My 10-year-old has been studying piano for five years now, and for five years, we have been struggling to get her to practice. Bribes, threats and bargains are the currency of necessity. I think there was one time in the five years, after a recital, that my daughter seemed to be genuinely happy about playing piano. She was proud of herself after that performance, and it seemed that she could see how her hard work had amounted to something that mattered to her. But that was short-lived and the next day, the same resistance returned. “Try another instrument,” friends and teachers cheerfully suggested. And we have. I can say that I now know the sound of many different kinds of instruments, from woodwinds to strings, hitting the tile floor. I suppose it hasn’t all been dreadful, though. Sometimes, when my daughter’s friends come over, she likes to show them what she can do on the piano and that seems to bring her a sense of satisfaction. By and large however, the piano has been five years of one big cacophonous yelling match, with a whole lot of “Noooooooooooo’s” and a sprinkling of slamming doors thrown in for harmony.
Challenge and discipline are good for children (and adults). Learning a difficult skill teaches us to push through frustration, and it strengthens the link between hard work and the joy of being able to do something well. True joy rarely comes without hard work, and we come to know this experientially when we do something hard on a regular basis. Taking on a challenge also teaches us to tolerate delayed gratification, to stay with something even when it is not fun, because of what will come later. We learn that there can be value in an experience, even when it is not pleasurable. Being willing (and tough enough) to keep practicing something hard gives us a sense of pride and inner strength. It connects us to ourselves in a very profound way.
When our practicing starts to deliver results, it is gratifying to know that we alone have put in the hours and offered up the blood, sweat and tears that now result in our competence (and excellence). This process results in a deep sense of self worth that is not transitory or grandiose, but rather firmly grounded in the connection between hard work and ability.
Furthermore, there are periods in every life when one has to do very hard things for sustained periods of time, with or without a payoff at the end. Life is a challenge. Practicing a difficult skill is like practicing life itself. It helps develop the ability to be able to make it through these hard periods, without going numb or going mad. In this way, activities that require discipline and challenge teach children critical skills that they will undoubtedly need at some point in their lives. The benefits of sustaining a practice in something that requires us to stretch to our outermost limits, to stay in it through fear, frustration, anger, boredom, all the mind plagues — to journey through a place where we don’t think we will come out the other side, has profound benefits that are too numerous to mention here.
So, that brings me to the question at hand… for how long? For how long do we, as parents, keep pushing a child through their resistance? At what point do we stop forcing them to do something (that they say they don’t want to do) for the sake of building important life skills and learning important life lessons? What is the tipping point when pushing through their resistance is no longer teaching them the importance of sticking with something hard, but rather becomes a lesson in ignoring their personal sonar, that inner voice which tells them what they really want to do? When does the forcing of a challenging skill stop being something that helps connect our children to themselves and become something that actually disconnects them from themselves and their truth?
I have reached my tipping point personally, in part because I think we are working against the truth of what is, and on a more basic level, because I do not want the disruption in our family life to continue. Also, I wonder if at this point, since our daughter is 10, if we are not just banging our heads against a wall. It is quite possible that she may not take anything important from all this struggle. If she never learns to play piano well, which she won’t if she doesn’t practice or practices haphazardly (so as not to lose TV time), then all of this battling, this disruption in our home, will have been for what? She will not earn the sense of accomplishment and self worth, the link between hard work and joy that we were hoping for. I am beginning to believe that giving her the right to say “No,” at this stage, may be more powerful in terms of teaching her a sense of her own value and strength.
I have asked my daughter if there is anything else that she would be interested in learning, something that would be a challenge and that she could practice at home on a daily basis. As of yet, we have not discovered another possible discipline, but that may change. Some people believe that we should stick with the plan, and that she should learn piano whether she wants to or not. To this mind, the ongoing conflict and familial dissonance contains a purpose that trumps the lived experience of it. Even if it’s 18 years of fighting, she will get her vocal chords’ worth of benefits from the experience. I, however, am not so sure and I wonder if we, like many families, are now just fighting over a concept, over an idea of what is good for children in general.
Here’s what I know:
1. After five years of taking weekly lessons, my daughter consistently does not want to practice the piano.
2. When my daughter plays well, she feels happy and proud of herself.
3. After any improvement/success, she immediately returns to not wanting to play.
4. My daughter does not want to do the work that is required for her to play the piano well.
As far as I understand it, these are the What is-s. I am not interested in proving a concept, being right or winning the war. I am interested in giving my daughter the chance to build a deep, unquestionable, and very personal sense of her own ability, strength and toughness. Perhaps for her, these teachings will come from being so fierce as to have her “No” finally heeded by her two equally fierce parents?
Coincidentally (or not), as I write this just now, I am listening as my younger daughter bangs around on the same piano that my older daughter drops her clothes on. Without prompting, my 2-year-old often climbs up on the bench to sing a song and play a melody that she creates. The truth is I love the way my older daughter hangs her clothes on the keys just as much as the lovely sounds wafting into my office right now. Perhaps after all the trying to give something that is not wanted, there comes a time to fall in love with what is. Perhaps that time is now.