When to Let Kids Quit?

The East Village Mamele

By Marjorie Ingall

Published April 15, 2009, issue of April 24, 2009.
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Josie wails, “I hate flute! I won’t play Takahashi Twinkle!” She hurls herself onto the couch, swanning and weeping like Sarah Bernhardt.

What do you do when you want your kid to do a given afterschool activity — whether it’s chess club, music, sports or religious school — and she doesn’t want to do it? Josie is a girl of big emotions, and she makes it clear to us (and if the decibel level is any hint, to everyone in our building, on our block, and probably throughout the East Village) that she is not happy.

But my husband really wanted her to do music. He’d always regretted quitting piano lessons as a kid. He went on to study electronic music in college, to become a DJ for his undergrad and grad school radio stations, to work as a roadie and manager for a rock band after graduation, to love music of all kinds. I’m more indifferent. I love to sing, but I wouldn’t die without music. Like Jonathan, I was forced to take piano as a kid, and I hated it with a white-hot passion. I was great at manipulating my teacher into not making me play. She had a little collection of children’s books about famous composers, and I’d bat my eyelashes and ask her, “Can we sit in your library and listen to some of Mozart’s wonderful music while I look at that fascinating biography about him and Nannerl?” She fell for it every time. I’m sure she was happy to get paid for dozing on her couch while I read a book.

My manipulation would never have worked on Josie’s flute teacher. She’s formidable — a serious professional, a superb instructor and a very intimidating figure. Josie’s studying the Suzuki method, which means at least one parent has to attend every lesson and be super-involved. (This method, also called “Talent Education,” involves frequent concert-going and performing, and an early emphasis on learning by ear instead of by musical notation.) Fortunately, since classes began just as Jonathan lost his job, he became the point man. It’s nice that he and Josie can share this activity. In our family, as in so many others, the mom is the primary kid-life manager, doing most of the big picture and day-to-day kid-related planning. I’m glad that music is one thing Jonathan and Jojo can share. (Besides Toontown online gaming.)

When Josie pouts about not wanting to practice, or screams in fury when she misses a note, I see how frustrated and disappointed Jonathan is. He knows what a great opportunity this is for her. Josie’s public school has a partnership with the Third Street Music School Settlement, our nation’s oldest community music school (founded in 1894 to offer harmony and uplift to poor immigrants on the Lower East Side), so that students get superb music education at greatly reduced cost. Jonathan desperately wants her to love this. And she’s good at it! Why won’t she just butch up?

Truly, I don’t much care whether she plays flute, but I do worry about what it means to let her quit. Are we sending the message that it’s okay to bail when things are difficult? Will she later regret that we let her dump the flute, the way Jonathan regrets that his parents never insisted he keep going with piano? But if we make her continue doing something she hates, will we kill a genuine love of music that could flower when she’s older?

I recently taught Josie the word “perfectionism.” I told her how my friend Terri, an artist, was putting off drawing a picture of a French bulldog for work. Terri had played fetch with an actual dog for an hour, tidied her desk, played on the computer, done everything but her actual work. I said even adults looked for excuses to avoid certain forbidding tasks. “I didn’t know there was a word for what I do!” Josie gasped, her eyes shining. When I told her that Mommy and Daddy have problems with procrastination too, and that it frequently goes along with being afraid you won’t do a good job, she was even more excited. “That’s why I do it!” she said. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: When she waits to practice until just before bed, she’s exhausted and more prone to mistakes; when she doesn’t practice at all, she makes mistakes in class and feels humiliated.

Furthermore, for Josie in particular, not being good at something is agony. She’s used to being a major achiever. And with music, there’s a learning curve. And for Josie, that is the definition of hell.

So should we punish failure to practice? Should we bribe? Should we give up? These questions are causing tension between Jonathan and me, as well as Jonathan and Josie.

Perhaps oddly, I didn’t feel similar anxiety about Josie hating religious school. She disliked it a lot her first year. But unlike flute, religious school simply wasn’t optional, in my view. Sure, I researched other programs, thinking maybe a school with more experienced teachers might be more satisfying for her, but there was no way I’d ever let her dump religious school entirely. Since it wasn’t a choice, in my mind, I didn’t get too exercised about her moaning. And in her second year, she came to like it a lot more. As she made it around that learning curve of early Hebrew literacy, she stopped her incessant kvetching. But If I’d let her quit, we’d never have known that she’d come to enjoy it. Is that a sign that we should power through with flute?

Certainly researchers have found advantages to studying music. In 2006, a study in the neurology journal Brain found that music lessons can improve memory and enhance brain development in kids as young as 4. Imaging technology showed that over the course of a year, kids who studied music experienced greater changes in the brain than kids who didn’t; researchers said these changes could lead to improvement in attention, literacy and math. (Of course, it’s also possible that the simple act of focusing and memorizing is what helps brain development. Maybe encouraging a kid to do anything that made her concentrate would have similar effects.) But plenty of other research has shown that music and art education help cognitive development across other areas. And who wants their kid to be, you know, disadvantaged? Left behind? A Philistine? And if you’re a parent who loves music, how hard is it to let go of the notion that your child will share your passions?

In a couple of weeks, we have to decide as a family whether Josie will continue her lessons. I have no idea what we’ll do.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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