What to do when you encounter resistance to practice – an alternative to the power struggle with your child
Sooner or later most kids will push back against the idea of learning a musical instrument. Even if they themselves chose the instrument and have shown great interest and skill in the past, there likely will come a time when they either go into outright rebellion or at least become disinterested for a time. In my experience the most common parental responses to this situation come in three different flavors:
1) Push them harder until they rekindle their interest on their own. To be honest, this is my tendency with my own daughter. I also know that many parents wish their parents had “not let them quit” (I hear this all the time) so they respond with increased pressure driven by the fear that their child will grow up to regret quitting just as they have. The problem with this approach, if it goes too far, is that the child will often push back even harder and what ensues is a power struggle that has nothing to do with music lessons whatsoever and rarely ends well.
2) Use some kind of external reward or punishment to get them to do what they used to do willingly on their own. Rewards for number of days practiced, points toward a special prize or taking away a game until they practice can all work in the short term, but if used predictably without student input have all been shown to have significant negative effects on a child’s internal motivation over time. Use these techniques sparingly, unpredictably and only after the child has had a chance to reflect upon the quality of their own work.
3) Just give up: “If they don’t want to commit, why should I force them?” Unfortunately, this is the most common response to a very normal fluctuation in student interest. To me the biggest problem with this response is not just the lost opportunity to learn music, but message it sends to the child: “If something is difficult or you don’t understand it, just give up.” I certainly empathize with parents who take the easy way out. Music lessons are a huge commitment for the entire family in terms of time, money and energy. I have often wanted to throw up my hands and walk away when my daughter doesn’t want to do her best to reach her potential. But in the end this is not the easy way at all, because a child that does not develop the discipline to remain committed to a goal, to work through a challenge, will come up against these situations with increasing
frequency. If they don’t learn the skill of overcoming adversity now, it will only be more difficult later. However, there is an alternative that can help completely circumvent the whole power-struggle, manipulation, giving up paradigm. I sum it up with this sentence: “We’re sticking with it, but let’s find a way to make this fun again.” The basic idea is that we’re signaling that we are committed, but flexible and reasonable. There are a thousand things that can change about music lessons and practice without undermining the basic educational experience. To name a few: What music is learned, what time practice takes place, whether the parent is present, changing teachers, changing instruments, joining an ensemble, practicing for shorter intervals more often… and on and on. Talk to your child, talk with other parents, talk to your teacher and talk to me. Together we can come up with something that will rekindle the fire.