A Note‑By‑Note Exercise in Parenting
Something utterly miraculous happened the other day. My daughter played a short, one-minute version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on her guitar before a crowd. I call it a miracle because two months ago, the guitar was wallowing in complete neglect. How did we get here?
Last year, my daughter began taking a group guitar lesson at her school. If you’ve ever played an instrument, you know that a group lesson is about as useful as learning to drive a car by reading a manual. So, after six months of this, my daughter couldn’t play anything. This was frustrating because she alleged that she liked playing guitar, but we never heard her actually do it.
Not only would she not perform for us, she wouldn’t practice at all. When I asked why, she shrugged. I don’t know. She didn’t even hate practicing – she was just completely indifferent. Indifference is the worst thing to get from your child. It speaks of boredom and aimlessness. If you hate something, you at least care enough to hate it. In the face of indifference, motivating children becomes a hopeless task.
I decided to get her private lessons after school. I dodged through traffic for an hour every week to get her there, frantically aligned schedules so she didn’t miss a class. My daughter likes the guitar, I reminded myself as I darted around cars. This is worth the trouble. But it was the same old story: She never picked up the guitar between lessons. And all the encouragement her guitar teacher gave her went nowhere.
I was at a bit of a loss at this point. Do I push her harder? Do I yell? I stared at the guitar for a bit, ruminating on motivating children, before finally telling my daughter: “You win.” I told her she didn’t have to play the guitar if she didn’t like it, and we’d cancel her lessons.
It wasn’t reverse psychology in the traditional sense; I really did mean she could quit. Why bother wasting her time, my time, and the family’s money when it was not meant to be? We could move on to something else.
And then – two days later, as I was walked through the house, I heard the sound of notes struggling to come out. There had been no discussion between us at all about the guitar since I told her she could quit. Just silence, until these plunky tones. I was ecstatic, but cautious – one hour spent picking at strings is not the same as regular practice. But days later, there came more notes. Finally, my daughter asked me to pick up a guitar and play along with her. I obliged, though I am worse than her. By the next week, she had memorized the song she had been practicing.
And then before we knew it, she signed herself up to play in a summer camp talent show, where she gladly played her song with confidence. Our house now often fills with the tunes she strums on her guitar. I don’t have to remind her to practice.
Motivating children sometimes means giving them space to think for themselves. It pays off. My daughter had to think through this issue and reach her own conclusion. She had to decide for herself that playing the guitar was something she wanted to do. And I had to realize where I needed to stop. I can’t play the guitar for my daughter; I can barely play it for myself. Telling her she could quit, and meaning it, perhaps freed her to consider all of the music-making she would miss out on and to realize she didn’t want to give it up. And now that she’s had a chance to motivate herself through something she enjoys, maybe someday it won’t be so hard to push herself through something she doesn’t.