[EN] Parenting a talented child

I want to talk to you about something that really grinds my gears. I thought that this type of behavior is long forgotten and deeply buried, but it happened to me couple of times in the past few weeks and I strongly feel that it needs to be talked about. First of all: if your child is learning to play an instrument, congratulations. I want to proudly shake your hand, because even if the future of your kid will not be connected to music, playing an instrument is beneficial at various different levels: it improves eye-hand coordination, sharpens concentration, develops better learning skills and discipline, and it deepens the sensitivity for beauty. So if you gave your children a music instrument, you also gave them a handful of opportunities. But there are also downsides, and one of them is that your child will have to cope with criticism at different levels. In my experience, most of the criticism surprisingly comes from parents, not the teachers or peers.

I’ve had different experiences with punishing and rewarding my kids through their life. For many years I’ve done it terribly wrong, but I’ve learned my lesson and now I’m going to teach you one, so you don’t have to make my mistakes.

Don’t punish by adding hours of practice

Imagine the situation: some clients walk in to my workshop. A parent (let him be a dad) and a child (let her be a daughter). And it’s not giving out names, it’s just hypothetical. The girl starts to test her new violin and it’s bigger than the previous one, so first notes are a little bit out of tune. It’s completely understandable, but I look at the father and his face changes to “slightly annoyed” mode. Girl notices this and becomes a bit more tense. The results are worse and worse – she’s not improving her sound, the father is now openly angry, I still stay just observing, curious what will happen. She puts her new violin down and looks at her father with shame on her face. He says: “Well, I see I have to discipline you – you’ll practice an additional hour when we’ll go back home today”. I’m shocked.
If you want your child to truly give his soul into music, you can’t punish by adding more hours of practice. It links in a brain: practice = punishment, and further – practice is pain, I can’t do what I wanted to do, I only play because I wasn’t good. And believe me, you want different links: practice is what I’m good at, it gives me pleasure, it gives me joy, it helps me become better, it’s my passion and the meaning of my life. You want your kid to feel this kind of passion, because it’s what drives the world. It changes lives, really. It can change life of an elderly lady – I’ve been there and seen that! – who is so moved after a concert that she approaches a performer, crying, and tells him that it gave her hope. And if you know what is “El Sistema” you realize that passion for music has the ability to change the status of a whole community.

And I get it – practice is hard, it needs discipline, it needs a good plan and it’s a whole new level of commitment. Especially if you’re new to the musical world and your child is just starting to learn an instrument – there are some problems with intonation, the sound may be horrible and I think all parents can relate when I say that listening to a beginner musician isn’t the best thing in the world. So how do you encourage your child to do better without the punishment?

They need a pointer, or a hint

You can’t just tell a child that something is done wrong. You’re there to guide them and guiding is pointing in the right direction or teaching abilities that would help them figure it out. A starting musician doesn’t know where he’s going, and he definitely doesn’t know the way. But even if you don’t know anything about music, you can give a small hint. “We want more beautiful sound. How do you think we can achieve that?” You’d be surprised how many ways of improving a child can think of. After few months of talking about playing, finding solutions and making mistakes, your kid will know that you’re there to support. There will come a time that you will no longer be able to help, but even then, your opinion will be appreciated and searched for. And the young musician will always know that even if the solution is not obvious, there are thousand ways to accomplish a goal.

Be in constant touch with a teacher

I know it can be hard to find time in your busy schedule for being at all of your children’s lessons. If it’s absolutely impossible for you, the one thing you can do is find a 5 minutes at the end of the lesson to talk about your child’s progress. Make notes, cause it will be difficult to remember all of the thinks the teacher says and at the end of the year it’s always nice to see all of the lessons put together in one place. If you practice with your child, even once a week, or you just listen to them practice while you do something else, don’t be afraid to discuss your ideas or worries. Teachers will appreciate your engagement and everyone will truly benefit from this.

Come up with a plan

It can be done with a help of the teacher and definitely must be debated with the young musician. Questions are: what is need to be done? When will it be performed? What’s the longest we can (or: we want) to practice during the day? How many hours a week can be spent on practicing scales? Then smaller steps: what do we want to achieve this week? Today and tomorrow? How do we keep track of the progress?
I’m sure everyone can think of their own solutions, as every child is different and only the closest ones know best what will keep them motivated.

Encouraging children may be as harmful as punishing

Numbers of studies show that there is a right and a wrong way of encouraging a kid. I don’t want to go too deep in this, as the subject is very complex, but long story short: if you praise your children for what they achieved, they will of course be happier than the punished ones, but they are more likely to be afraid of taking risks. They’d know that you praise them only for the final effect, so they will just take the simplest tasks that they know can be done easily. On the other hand, you can praise your child’s effort and it’s the best thing you can do. “Well, I see that you’ve made a mistake, but I also see that you put a lot of work into it and I admire that persistence. Maybe we can start again?” No punishment, an emphasis on attitude, not the outcome. And kids are smart, they also want the outcome to be good, so don’t worry. They will keep pushing and that is the mindset we need in people. Not to give up, take risks and to be fully absorbed in what they want to do.

Being a parent is hard as it is – and being a parent of a talented child, whether it’s music, sports, literature or math, comes with a whole new level of difficulty. I only wrote about couple of mistakes and a few solutions but you can do it in as many ways as there are people. Please, feel free to leave a comment and discuss this with me. There still is plenty of room for improvement and we can change everything to be better. 


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