While madly deleting items from my “sent items” folder, I came across this message I wrote a year and a half ago. It was food for thought for me all over again, so I figured it was worth archiving here on my blog:

“It is interesting–because it seems that unschooling would mean that if a child loses interest then they ought to be able to ‘drop it.’ At least that is my understanding. Or, alternatively, you would have to make it so interesting that they wouldn’t want to drop it. But, that seems like it would be devastating to the study of an instrument or foreign language that requires every day practice and cumulative skills?”

I think that it is selling kids short to say that if their interest wanes they will want to drop it. From a very young age my kids have been able to understand and express that while they don’t particularly want to practice today or this week or this month, they like the violin (/piano/viola) and don’t want to give it up. My job as an unschooling parent has been to help them find ways to weather the day-to-day in service of their longer-term wishes.

In fact I think that this is one of biggest jobs of parents in general … to help children recognize the value of longer-term, more abstract ideals, values and goals, rather than focusing on immediate gratification, and to give them the tools and knowledge that help them stretch towards these things.

Our conversations about how to get back on track with practising usually start with me asking whether they feel they want to quit the violin (/viola/piano). Because I present this as an option, the kids have never used a purported desire to quit as a weapon against me. I think they do have a sense that to quit would let me down, let themselves and their teacher down and let down their social community of Suzuki children (who are extremely important to them). But they don’t believe that they study their instruments because I wouldn’t let them quit.

Because we never have our discussions about practising problems on a day where problems have occured and emotions are running high, my kids are always honest … “I’m not interested in what I’m supposed to be learning, and I don’t like practicing at all lately, but I can’t imagine quitting.” They seem to accept that daily practising is a reasonable expectation that teachers (and therefore parents) hold for music students.

I’ve portrayed this as a matter of respect. When you go to your lesson it’s as if you’re asking to be served up a meal of learning material. If you asked for a meal of food at someone’s house and then didn’t eat any of it but just dumped it in the garbage, that would really hurt their feelings. It’s the same thing with learning meals. It’s okay not to be hungry, but in that case, don’t ask for a meal! So, if you’re not going to practice next week, tell your teacher that today at your lesson and she won’t give you assignments. But if you have a regular lesson, it would be rude and disrespectful not to eat the meal you’ve been served and at least make an efforts at the bits you don’t like.

So generally my kids and I have been able to establish (a) that they want to continue to play their instruments and (b) that they enjoy their lessons and like being served up new learning assignments. So the trick then has been to work with them to help them connect the dots between what they want and what they need to do on a daily basis to satisfy their general desires. And that’s where the solutions become totally practical things like when and where to practice and how much help and of what sort they want, and whether a change in emphasis or organization might be helpful, and whether a new game or gimmick or method of documentation might help.

On occasion I have agreed to use coercion to get my kids to practice over their in-the-moment protests … but only ever upon their request, and only for one week at a time, until we reassess. There have been times when they’ve said quite clearly “I want to do my practicing every day but I just hate doing it and I can’t get myself to do it. So I want you to make me, even if I say no.” And I agree to be the Bad Cop for a week, and then we reassess, and invariably they’ve decided they want to try something else instead.

Which is fortunate, because I think that a regular pattern of coercing kids into practising tends to produce increasing resistence and a tendency for the kids to proclaim (and believe!) that they want to quit. Maté and Neufeld (in “Hold on to Your Kids“) describe this as stimulating a child’s “counterwill” and that’s definitely something I want to avoid. I believe that in the absence of coercion and the counterwill it arouses, children by and large will make very sensible decisions. So far I’ve not been disappointed.

Unschooling music practice

3 thoughts on “Unschooling music practice

  • July 1, 2007 at 5:46 am

    Thank you for this – you’ve given me hope and shed some light on something that’s been on my mind.

    I’ve just begun to read ‘Hold on to Your Kids’ and I’m having a hard time. It seems every paragraph offers such a sensible truth and I just want to remember them all!

    I’ve been having a hard time with my dd not wanting to continue with our sencond-language lessons – a language she chose and asked to pursue.

    So I appreciate your practical suggests and insight. I’m not one to coerice my kids, either. I’m glad to see you’ve had success with such a respectful and practical approach.

  • July 1, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    Very interesting!

    You have just put words to what we are dealing with here–counterwill. It is something I am now trying to deactivate in my son and that is hard. As the last child of many, with many years between he and the rest, and being part of a blended family our parent styles had laxed–coercion had become a bad, bad habit and is absolutely useless; it simply does not work on this child and cause so much frustration on everybodies part.

    Counterwill is exactly what has happened…and yet trying to have a word to describe the frustration and explain to my husband what was happening was almost impossible. Thank you for that example and definition. It gives us something to work with–deactivating the habit of a child who reacts with counterwill.

  • July 5, 2007 at 10:10 am

    Ah.. I’ve not had problems with getting the kids to practice. It’s practising *effectively* that can be a problem.


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