Livin’ la vida…Deutsch! Children’s Extracurricular Activities and the Bucharest Middle-Class (2)

Alin Savu

As I was pointing out in the previous post, the next section of this paper series presents the case of families from Bucharest enrolling their children into extracurricular activities (such as various sports, arts and crafts, foreign languages, etc.), as part of their strategies of class reproduction or upward social mobility. I discuss how the Bucharest middle-class is imagined through the choices related to extracurricular activities and the role parents think they play for (the future of) their children.

In approaching the subject of parents’ choices and their relevance for the construction of the middle class in Bucharest, a good starting point is the idea of personalising education with the help of extracurricular activities – while these may not be necessarily seen as the way to performance, they certainly represent, as my interlocutors reckon, “an adjuvant to what the school cannot offer them […] they generate auxiliary competences” (Camelia, mother 35)  or “they help her develop those activities which the school generally leaves on the second place” (Paul, 42, father). Therefore, the purpose is to accessorise, to improve a path dependent system of education offering the children something better than the average.

This is consistent with the plethora of advertising these educational institutions target at the parents suggesting there is a constant competition not only among adults, but between their children, the future citizens. Thus “give your child a head start”, “open up a world of opportunities” and “our teachers are trained in modern methods and have a vast experience” resonate with the parents’ sense of the future and the idea of prestige emanating from the institution: “We had some moments last year when she was saying that she does enough English at school. Why must she go to the English Centre? And I told her what the difference was and, beyond this, the certificates that she would obtain there would really help her in the future.” (Andreea, mother, 40)

On the other side of this page, the said competition is felt to segregate, to divide children on the count of their abilities, their accumulated cultural capital that may create some kind of closed groups. Therefore, parents encourage children into taking up various classes like horseback riding, cricket, tennis or arts in order to facilitate their integration within groups of other children, or for the future adults to be able to be together: “She will be able to participate for example in a trip where people would do sports because she does sports too, and she likes it. Or, she will be able to speak about something on a certain occasion because…you know…she will feel included and not excluded and she will be up to date with the others…she will know how to be with the others.” (Maria, mother, 34)

Integration/inclusion, friendship, “socialisation” in the sense of sociability – these are also recurrent themes in parents’ discourse relative to extracurricular activities and I will return to them in the second part of the presentation, from another perspective. For now I will only talk about parents’ view of the city as a dangerous, uncontrollable, childless and child unfriendly place, as opposed to the space ensured by the extracurricular activities – organised, supervised, safe and friendly in such a way that children can become friends there. Moreover, the prohibitive price of these extracurricular activities at once defines a certain pool of families that are able to participate and thus ensures that the friends children make belong mainly to same social strata. The outside is unsafe, undefined, full of dangerous objects and beings: They need to be under supervision all the time, we can’t…We meet with more children in the park and they play with their parents there […] because there are all kinds of dangers in the street, you can’t find a place to play!” (Ioana, mother, 32) “If I know them here [at home] and that they’re safe, I trust them, I have no problem. For example, I sent her to camp and I have no problem with her going on a camp in an organised environment where I know that…you know?”(Maria, mother, 34)

While these arguments might seem valid at least in some parts of Bucharest, there is also the other side of coin, where parents discuss work and the waste of time. Middle-class children “do not just run around the block or play on the computer all day long”(Alexandru, father, 41), they need something useful to fill their time with – especially if it is safe, properly organised, and with a measurable outcome – “She’s 13 and she can read Harry Potter, the original, so she’s absolutely independent now, but she’s like this because she’s been doing English for 6 years now. The teacher told us she would get here. It’s not such an extraordinary surprise” (Diana, mother, 38). The downside that some of the parents feel is that work time for them ends up being mirrored by the time their children spend in extracurricular institutions: “She’s always alone, that’s it! When she finishes school hours, there’s nobody to pick her up at 12 o’clock – we are alone, my wife works, I work, no grandparents around, there’s nobody around, so she goes to an afterschool. But it’s the same problem, she’s not with us!”(Alexandru, father, 41)

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