Q: My six-year-old son was so excited to take piano lessons, but now that we’ve purchased a piano and he’s four months into it, he doesn’t want to practice. Should I make him stick with it?
A: So many parents run into this issue. A child sees or hears a talented musician and can’t wait to get started making beautiful music himself. That is, until he learns it takes hours of practice just to play the simplest of songs and years to get even halfway to his final destination.
Before tackling the issue, try to understand the root of your own concerns. Are you afraid your son will learn to give up on challenging tasks? Become someone who breaks commitments (if he made one to you)? Miss the window of opportunity for becoming an accomplished pianist? If it’s one of the first two, don’t forget your most powerful parenting influence: modeling. When we force our children to follow through, we may believe we’re teaching them an important value, but they’re far more likely to learn from what we’re doing ourselves (i.e., using force when others don’t see things our way). If you want your son to internalize the values of sticking with challenging tasks and keeping commitments, try modeling the values yourself. For example, are you learning a new computer program? To speak Spanish? How to Samba? You can narrate aloud, “This is really hard for me, but I know if I stick with it, I’ll get better and better and it will get easier with time.” Or even better, ask your child for advice. “This is really hard. What do you think I should do?” Most likely, he’ll advise you to stick with it and you can thank him for his wisdom when you see the benefits of your perseverance. If he says to drop the task, you can ask curiosity questions to help him explore the natural consequences of your choice (you’ll be disappointed in yourself, you’ll miss out on the experience, etc.)
When we make children stick with something because we want them to, we also take away their ownership (i.e., they won’t likely believe themselves perseverant or take as much pride in their accomplishment if they only stay with something because we made them). If we’re the ones responsible for making our children practice, then they’re not, thus any refusal to practice only thwarts our responsibility in their eyes. If we view getting children to and from practice and paying for lessons as our responsibility and whether or not they become accomplished musicians as theirs, we allow them to own and learn from their decisions. Also, setting aside our agenda allows music to become a wonderful artistic expression and outlet for coping through tough times ahead. To shift responsibility, you can tell your child and your child’s instructor that you’re turning over responsibility for practicing to your child, but will always be available to help. When I told this to my own six-year-old, she said, “But then she’ll blame me if I forget to practice!” Point illustrated.
If your concern is that he’ll miss his window of opportunity, remember there are countless talents and hobbies out there for him to develop and choose from. Unfortunately, they may not be the same ones you’d choose for him. Take the pressure of yourself to make his decisions and instead help him explore, experience, and learn from the consequences of his own.