Just look at what happened to Baby Jane

Stage-struck parents can drive their children to nervous breakdowns. Better the gentle approach, says Lesley Gerard
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Rebecca was four when she began learning the piano. At six she was entering festivals and competitions. By eight she was burnt out and on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

It was, says Inez Russell, her music teacher, the fault of Rebecca's mother.

"She was talented, but she was put under so much pressure to succeed that she became a nervous wreck. Her parents were devastated. They felt she had let them down.''

Pushy parents, desperate to realise their own thwarted ambitions through their children, are not a dramatic cliche. They are an unpleasant reality.

Mrs Russell, a teacher in London for six years, says: "It is the middle- class, ambitious, educated parents who are the worst offenders. They seldom recognise themselves - even after you have sat them down and very brutally pointed out the dangers of what they are doing.

"Parents have to be gentle. With the right degree of support and encouragement, they can make a very important contribution, but they have to back off from their own ambitions - it is a difficult balancing act.''

Every parent to a greater or lesser degree faces this balancing act. But for those whose children aspire to careers in the arts or sport, the stakes are even higher. They must nurture the child's talent and enthusiasm, encourage practice and training, but guard against false hopes - preparing them for tough competitive professions in which few succeed. Many parents simply do not know where to begin.

Mary Clarke, editor of Dancing Times, says: "The most important thing is to find a good teacher who is qualified with one of the professional associations. Most parents think their child is exceptional. It is terribly important never to build up false hopes. Be realistic. Dancing is a very crowded profession. In classical ballet only a tiny percentage go on to make it.''

Jonathan Willcocks of the Royal Academy of Music recommends that parents visit music conservatories for advice and professional assessment, and enroll children at weekly classes. "Studying an instrument can be very lonely. Learning with other children of a similar ability is both challenging and fun. With a very young child, spotting talent is the hardest thing. Parents can pick up on signs, such as a child's instinctive reaction to pitch, listening intently to music, or enjoying singing.''

Primary school children should try every sport, according to the Sports Council, and develop a range of skills before specialising. Leisure services departments within local authorities should be able to provide information on clubs.

Parents should also ensure that educational safety nets are in place. The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (Rada) prospectus points out: "No specific academic qualifications are required, but the advantages to an actor of a good education need hardly be stressed ... some Local Education Authorities require two A-levels to qualify for a higher education grant award.''

It is not always easy to convince star-struck youngsters that they should knuckle down to academic study, however. At a meeting at West Ham football club for more than a hundred school-age aspiring young footballers and their parents, Simon Webster, 31, the club's centre half, stressed education was part of planning for the future.

"I had time off with an injury. It made me realise football does not go on for ever,'' he said. He is studying for two A-levels and wants to do a part-time chartered physiotherapy course.

For some parents, vocational boarding schools are the answer. These schools for children gifted in music, drama and the arts offer scholarships for children as young as seven or eight. The Football Association National School at Lilleshall in Shropshire is a boarding school for promising footballers aged between 14 and 16.

But not every child will want to attend a specialist school. Ellie Fagg, from St Albans, started playing the violin at two. Now 12 and a pupil at the Royal Academy on Saturdays, she has turned down a place at the prestigious Purcell School of Music in Harrow.

"Part of me wanted to go there because it would have been really good for my violin playing, but part of me didn't want to go - I would have missed my schoolfriends, I am not sure I am that devoted,'' she admits.

Her mother, Beth, decided it was important the final decision was Ellie's. Mrs Fagg, a music teacher said: "I have my own ambitions for her, which I try to hold back. If I had been 11 and offered a place at Purcell, I would have said 'yes please'. But Ellie is not me. If her violin playing goes from strength to strength, we might regret missing that opportunity, but ultimately we had to think what was best for Ellie."