Livin’ la vida…Deutsch! Children’s Extracurricular Activities and the Bucharest Middle-Class (3)

Alin Savu

Now that some broad strokes of the middle class family in Bucharest are laid down, I will talk about children’s perspective on their experience. Using operationalized drawings and family journals for recording routines and practices of the middle-class family from a child’s perspective I managed to create a broader picture out of snippets from the daily life of ten children from Bucharest. Watching thus the routines of these children, one of the most poignant feature of their experience is what Helga Zeiher (2003) has coined as insularisation – children are basically carried around in cars from one side of the town to the other, between islands designed for specific activities.

“On Tuesdays and Thursdays she gets home at around 7.30 and these are complicated days because of the road. At 3 o’clock I go and pick her up from school, I take her to the language centre, we arrive at 4, she stays there for an hour and a half and then I pick her up again to go home.”(Maria, mother, 34)

Looking briefly at how the story is told by this mother one can observe how the child becomes in this context a precious object, carried around, picked up from and left in places, taken here and there by the concerned and caring parent. More to the point, this care, along with social aspirations contribute to a peculiar experience of childhood:

– “Besides school and extracurricular activities, how much time are you left with?

– Quite little…being that most of the other time we spend in the car…I’m left with very little. For example, this morning I left home at 7.30 and I will probably go back at about 8.30pm. And…I take a shower, I eat and go to sleep.” (Carina, 10)

Being on the road a good part of the day, the car becomes as much of a space as well as a vehicle. Intimacy, transition and passivity would be the three words that capture the essence of this newly repurposed space:

“He likes it when we are in the car, we just talk – that’s the time when we talk about anything. He chooses the subject.” (Cristina, mother, 37).

When she leaves the language centre, she changes in the sports gear in the car. She already gets into the sports spirit”(Maria, mother, 34).

“I don’t really like it in the car. I can’t do anything with the belt on and my father always asks me about school stuff!” (Iulian, 9).

Insularisation is basically a matter of fragmentation of the time and space children spend their day in. This also brings about a lack of synchronicity with children in their neighbourhood and thus the geography of friendship is changed. Most of the children’s friends come from these extracurricular institutions which in this sense become places of sociability – but it is worth noting that it is not that these institutions encourage children to make friends better than the spaces in the neighbourhood, it is the fact that they have a schedule and bring the same people regularly in the same place that makes those relations possible.

 – “Do you have friends or colleagues around the house to play with?  

– No, I don’t have colleagues around the house. Either I go to them, or they come to me”(Daniel, 10)

“She doesn’t go out around the block, but there’s a park nearby. There are some who have grandparents that pick them up from school. They come home, do their homework, sleep for an hour or two and they can go out, but they go out when Carina comes from the after[school], when she needs to eat, shower, prepare her bag for the next day, do some math…and so on.”(Alexandru, father, 41)

It is not that children are only passive actors and subjects of their parents’ projects and aspirations for their future. While some of the initiative comes indeed from the adults, children rapidly adapt to the offered environment and push themselves the boundaries forward. Corsaro (2001) underlines that children are active agents in shaping their experience of childhood, but even more concrete than that, as Gary Cross (2009) points out, they become agents of consumption under peer pressure, aggressive advertising or by virtue of their already formed friendship relations they would like to entertain:

“This thing with the chess, we took it up in school because it was trendy – every child in school was playing chess. They would play some whenever they got the chance. He didn’t know chess so it contributed to a sort of a social pressure” (Bianca, mother, 36).

“There’s also somebody who annoys me – Edi and Robert. They annoy me because they’re friends and they can play the piano, but I can’t and in a way I am jealous” (Ionut, 8)

“Some of the things my kids do are not necessarily the things I would have wanted for them, so it was not about us, but they are for sure inspired by the models of other children – my friend knows how to, therefore I must do so too.” (Camelia, mother 35)

Putting all these pieces of information together, the image of the middle-class in Bucharest seems to be dominated at once by competition and uncertainty, a context in which personalised education is seen as the solution to both problems – give your child a head start in the competition and ensure at least inclusion with the others in the middle class, maybe even upwards social mobility. However, from the children’s view point, middle-class childhood as an experience is fragmented, often isolated from the city in a considerable amount and from the family for the most part of the day. Proximity to home is not what determines friendship, but synchronicity of schedules and parents’ income and aspirations. Moreover, while the middle-class family tries to be in control of the child through certified institutions that boast on springing the child to great intellectual heights, children themselves become agents of consumption, pressing on their parents’ choices to impose their own, and pointing out the fine line between labour and consumption. To put it simply, opportunity is sometimes the best form of exploitation.

Bibliography (1,2,3)

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