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How to survive piano lessons and hockey practices

Looking back at it now, parenting author Ann Douglas is glad she decided to rent an oboe for her daughter several years ago. Otherwise "it would have become a dust collector," she says, because playing the oboe never did grow on her daughter.

It cost $150 to rent the instrument for one year, but it only took a few short lessons to realize Julia wasn't into the oboe. "Sometimes parents naively think they can pass it down to the sibling, but what are the odds of the next sibling wanting to play the oboe?" says Douglas.

Kids change their minds over and over again -- it's part of growing up. One day, your son wants to be a rock star, the next, he wants to be soccer great David Beckham. And while it's great to encourage kids to be whatever they want to be, this fickleness can cost parents dearly if they aren't careful.

While there's no question that extracurricular activities, lessons and sports are good for kids, they can become pricey. Equipment, gear, instruments, new ballet shoes and private lessons -- they all add up.

So, we've gathered advice from parents, coaches and parenting experts to help parents survive the lesson-taking years and make the smartest investment for their child's future.

It does the body, and brain, good
Whether it's sports or music lessons, extracurricular activities can improve your child's life a lot. Given that one in four Canadian children is obese, a figure that has tripled in the past 25 years, playing sports will help keep them healthy. It also helps facilitate social interaction.

And music lessons, piano in particular, help improve spatial and abstract reasoning skills used in math and science, so extracurricular activities are a good investment in your child's future. One of the most important factors in ensuring that investment is worthwhile is involving your child in deciding which lessons to take.

Choose your lessons
I, myself, am a piano-lesson survivor. Coming from a family of piano players, it was expected that I would follow suit, so for several years, I endured lessons in a skill I knew I'd never use, while my parents' money flew out the window.

To save the tears and money, let your child help choose her activity. There are some easy, and cheap, ways to narrow the choices. Before you rush out and buy an instrument or hockey gear, take time to discover your child's natural interests or talents. If you think your daughter might become the next Mozart, take her to watch live music, says Elizabeth Stevenson, coordinator of The Music Education Centre in Cambridge, Ont.

"Take your child to see a local live band," she says. "This will assist your child in knowing which instrument they like the look of and the sound of."

The same reasoning applies to sports -- before hauling your kid out of bed for 5 a.m. hockey practice, take him to a game to see how much he likes the look of it.

Michelle Moses, mother of two sons and the assistant coordinator of fitness and personal wellness at the University of Western Ontario in London, advises trying out an affordable city recreation program before taking the plunge. "Take advantage of demonstration opportunities with your child. If the organization is having an open house, attend it," she says.

Rent or swap to save cash
Buying new instruments or equipment can be expensive. Brand new hockey goaltender equipment can set you back $3,500. On top of that, kids grow! It's not unusual for kids to grow three shoe sizes in one season.

To keep costs down, look at renting equipment or buying used. School rental programs can be cheaper than private companies, as they are renting to a group, so check out various rates before signing up.

"You'd never dream of changing instruments if you own it," says Douglas. "Kids are at the age where they are going to try different activities, so give them enough flexibility to try something different."

If you're intent on owning an instrument, some stores will put a percentage of what you pay in rent toward the purchase price of the instrument.

Before enrolling your child in any activity, check the contract for reimbursement policies. The Langley, B.C., Minor Hockey Association, for example, offers a prorated refund, with no questions asked, for kids who opt out before Dec. 31. After that, no refund is available.

Strength, and savings, in numbers
For sporting activities, you can save a bundle if you swap equipment and pool resources with fellow parents. In Langley, one hockey mom helps organize equipment swaps each year. "I get calls every year from parents looking for a hockey swap meet -- as the kids get older, the equipment becomes more important," says Kathy Bilko.

To defray the cost of traveling for tournaments, teams often organize fundraising activities throughout the year, says Bilko. Parents will carpool to save gas money and try to buy in bulk to cut costs, as well.

When Moses' sons wanted to play soccer, she approached Zellers about getting a discount if she bought equipment for the entire team there. It turned out to be a win-win situation -- the store was happy to receive all of the business, and the team received 15 percent off their shoes.

As a facilitator of children's recreational and competitive programming, Moses says city-run recreation programs are quite affordable compared with private leagues. Likewise, church leagues, YMCA, Boys and Girls Club and nonprofessional teams are cheaper than the more-private competitive type.

Melanie Chambers is a freelance writer in London, Ontario.

-- Posted: May 23, 2005
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