The deep-seated hypocrisy of the performing arts peacock parent

Dance Moms' star Abby Lee Miller and one child who has made a hit career from performing arts, Maddie Ziegle.
Dance Moms' star Abby Lee Miller and one child who has made a hit career from performing arts, Maddie Ziegle. Photo: Belinda Pratten

From The Schools Spectacular to your bog standard school concert night, any kind of ‘kids get up and perform’ event flushes to the surface the performing arts peacock parent.

The performing arts peacock parent is the parent who gets way too invested in their child’s performing arts talent. And if my little corner of the world is any indication, they seem to be proliferating at an alarming rate.

Recently, a friend of mine related to me her experience at a local kids’ concert event. Organised by a music teacher to give his students the chance to perform in public, it was a low key program of kids taking turns to do their thing on a small stage at the local bowling club. Being a good volunteer type, my friend had offered to man the door; taking money and stamping hands as people entered.

From that unassuming perch she was privy to a veritable parade of peacocking by an alarming number of overly invested parents.

One mother and daughter duo stopped at the door and played out (unprompted) for my friend, a little vignette of severe performance nerves due to the fact that family members from all over the state had flown in especially to see the daughter perform. OMG! Auntie So-and-So and Cousin This’n’That are all here! So full-on! At which point the mother put a reassuring arm around her daughter’s shoulders and said: “They’re all here because you’re so special, darling.”

Another proud father bailed my friend up (again, she did not ask) to tell her that his daughter’s most recent musical performance was, “Real School Spec solo standard.” When my friend’s face registered a blank at this apparently new idiom, he took her through all the levels of The Schools Spectacular. ("Like the levels of hell," she told me later).

Apparently, there’s chorus, featured choir and solo. At each level, his hand – which began at the level of his neck - racheted up ever higher before finally ending way up above his head. By which it was clear that ‘School Spec solo level’ was the pinnacle, the summit, the thing our children should all be striving for: a state of being that is way above the average human experience.

There’s nothing wrong with being proud of our children and their talents. It’s our job as parents to be their advocates and to encourage them to follow their interests. But there’s supportive and then there’s overly invested to the point of, "settle down it’s a talent for singing not a cure for cancer."

The peacock parent basks in the glory of having a talented child and expects personal congratulations for it.

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In this way, the focus remains always on the accolades and not on the actual work. The performing arts peacock parent has their eye always on the prize. And the prize is recognition and applause.

Which brings me to the issue of future prospects.

I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad tidings, but the chances of your child making a comfortable living out of the performing arts is narrow at best. Success in the performing arts is arguably more fickle, unpredictable and market-driven than in any other career.

In terms of the economy and where public money goes, the arts continues to be a low level priority in Australia. I’m not whingeing. I’m just pointing out that while you may value your own child’s talent, by and large Australians as a collective cultural hive mind do not value the performing arts.

A career in that sector is something about which parents should be keeping level heads. But I think what really gets up my nose about peacocking performing arts parents is this: the majority of people don’t want their taxes spent on funding for the arts. This is evidenced by the way the ABC (which provides a lot of writers, performers and musicians a non-market-driven platform to ply their wares) is famously being stripped of its muscle and no one really cares.

Arts grants are the first to go in any rounds of government cost cutting and we’re all okay with thatbecause … income tax cuts, income tax cuts, income tax cuts.

Here in Sydney, live music venues struggle for air and then disappear beneath a surface of pokie-driven profit and community complaints about noise every other week. Everyone wants to live in the city. But they want their precious evening quiet time as well.

These things indicate that Australians, by and large do not value live music, theatre or performance.

And yet, when a child displays a musical, dramatic or artistic talent parents are suddenly invested and behaving as though a career in the performing arts is THE ONLY THING in life worth striving for.

I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re all so into the performing arts as a career destination for your kids, you might want to start thinking about the bigger picture.

Support your local performing arts centre program. Support the ABC and its ongoing funding. Buy local music and books. Go and see local music and theatre, support your local live music venue (as opposed to petitioning the council for it to be shut down because it’s too noisy).

A life in the performing arts is so much more than just rapturous applause from Mum and Dad.

Penny Flanagan is a writer and musician. Her latest novel is Surviving Hal.