One of the questions I get from parents a lot is, “Should I let my kid quit [insert activity here]?”
My answer is always, “That depends on your family’s priorities.” I know, it sounds like a cop out, but it’s not, I promise.
Let me tell you a story.
When my oldest son, Ben, was 13, I decided it would be a great idea for him to take piano. Learning benefits, crossover to mathematical thinking, all that jazz. Luckily, my next-door neighbor up the hill (this will prove to be an important detail) had just launched her last kid and was downsizing and clearing out. She offered us the upright piano she and her husband had purchased for their three kids’ lessons.
“Oh,” I did not know they played piano,“ I said.
"They don’t,” she said, and rolled her eyes.
Undeterred, I asked some friends to help us get the piano out of the house next door and roll it downhill, into our house.
Ben began taking lessons from a local music teacher, and for a while, all was good in the Lahey home. He was excited about this new adventure, and practiced dutifully.
Two weeks in the honeymoon ended, and we embarked on a new routine: nag, complain, nag, complain, angrily practice out of spite, stomp upstairs, repeat.
Annoyance rapidly became to anger, and that piano morphed from an innocuous addition to our tiny house into an ominous agent of malice.
Ben and I talked about why he wanted to quit (it was boring, and he wanted to be outside with his friends), why he started in the first place (he wanted to be able to play an instrument other than saxophone), and how serious he was about quitting (very). I told him I was not willing to sacrifice our relationship over a musical instrument, he said he felt the same, and that was that.
We rolled that piano back out of our house and headed downhill again, this time to different neighbor’s home, where a well-intended and hopeful couple lived with their two young and unsuspecting children.
Cut to a year or so later.
Ben started fiddling around with my husband Tim’s guitar and I had always wanted to take lessons, so we signed up with a local guitar teacher.
We did well for about five lessons. Well, Ben and his very plastic fourteen year-old brain did well. I found the whole endeavor exquisitely frustrating and humiliating because I learned so much slower than Ben. He was rocking out to Eric Clapton’s “Layla” while I struggled to execute all three chords of Fleetwood Mac’s “Secondhand News.”
Around two months in, Ben realized something important.
He never hated piano, he hated lessons.
He did not hate practicing, either. He hated being told to practice, he hated the obligation of practicing songs he did not choose, according to someone else’s schedule and someone else’s rules.
We let our guitar teacher know Ben would not be continuing with his lessons, and signed up for Jamplay, an online guitar lesson subscription service with tons of teachers, musical styles, and pacing to choose from. Ben could skip ahead, repeat lessons, and progressed according to his pace, his choice. He loved it.
For the next couple of years, Ben played constantly. Played, not practiced.
He took that battered old guitar into the woods, to school, to the dinner table and even to bed.
After about a year, he walked into the kitchen while I was making dinner and asked,
“Um, if you see anyone selling a keyboard on the town listserv, I might be interested in giving piano another shot.”
To my credit, I was so calm. So casual. I’d learned some things, too.
“Happy to keep an eye out,” I said, hardly looking up from the food.
I submitted a “seeking keyboard” post to our local email listserv that very evening and less than a week later, Ben started practicing on our new (used) 88-key digital piano.
Ben’s 22 now, and while guitar is still his first musical love, he’s a competent piano player. He can bang out a song or two to impress his friends or satisfy an earworm, and that’s all he ever wanted.
If music played a larger role in our family, if it was an essential part of our lives or our work, I might have chosen to push harder when Ben was 13, insisting on those daily practice sessions.
But it doesn’t. We love music, and none of us aspire to life as a musician.*
Ben continues to play often, and we upgraded that old guitar for his birthday a few years later. When he visits home, the guitar comes with him, and he still likes to walk around, pacing the yard and even the wooded mountainside behind our house, strumming away.
He plays and he plays, and as long as I keep my wishes, my goals, and my mom-stink out of it, I think he’ll keep playing.
The research of psychologist Edward Deci explains our family’s experience perfectly. Extrinsic motivators and controls - my wishes, my goals, my mom-stink - do not promote long-term motivation, especially for creative endeavors. Worse, attempts to control or coerce undermine motivation and creativity. In other words, when we push, push, push our kids to do the things we want them to do, we all but guarantee they not want to do those things.
Not all aspects of parenting are optimized by inaction, but I know this: Ben has become a musician not because of my efforts, but in spite of them.