Who is the Boss?

This article is written by Janet Behning
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Who’s The Boss?
I often have parents tell me that they have trouble getting their children to practice and I find that I must be polite and simply give them tips on encouraging their children. But my gut reaction to their dilemma is to simply say, “Who’s the boss?”

Does your child run your house? Does your child have a choice about going to school? Do you let them neglect their homework? Do you substitute lollipops for vegetables? Most parents’ immediate reaction to these questions will be no. Why then would you let your child decide not to practice their piano lesson? Set down the ground rules from the beginning - piano practice is not an option. If they want to take piano lessons they will practice, no ifs, ands or buts. You are paying a lot of money for your child to take piano lessons. If you do not make your child practice, then you are wasting your money. It is as simple as that. Whether you are paying the little old lady down the street $5.00 per lesson, or are paying a multi-degreed professional $100.00 per lesson, sit down and figure out how much money lessons are costing you per year, and then think again whether you will tell the piano teacher that you cannot get your child to practice piano.

Many years ago, parents would stand over their child at the piano with a switch or a ruler, and swat their hand(s) when they played a wrong note. I am not suggesting that much severity; there is a “happy medium.” There is a saying that has been going around the internet for a few years that goes something like this:
My parents were mean to me when I was a kid. They made me do chores, go to church, and go to school. They gave me a curfew, suggested I get a job and work for the things that I wanted. They insisted that I do my best at school, at my job, and to take pride in my work. I grew up with morals, a good work ethic and respect for my elders. This adage describes very good, old-fashioned parents. Most of us know people like this. But in today’s society many parents are not the bosses in their homes, and have allowed their children to make the house rules. I understand that it is tiring to resist a fussy child, but it can be done. It must be done. I will use my experience with own daughter as an example.

The Life Lesson
When it came time for my daughter Josie to begin piano lessons, I had recently become a single parent and had taken a job in an office setting during the day. For that reason I decided not to teach Josie piano lessons myself, but sought out another teacher for her.

When I began teaching again, and I attempted to teach Josie myself, she felt that I was nagging her by sitting next to her at the piano, even though that’s what her previous teacher did. So we agreed that she would continue taking her lessons from someone else. I hope this will help the reader understand that my experience with piano lessons is not only as a teacher, but as a parent of a piano student as well.

Josie found learning to play the piano relatively easy in the beginning. She enjoyed playing the piano and would often practice without being asked. Five finger positions are simple and many songs can be learned through this method. But there comes a time when a child must move beyond this simplicity, and learn to expand their reach outside of the five finger positions. Josie was first learning to do this by playing a simplified version of “Brahm’s Lullaby.” In this particular rendition that she was attempting to play, the left hand remains mostly in one position, while the right hand moves around quite a bit in order to play the entire melody. The student must read the notes well and follow the fingering in order to play the piece properly.

One day Josie came out of the piano room crying, saying she could not play it. I encouraged her to keep trying, even telling her to take a break and go back to it later. But by the second day, she was begging me to let her quit taking piano lessons, saying that playing the piano is too hard. The next day was much the same, as well as the next. It became very tiring having to listen to her whine and cry over that one piece of music. I was having more trouble with my autistic son at about the same time and, as a single parent, having one child crying at the piano and another child crying in his room, it was so easy to simply tell my daughter, “Fine, you can quit.” I was feeling sorry for myself. I’m a single mother who works all day. I don’t have the energy to come home to all of this tension. Who would blame me for letting her quit so that I can come home and relax, and just take it easy after a hard day of work? My daughter would blame me.

What kind of lesson was I teaching my children by allowing them to quit something when it got harder? Do we quit math because it’s hard? Some people do because they were never taught to persevere. Some people quit parenting and give up their children because they find raising them too difficult. They were never taught to persevere. Some people quit life when it gets too hard. Allowing Josie to quit something that she enjoyed simply because she had run into a roadblock was not a good life lesson. I had to think, when she grows up, will she regret my decision of letting her quit piano lessons? Yes, she will.

I have met so many people who tell me that they wish they had not quit taking piano lessons, and it is a decision they will regret for the rest of their lives. I did not want my daughter to be one of those people. I also knew it was a decision I would regret when she becomes an adult and looks back on this day ruefully. If Josie had never enjoyed playing the piano – if it was something I made her do, and she hated it right from the start – then I might have allowed her to quit. But she enjoyed it from the very first song she learned to play. She had simply come across a song that, at her level, was very difficult to play. I had to help her learn this life lesson – that we persevere when things get hard. So I went back to her and told her, “No, I will not allow you to quit.” She was extremely angry with me, but I had to be “the mean parent” and put my foot down. And as tiring as it was for me, I had to think of my children first, and realize that this was not about me; it was about them. Their entire characters were up to me to mold, and I could either make a mess out of those little pieces of clay, or I could make a masterpiece. That was when I began to sit in the room with her while she practiced. I would say, “That was really good!” even if she made a few mistakes. I praised her when it was appropriate, and encouraged her when she found it difficult to keep trying.

Being able to play the piano myself made it easy for me to show her proper fingering and help her learn to play the piece successfully. I know that not all parents are able to help their children with the actual notes, but do that you can to encourage them. If needed, call their piano teacher and ask for advice in helping them get through a difficult piece. Just don’t let them give up. If you do, you are teaching them a very poor life lesson.

About a year after this incident, Josie sat down next to me, put her arm around me and said, “Mom, thanks for not letting me quit piano lessons; I’m having fun now.” After Josie had been taking piano lessons for about five years, she was becoming fluent in reading music and was learning to play her first Mozart sonata.
Be the parent. You won’t regret it.

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