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Do I force my 2-year-old into dance class?

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Q: I'm trying to get my son into dance. He is 2 and has attended parent-and-me dance classes and seems to like it — and his tap shoes — a lot. He is eligible for the beginner munchkin-type ballet and tap classes for children ages 2 to 4. The problem is he still cries when we can't stay in the room to watch.

How do I balance pushing him and waiting for him to adjust/crying it out, which other parents suggest, vs. causing him to end up hating dance. In general, how should I know whether to push him and make him persevere? I know he can't be great at everything and might not make it big, but some of the more successful people seemed to have pushy parents who made them dedicate themselves to one discipline or another. How do I figure this out?

A: I am going to fully admit that, when I read this question, I thought it was a joke. I thought you were yanking my chain. My snap judgment said: “Is this parent serious right now? Pushing dance? For a 2-year-old?”

But I quickly remembered something rather important: I, too, pushed a certain 2-year-old into dance classes a number of years ago. Ahem. The backstory is that I had a 2-year-old, I was in graduate school, and I was frightfully lonely. I was desperate to meet other parents, and, during the cold winter months, dance seemed like as good an option as any. And it was. My eldest child took to it like a fish to water and danced (happily) for many years.

As much as I would like to tell you this is ridiculous, there is the larger question about when we push and help our children persevere, when we leave well enough alone (and let a child quit), and when we need to find an answer that’s somewhere in the middle.

Let’s go for the middle and throw in a dose of developmentally appropriate theory. In brief, 2-year-olds are still highly attached to their caregivers, and that attachment presents itself as children needing to stay physically close. Although they are no longer babies, needing to be carried around and have every need taken care of, 2-year-olds are still unable to do much of anything themselves, so they must stay close to a caregiver. Are they growing more independent? You bet! Every day, their ability to venture forth and discover the world grows in leaps and bounds. But even then, they frequently circle back to their home base (their caregiver) to feel safe.

Send parenting questions to Leahy at onparenting@washpost.com

We take your 2-year-old and put him in a room with other children and adults, without you, and his natural alarm goes off. “I need my person, I need my person!” Then the crying begins. He doesn’t feel safe. Does this mean he cannot get used to the change? No. Children go to day cares and nanny-shares every day and adapt, so how does this happen? First, when they go every day, children begin to see those providers as another home base. They feel safe. You will see crying and clinging at first, then a child begins to trust the routine and, most importantly, the people. The family is extended!

Could you force your child to adapt to this dance class? I don’t know. The real question you need to ask yourself is: “Is this adaptation truly necessary?” No one is going to work or in need of care; this is a dance class. Technically speaking, absolutely no 2-year-old needs a dance class. Two-year-olds need fresh air, basic toys and the freedom to explore their worlds. They don’t need (even to become a great dancer) complex instructions and expectations. Trust me: Your son has decades to learn how to become anything he wants to be. You don’t have to push anything right now.

As for the current class, I would leave and see whether the crying goes on and on. If he cries a bit, then has a ball in class? Great. If that lasts a week or two? Great, carry on. If your son seems panicked, refuses to let go of your leg and shows no improvement, then I don’t care how much you’ve paid or how successful you want him to be: Stop forcing him to go. You are disrespecting his basic needs, and this can (without sounding dramatic) severely hurt your relationship with him.

Again, 2-year-olds cry. Their lives are filled with frustration and stymied desires, so why would we add to that when we could make at least one thing go smoother?

For now, you have three options: Let him cry (but not panic) and see whether he adapts, stay in the room with him or try a class in another six months. Not one of these options involves “pushing” your son to do anything. Good luck.

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