Expensive pastimes of the young

By Gill South

It is natural for parents to want to do as much as possible for their children. And for most families this means sending them to the best schools they can afford and filling the kids' spare time with extra-curricular activities.

Sometimes these pastimes can almost take over your life and the cost of maintaining these activities can take quite a chunk out of the family's budget and free time.

Some parents don't realise how expensive their child's chosen sport can be and they can be left with little choice but to keep footing the bill or face their child's disappointment.

Ann and Tony Gray, parents of former Kristin School pupil Caroline, have always supported their daughter's passion for ballet. At 16, Caroline is now at the New Zealand School of Dance. There is no doubt, the cost of supporting her exceeded the Grays' expectations.

"The ballet lessons used to be about $375 a term for three times a week. Last year we were billed another $300 per term for extra classes which took it to $600-$700 a term, plus the pointe shoes and demi-pointe shoes, which cost $100 a go, and sometimes Caroline will go through a pair of those in a couple of weeks," says Ann.

There are no regrets for the family despite the sacrifice. Ann is an artist and Tony an engineer.

She does most of the ferrying around. "Caroline trained every night after school and six hours every Saturday. It was worth spending the money because it was obvious that the talent and the commitment were there."

The lessons in Mt Eden were on top of Kristin School fees of roughly $3000 a term. Caroline left Long Bay College to go to Kristin because she could study dance there as part of the syllabus - she did her International Baccalaureate in ballet last year - and the school was supportive of her dedication to her passion.

"We looked at Kristin and moved her there because they got behind her and her whole curriculum could be centred on dance," says Ann.

Caroline's hard work has led to a place at the School of Dance where she is doing a three-year diploma.

An all-encompassing hobby such as ballet can cause parents some anguish. "In the last year, I said to her, you are not having a childhood," says Ann.

With her daughter now based in Wellington, the North Shore mother says she has a lot more time on her hands - although her son James has his share of extra-curricular activities. He plays soccer and has guitar lessons at $275 a term.

Gray says: "To me it's worth it especially with a boy because they too easily fall into PlayStation. I would much rather he was playing the guitar."

The Grays' decision to send their children to Kristin because of its attitude towards developing their children's talents, is not unusual. High-fee schools pride themselves on the range of extra-curricular activities they offer because parents demand it. Diocesan School for Girls in Auckland, for instance, has published a separate extra-curricular guide which lists 40 different sports as well as music and drama activities.

"Parents want their daughters to be exposed to these opportunities. It is very important when they are evaluating schools," says Karen Chadderton, the marketing manager at the school where Sarah Ulmer grew to love cycling.

The girls, when they first start, are overwhelmed and want to do everything, says Chadderton. The school warns them they will have to make a firm commitment, practice twice a week and compete on Saturdays.

Rowing is probably the most expensive sport offered at Dio, says Chadderton. The guide, which also includes dragon boating at $80, says the estimated cost for DiocesanRowing, a club run by parents, is $1200 a year. There are six to 10 training sessions a week, a training camp and numerous regattas throughout the year.

One private school mother, Diane Ferguson, whose daughter Jessie is a talented cricketer, says her daughter is doing too many extra-curricular activities and she will be cracking down on this. The working mother has retained the family nanny who can run the teenager to activities during the week and then she takes over at the weekend.

"My 15-year-old does as much as she can: swimming and outdoor cricket in summer, indoor in winter, soccer, lacrosse and extra maths tutoring."

The maths tutoring is $30 an hour, twice a week near exams, cricket is $50 a term and the soccer $125 a term, plus gear.

"I don't get a weekend. Jessie fills up the entire year with activities. It's quite a lot of pressure," says Ferguson.

Parents try to give all their children opportunities, which can call for some real sacrifice in the family budget. Ferguson's son, Michael, 11, a student at a top school, goes to extra drama classes at $160 a term.

Another common extra-curricular challenge for families is the school trips to increasingly exotic destinations. One of Auckland's top boys' schools is planning a classics trip to Italy for eight weeks, for instance.

Jeff Matthews, senior financial adviser at Spicers Wealth Management, says such activities are "building up unrealistic expectations where kids get used to doing this stuff. There's going to be a reality check for them ... I think some parents are making a rod for their own back - or is it the parents trying to achieve through their children? There is nothing worse than a sports day where parents are trying to achieve for their kids."

One lesson children learn with a demanding extra-curricular schedule is that it does not leave much time or money for some of the things their friends like to do: shopping or going to the movies.

Brenda Cosmo's daughter is a horse-mad 11-year-old who has just taken possession of her first steed. It has called for a substantial investment. The horse cost $4000 including tack and the family is paying $200 a month for lessons, keep and farrier's bills.

"Owning a horse is expensive. We don't spend money on frills or computer games. Going to the movies is an extra treat but you are so busy anyway," says the mother of three.

Cosmo thinks her daughter's expensive hobby is preferable to spending time at the mall. "It's a good discipline, a good healthy outdoor pursuit, and you have to be committed," she says.

Even after the kids leave school, the worry and commitment do not end.

Gray's worry now is how her daughter will earn her living as a ballet dancer. "What people don't realise is that ballet dancers work as hard as any top sports person and they don't get the same support ... I don't think she will make a lot of money."

Caroline's parents are paying for her years at dance school. They don't want her to work during her study.

"We will make sure she is supported, even if we have to take out a mortgage," says Gray.


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