Not an audition

Another holiday-related post, apparently…

Every December my mom’s side of our family gathers around my aunt’s piano to sing carols.  When my cousins and I were young, the gathering was Christmas Eve; my mom, her sisters, and each of their families.  Now these families are stretched thinner at the holidays, with several spouses’ worth of sharing to be done.  So we do this, early in the month; we sing together.

It’s one of my favorite days of the year and there’s only one little thing I wish we could do away with.  Every year, without fail, at least one person has to declare somewhere in the course of the singing that they “can’t.”  Can’t sing.

I’m used to it, and I get it.  I really do.  There are so many things I wish I could do.  And furthermore, I’m not an accomplished singer.  Fortunately, this is not an audition for a professional choir.  But early in our lives, so often, the lines between what is an audition and what is not get blurred.  And because we’re young, and the young learn languages quickly and trustingly whether they serve or not, we start saying things like “can’t” and “not good at.”  We  learn to live our lives by these words.

To some extent, it helps us choose from among the many many pursuits available to us.  But also, it drives us back.  It says to us “you – with the lousy voice, with the weak jump shot, with the low IQ – stay home.”

I’d venture to say it’s impossible to keep this force entirely at bay.  It’s in the fabric of a culture resting on the tenets of competition.  For good or ill. Whether we think of our individual selves as competitive or not.  (To hope they’ll go to college, to hope they’ll be chosen for jobs; these are all wins…)

What we can do is be careful with the language of “can’t” and of “not good enough.”  We can hear ourselves saying “I’m not an artist,” “I’ve never been good with numbers,” “I can’t cook.”  And once we hear it, and hear how much a part of our own realities it is, we can begin to say different things. Because what we say to children, about them, is certainly potent, but not nearly as potent as what they hear us say to ourselves. So much more, they do as we do, not as we say.  The good news is that they keep listening, beyond their toddling years, even into their teens, even when they’re rolling their eyes. It’s always worth it to say new things when we realize that old ones are out of synch with what we want to convey, with the kind of experience of being alive and participating that we want to make possible.

How do I get my child to…

How do I get my child to __________?

I hear this question a lot, with varying contents filling in the blank.  For example,

…hold her pencil right?

…read more?

…practice his violin?

…keep her room clean?

…spell better?

In some ways these are all really different questions.  The bedroom and violin and the spelling are very different kinds of tasks.  But when kids aren’t complying with adult wishes, regardless of the nature of the task at hand, it’s often for very similar reasons.  And you can resolve this How do I get my child to… question with one approach for many different kinds of tasks.

You can start by checking with yourself about why you think it’s important.  Often we decide that kids should be doing various things because we had to, or because other kids are, or otherwise out of habit and popular mandate.  Upon closer inspection we may well find that the things we’re insisting upon are not actually in keeping with our goals and intentions for children.  We may even be sabotaging our own efforts.

Take the pencil-holding as an example.  If you’re paying enough attention to how your child is holding her pencil to be upset about it, chances are you are committed to her becoming a proficient writerTradition and habit compel us to make children do things whichever way we’ve decided is the best way. We settle on the best way, and then we insist that children adopt that way. 

Not only is this a sure-fire way to teach young people not to innovate, it doesn’t usually work as a way of getting them to do the thing we’re trying to get them to do and in fact discourages them from getting on board.  A good question to ask yourself is Is it getting in the way?  Is the way she holds the pencil getting in the way of anything?  Is it slowing her down?  Is it frustrating her because it’s slowing her down?  If it isn’t, then you might want to let it go.  There are likely other battles where the thing you’re trying to influence is getting in the way of something, so if this one isn’t, give yourself and your child a break from the battle of it.

But if you’ve determined that her grip is actually getting in her way, there are ways to address the problem that don’t alienate her or otherwise make the problem less likely to resolve.  A lot of it lives in the language.  If you say to your child “Don’t hold your pencil like that.  Hold it like this,” you’re really just being bossy.  I know we think that we’re entitled to boss kids around because we’re old and they’re not and people bossed us around when we were young.  (Imagine too what it would be like if every time a freshman got picked on just for being a freshman, he decided that when he became an upperclassman he wouldn’t pick on freshmen.  Soon the tradition would end, and we could move on to more interesting problems.)

I don’t bother to try to talk anyone out of bossing kids around, if it’s really getting them what they want.  But it’s usually not.  It’s usually getting them recalcitrant kids who do the very least they can to get by, which undermines the kids’ own ambitions as well as their parents’ and other adults’ ambitions for them.  You can shift everything by shifting the language you use to address your concern:

“I noticed you’ve got your pencil between your first and second fingers.  I know you’ve complained that writing is hard, and you hate to have to do it; I’m wondering if it might be more comfortable if you tried it a different way.”

Or “I noticed something about your writing that I think might help speed up the process a little bit for you.  If you want me to show you, I can.”

It’s old news that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.  There’s a little more to it than that here because it’s not enough to just be nicer with your bossing. If you say “Please hold your pencil like this,” you may feel like you’re being nice, like honey, but it’s the mandate that lands like vinegar.  This message curls the tongue and turns the stomach: “I know what’s best and I’m going to tell it to you and you should be grateful that I’m looking out for you.”  Kids don’t like being bossed around any more than adults do, and when you stop bossing them around they become available for receiving input, suggestion, recommendation.

Instruments of choice

Several years ago I tried to teach myself to play the guitar.  I got good enough that I could strum my way through a few songs, but I couldn’t ever really make sense of the chords, so eventually I stopped playing.  I’d learned to read music as a child playing wind instruments, but you can’t play a chord on a wind instrument so that didn’t help much.  I understood the idea, but I couldn’t figure out how to include it in my playing.

I’ve recently started teaching myself to play the piano, and I’m finding that on the piano, unlike the guitar, I seem to know what to expect from various phrases and combinations of notes.  It’s not anything I’m understanding consciously.  It’s something about the way my ear and my hands are interacting with the keyboard.

This experience makes me think that it may be the wiring of particular minds that make them more or less compatible with different musical instruments (and other things too, of course).  So when kids are begging to play something that seems too hard, or seems otherwise like a bad idea, it might be worth entertaining the possibility of that specific instrument.  You don’t have to buy one, and it’s probably a good idea not to get too attached to their playing it because it might take trying a few instruments before they find the one (if there is one) that makes the best use of the way they think, what they like the sound of, etc.  As with the pairing of any complicated organisms and objects, finding the right fit can take some trial and error…

Reference can help the brain do its best work

The other day I was sitting with an 8 year-old as she wrote out the date.  At one point she turned to look behind her at the analog clock on the wall.  “I always look at the clock to make sure my 9 is going the right way,” she told me.

Kids who know they’re prone to reversing letters often do a similar thing with the giant alphabets that hang in most elementary classrooms.  Here are a few other examples of reference options that can be helpful.

* a copy of the lower case letters, written out on wide-ruled paper with the dotted midline, for a child making the transition from all upper case

* a summary of the symbols used in a college math text

* the spellings of frequently used words

* the multiplication table

* the layout of the QWERTY keyboard

But aren’t these the things the students in question are supposed to be learning?  Won’t they not learn them if they’re just looking things up all the time?  Isn’t that cheating? Continue reading

Gandhi and the piano

Be the change you wish to see in the world, said Gandhi.  I assume he meant that it works better to start with yourself and let that be an example, an inspiration, an opportunity for others to try it for themselves.  It doesn’t work as well to start by trying to get other people to take on the change you want.

I heard a parent say recently “I make my kids play the piano because I wish I had started playing music early so I could enjoy playing now.  I make them do it because I love music so much and regret that I didn’t use all those years of brain power to learn an instrument.”

It’s true you can’t go back and get the young elasticity of the brain that makes kids such fast learners.  But it’s also true that forcing someone to do something against their will doesn’t always (often doesn’t, I’ll venture to say) mean that they’ll grow up to treasure and use the skill they acquired under that early duress, no matter how well-intentionedly it was enforced.   Continue reading

Really little steps

So let’s say a kid wants to learn something big.  And by big, I mean something that could take a long time to master – something like speaking a language fluently, playing the piano, having a book published, competing in the Olympics, reading Harry Potter.  An accomplishment that will mean a high degree of mastery in a particular area when reached, but first, things that might feel like chore, drudgery, work.  It’s easy to think, when kids resist the early steps and phases of acquiring a skill, that they don’t actually want it that much.  If they did, wouldn’t they be willing to do the work?  Show up for the unpleasant parts?  Too often as adults we default to one of two things.  We give up, because we decide it wasn’t that important to them in the first place.  Or we just insist on practice, because we know they really want the possible result and the only way we see to get them there is to force it, to override the resistance.

Yikes.  Sometimes it’s OK, and whatever  default option we choose ends up seeming as though it was for the best.  But often it doesn’t, and everyone gets frustrated and cranky and disappointed.

When we decide to force it, it’s often in increments of half an hour.  If you’re going to insist on piano practicing, it’s for half an hour.  Getting better at reading?  Half an hour at a time.  Learning to rollerblade?  Half an hour.  And again, sometimes that works, but often it doesn’t.

When it doesn’t, consider that a half an hour can seem like a very long time.  Instead, consider suggesting very very tiny amounts of time, amounts that seem so ridiculously small they can’t possibly make any difference.  Amounts so small that they feel manageable, even laughable, to whoever’s trying to master the thing.  You can try it out on yourself first to see it in action.  It will likely make you laugh, it’s so silly.  Plan on doing something for 2.5 minutes.  Do it for a few days, and see if you get anything done.  And see if you get more done than you were getting done when you were insisting on hours at a time from yourself.  See how your resistance compares.

Then invite your kids to try it with whatever’s looming too large.  No amount of time is too small to start with.  (It’s always possible to add time, but once something gets swallowed up by resistance and struggle, it’s hard to restore the inspiration for it.) And it’s OK to worry that they won’t ever master it this way, but if you’ve read this far, you know that’s very possible with the alternative too, so it’s worth a try.  And further, it’s very likely that if it’s something they actually want to master, they will end up doing more than the little amount they’ve promised, once it doesn’t feel too overwhelming anymore. (It’s worth mentioning that if they don’t really want to master the thing, none of this is likely to do anything but allow them to do it as little as possible, which might not be the worst thing to find out.)  Even if they do stick with two and a quarter minutes for weeks, they’re likely to decide to increase it.  Contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, kids really do want to get better at things.  They want to be more and more like adults, including in the realm of mastery and self-direction and self-regulation.  This approach gives them the chance to dabble in those.

But mostly, it’ll make it possible for them to take something on that’s big, in a way that doesn’t feel too big.

* I think it was because of one of Martha Beck’s books that I started using the practice, and inviting kids and parents to try it too. In order to include a link to her work here, I visited her blog and found that she just happens to have posted about what she calls turtle steps the other day. With a rather delightful turtle image, too.*

Something obvious, frustrating, usually unavoidable, and often worth the effort

Now that’s an appealing title for a post, isn’t it?  But if you decided to read it anyway, you’re probably someone who will tolerate frustration if you believe the payoff will be greater than the cost.  I spoke with a mom recently who’s looking for someone to work with her daughter on her piano playing.  She’s not just looking for a piano teacher.  What she wants is someone with skill in piano playing to accompany her daughter in her exploration of the instrument.  She knows her daughter is not likely to become (nor at this point interested in becoming) a professional or otherwise masterful pianist, and so her first priority is that she continues to enjoy and learn.  The mom’s experience in piano lessons when she was a child led her to believe that such lessons could put enjoyment and learning in jeopardy.

As a culture we have an understanding of what music lessons are.  They’re regular, usually weekly; you’re to practice in between lessons; you do it the way the teacher tells you.  In other words, we teach piano the way we teach most everything.  We don’t often think about whether or not it’s getting us what we want in the way of development in the area, or whether or not it’s a method suited to everyone.  We assume, it seems, as though someone already did that thinking and we can trust the process they came up with.

Some of the time we probably can, for some of the students.  But it’s a really good idea to think about what you actually want from something like piano lessons, and why you’re looking for a teacher, before you go about your search.  And here’s where the potential frustration comes in.  Like this mom, if you decide what you want – what you think will actually best serve your child – it may well not be the status quo.  And if it’s not the status quo, it may be harder to find.  You might have to sift through lots of what you don’t want before you find what you do – make lots of phone calls, more than you should have to, read lots of ads, ask lots of people for suggestions.  You might have to fail lots of times.  But finding the person could be worth the effort.  If you set it next to the possibility of settling for someone who isn’t what you want, it might get easier to keep picking up the phone.