“If Only….”

Have you ever said, or heard another adult say, “If only my mother had made me practice”, or “If only my parents hadn’t let me drop that?” We often seem to have regrets about things we didn’t do as children, whether learning to play a musical instrument or mastering a sport. Somehow these regrets always seem to end by blaming our parents, as if it were up to them to “make” us do certain things. Does anyone say, “I should have worked harder”?

A young boy I know who is a talented musician, by choice attended a music camp with rules about practicing time which were strictly enforced. The whole set-up sounded to me a little like a self-imposed prison. When he returned I joked with him a little about it and asked how it had worked out. He said it wasn’t that bad, and the results he got on his instrument made it all worthwhile.

I was so impressed with that statement, with the connection he was making between the effort and the result. It was also an acceptance of the idea that to play the way he wanted to play required real work on his part. He was willing to do the work in order to get that result.

I have thought a lot about that conversation because so many children these days have difficulty with the relationship between input and outcome. They seem to expect to be able just to know things without learning them, to do things without ever having done them. Having to work at mastering something seems almost to imply that something must be wrong – either with them or with what is being expected of them. Either way, the feeling seems to be that it should not be necessary to work hard, or to struggle with something in order to be able to do it or know it.

Often, children use as their models those who are experts, star athletes, or musicians, or artists. It looks so easy when the basketball player sends the ball through the hoop, or the man up at bat hits a home run. When the piano teacher plays a piece it sounds so good – that must be how it will sound when the child tries it. Disappointingly, it doesn’t.

On a holiday at a lake, I saw a child waiting impatiently for her turn to try water skiing. She was totally confident that she would just get right up and ski – it looked so easy when others did it. When that didn’t happen, she was outraged and had a meltdown, looking for all the reasons that someone had done something wrong. She could not be persuaded that this was something that would take practice and many tries.

From the time they are very young, children are learning new skills and developing mastery of their environment. They learn how to walk and talk, to dress themselves and tie their shoelaces. Later on they learn how to read and write. All of these skills contribute to their further ability to become self-sufficient and ultimately autonomous individuals. Some of these skills take longer to master than others. Some children have more difficulty mastering certain skills than do others.

You can see with two year olds in particular, the frustration children experience when they are having difficulty with something they are trying to do. I always say about two year olds that their reach exceeds their grasp. What they want to do, and what they think they can do, is not matched as yet by what they are capable of doing. Parents frequently relate how children have meltdowns when they can’t get something to work the way they want it to.

When children are that young, they sometimes have to be protected from their own ambitions by helping them move on from something that is too hard. At other times, when they calm down we can help them accomplish what they are trying to do – in effect teaching them how to achieve their goals. As children get older, however, we may become impatient with their meltdowns, and those become the issue rather than the underlying problem that may be causing them.

Sometimes the problem may be the expectations that are being set for them, at other times their own expectations of themselves. In either case, what is missing is an understanding of the process of mastering something, the relationship between teaching, learning, practicing and gradual mastery.

Learning something takes work, and is not always fun. It may be that all the contemporary technology: television, computers, ipads – all the gadgets that are intended to make many things easier, also give the message that everything is supposed to be easy. All that passive learning that takes place from early childhood on has replaced active effort.

Perhaps our job as parents is to support children – as we do when they are two – through the step by step process of learning. Whether it is with homework, riding a bike, throwing a ball, or practicing an instrument, helping them to take that next step when they get stuck, our support along the way when it gets hard, can help children not give-up.

Maybe we can prevent another generation of grown-ups saying, “If only….”

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