out in precisely the opposite way when it comes to the arts, where even at a very young age girls are far more likely to be guided toward the arts.
Though not mentioned in the study, such gender imbalances could exacerbate the growing disparity between boys’ and girls’ educational accomplishments. Today, for example, females tend to perform better in school and are increasingly more likely to attend and graduate from universities.
One potential reason boys are less likely to participate in the arts: their language skills often lag those of their female counterparts. Additionally, many cultures (as noted above) mistakenly believe the arts are more ‘feminine’ pursuits. As a result of these and other issues, boys may be more shy about expressing themselves or putting themselves ‘out there’ for critical review.
But as Tom McEvilly, co-educational director of Wisconsin’s Children’s Theater, points out: “Theater is an interesting entity. When kids walk in the door they feel accepted, they feel welcomed, and the kids that have more experience help the kids that have less experience.”
And for the shy or self-conscious kids? “They are helped by the kids that are not so shy, and they feel that instant responsibility and bond of being kind to others that are trying to walk through this environment and they do really well,” says McEvilly.
So if your child is one of those ‘peripheral’ types, remember that the arts are a terrific way to help him or her bring forth that inner voice and discover for themselves that, introverted or extroverted, shy or confident, their voice matters as much as the next.