An old joke asks how do you get to Carnegie Hall? The answer: practice, practice, practice! Recently, a mom spoke to me about a conflict with her son over practicing the piano. He was rebelling, saying he did not want to take lessons and therefore refused to practice. She was invested in his continuing the lessons to maintain his connection to music and did not know what to do with this outright refusal.
By coincidence, at the same time I was asked to speak to a group of musician/teachers, in particular about how to deal not only with difficult students, but with their parents. Here, too, many of the questions had to do with students not practicing, and parents’ upset reactions to this situation. A number of examples had to do with parents blaming teachers for children refusing to practice. The idea was that if teachers made the lessons more inspiring, and the music the children were assigned more to their liking, they would be motivated to practice.
The need to find someone to blame when there is a problem is very familiar. Not only with music lessons, but with school work generally, it is not unusual for parents to blame a teacher if a child is having difficulty or is misbehaving. At the same time, having worked with teachers for years, I know only too well how often teachers blame a child’s difficulty on the parents and issues in the home. Actually, blaming parents not only for the behavior of their own children, but for the pervasive socially-disapproved-of behavior of children generally, is something parents are only too familiar with.
But the blame game does not answer the question of what the issues really are when children rebel about homework, about practicing an instrument, or even about chores they have been assigned. In the most general sense, the issues involved when they rebel about fulfilling requirements that may be part of life, but are not, or may not have been their choice. Parents become frustrated not only because children are refusing to do what they are supposed to do, but also because they are not taking responsibility for things parents believe they should be able to be responsible.
Taking responsibility for doing the things one has to do, or is supposed to do as part of life, even when you don’t particularly want to do them, is really part of a maturational process. Young children start out with the pleasure principle: I want it because it tastes good or feels good. They pursue the things that bring them pleasure and try to avoid things they don’t like, or aren’t fun. As parents, we tend to be more accepting of that in babies, or when children are very young. We look for ways around the foods they don’t seem to take to readily, or things they may protest – such as having a diaper changed.
We become more impatient, however, when we think children should accept the idea that certain things have to be done whether they like it or not. But now we are talking about the idea of delayed gratification, a fairly sophisticated concept, which often involves tolerating frustration – another difficult step to master. Delayed gratification means putting off immediate pleasure for the benefit of long term gain. That entails an ability to think in terms of the future and to imagine a reward that is not yet concrete or tangible. We know that children have a limited time sense – the “future” is a vague concept. Also, they are very concrete – a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
The point is that developing these skills is a process that develops along with other skills as children mature. Both cognitive and emotional growth are important parts of that process. On the other hand, sometimes it is not only the future that seems like a vague idea, but also the supposed benefit. What is the benefit of putting your toys away, or getting dressed for school instead of playing or watching tv? Finding all the parts of the game next time, or getting to school on time may not seem like such a great benefit compared to the immediate pleasure of the moment.
When it comes to practicing an instrument, or mastering a sport, the long term benefit of the effort put in may seem even more remote. Children may have a very limited idea of what it takes to produce the sound the teacher or favorite pop star makes on an instrument, or to pitch or throw like a sports hero. If in their minds practicing is identified only with that kind of perfection, or something like it, the entire enterprise may seem hopeless.
But we can help children through this process if we start by having realistic expectations ourselves. That means asking ourselves what they reasonably can be expected to do in terms of time, frustration, and achievement. It also means staying in touch with the abilities they don’t yet have, as well as those they do have. Most of all, it may mean supporting a child with our presence or words through the actual steps involved in reaching a realistic goal.
Practice may not make perfect. But it can make for noticeable improvement. Getting better at something is more of a motivator than anything else!