November 18, 2007


Yesterday morning, I had to get up early to drive With-a-Why to a piano competition. Well, I don't know if competition is the right word. He had to go in to the piano studio and play a couple of songs in front of a judge. He had the early morning time slot, which meant he was half-asleep as we drove over. When we walked in the studio, only one kid was ahead of him, a little boy dressed smartly in dress pants and a dress shirt. The kid's mother seemed all nervous, "This is his first time, " she said to me. I think the sight of With-a-Why, dressed in an old black band t-shirt, his uncombed hair hanging in his face, calmed her down.

The first little boy went into the other room, picked his way laborously through "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," and came out looked pleased with himself. The mother and I congratulated him, and then they stayed to listen to With-a-Why. One of the songs he was playing was the "Flight of the Bumblebee." It's a fast song, and his fingers fly across the keys as he plays.

The mother turned to me. "Wow."
Then she asked, in an undertone, "How often do you make him practice?"

That question always surprises me, although it shouldn't because I get it from other parents all the time.

"I don't make him practice," I said. "He plays all the time — someone in my house is always playing the piano — but it's completely up to him whether or not he chooses to play."

It's a weird thing amongst parents in my area. They have the idea that a "good parent" tells their kids when to do homework, when to practice music, what to eat. I never do any of those things. I never tell my kids to do their homework, I never tell them when to practice their music, and I let them eat whatever they want whenever they want, although they are limited by the fact that we keep only healthy food in the house. What shocks parents is not how casual my parenting is (because after all, they all know I'm the crazy liberal feminist), but the fact that my kids have turned out so well: healthy, smart, and musical. Despite their slacker parents! The idea of empowering their kids to take charge of their lives is simply an idea that has not occurred to many parents in this community.

The piano teacher came over to talk to me, while With-a-Why was talking shyly to the judges, and she asked whether or not Shaggy Hair Boy liked the piece she had sent home with him the week before.

"Your kids can be hard to teach, " she said. I looked at her in surprise.

"See, most kids take lessons because their parents want them to," she explained. "So we just go through the songs in the book. But your kids play because they want to. So I have to find songs they will like, or work with songs they bring in. It's more of a challenge."

I laughed. Then With-a-Why came out, and she hugged him. We looked at the judge's sheet. He always gets high numbers but I can never understand the comments, hand-written and full of musical jargon : "Your something-or-other is excellent. Something-or-other dynamic shaping. Your left hand something-or-other. Great something-or-other and musical control!"

But I loved the last sentence on the sheet: "Your playing is full of sparkle!" That, I understood. As we drove home, I looked over at With-a-Why. "That sentence sums it up. Your playing is full of sparkle!"

He looked at me sideways, "Mom! That was the one sentence that didn't say anything."

"No, it was the one sentence that said everything."

He was muttering about something he could have done differently -- he sets very high standards for himself -- but as we drove home through the snowy world, he gave me one of his rare smiles. He shook his long, unwashed hair back into his face, and snuggled back against the seat, this quiet child who knows how to make the music sparkle.


my15minutes said...

I KNEW I liked you, Joe! I'm not a crazy liberal feminist, but I still believe like you do in parenting. My husband isn't quite of the same opinion, so we have to come up with compromises; but as much as I can (and maintain marital concord) I parent in the way you're talking about. I like the independent thinking, internal motivation, mutual respect, and relational harmony that kind of parenting produces. Congrats to With-A-Why!

chichimama said...

I wish we could have heard the sparkle...what a compliment.

Anonymous said...

ah, yes. sparkle. burn. shine. all of that. the passion of living. here's to it!

Rev Dr Mom said...

I wonder if you realize how special your kids are? Lots of kids are smart and talented, and still don't have the kind of self-motivation yours have. I'm not sure where it comes from--maybe it's hard wired. I think your style of parenting is awesome, but it doesn't produce the same results with everyone.

I love that With-a-why can make music sparkle.

negativecapability said...

My mom never told us (especially me) what to do either. I don't think she could ever really comprehend why most of the other mothers always acted the way they did. Remember when you said I reminded you of your daughter? Well, you remind me of my mom :).

KLee said...

You and your kids are both a rare breed -- kids AND parents who challenge themselves to forge their own paths, do discover by doing for themselves. I wish there were more of you AND your kids out there these days. Unfortunately, I see a lot of kids in my classroom who are slaves of the trends they see on TV, and who have parents who neither shape them, nor challenge them. Good for you for being an out-of-the-normal parent. I should strive for more of a little of that myself.

Cathy said...

Mom and Dad never had to make me practice the piano - in fact they would sometimes tell me enough.

In college, when we played like that, it was called a jury. Was he competing or was it a performance where he was rated?

I do agree you are very lucky to have kids with the internal motivation to do the things you don't have to tell them to do. Not everyone is so fortunate.

Lucy said...

Every time you write about With-A-Why's playing, I want to hear it. Could you ask him if we could please hear a recording?

Anonymous said...

Your posts remind me of who I want to be when I grow up.

Anonymous said...

I took piano for six weeks and was motivated to get out of it and go roller skating. I was, and am, not at all musical, and I hated being forced to take lessons. So I am in awe of your child and say throw that boy a sheep!

Anonymous said...

Another lovely post--I'm with Hel.

I only comment here occasionally, and not to dismiss the specialness of jo(e)'s children, but Rev Dr Mom, I don't think that's it. jo(e)'s children and her parenting style sound *wonderful* to me, but I bet a lot of parents could read this post and see With-a-Why's messy appearance, or the other kids' reluctance to work at songs they don't enjoy, as "un-self-motivated". So that parent just isn't capable of doing the same types of things, and no, it won't turn out as well. It has to be natural and normalized and automatic. If a parent is trying to force themself to be like this, and occasionally falters, so the kid gets mixed messages, won't work so well. But I think it's less about anything hard-wired into the kid than the parent.

And my mother would love your style of parenting, jo(e).

Zhoen said...

You may not make them do stuff, but you inspire them. As opposed to other parents who simply neglect them. A hard, and courageous balance.

angelfeet said...

I feel inspired by this, jo(e). I spent yesterday afternoon trying to encourage my eldest daughter to practice her guitar, trying not to be heavy about it, but trying to work out how to motivate her. Mm, food for thought.

Lorianne said...

I don't have kids, so I read this post as someone who teaches writing. Writing can't be forced...and yet, it's my job to make sure students produce writing I can grade. And so I vacillate between being completely anal retentive about drafts & due-dates in my syllabus and being loosey-goosey when it comes to topics students write about. I don't want them to write about topics I like; I want them to write about topics they like, because that produces "sparkly" writing.

Anyhow, I'm curious how/whether you apply your parenting techniques to your writing students. If your students are used to being "guided" (or forced) by their parents & previous teachers, they probably (in my experience) need similar structure in the classroom. I can't imagine, for instance, taking your parenting approach to my first year writing students, who literally don't know how to write a 15- to 20-page research paper. So I see my job as being the Mom-Like Figure who nags them into doing the little steps that get you from Page 0 to Page 15-20.

And that most of my students have gotten "into" the topics they chose for themselves, far less nagging is necessary. Last week I conferenced with students, and there were moments of "sparkle" when they realized I really do want to hear WHAT THEY THINK in their papers. And so for the next few weeks until the end of the term, they're pretty much on their own to do what they need to revise their papers. Yes, we'll meet to talk about grammar & documentation; yes, I'll look at one more draft. But at this point, I feel closer to your parenting style than to my initial 15-page syllabus anal style.'s the point of this VERY LONG COMMENT. Can you talk sometime (and this might be the topic of a future post: I can wait!) about how/whether your laid-back approach to parenting applies to the way you teach writing to other folks' kids?

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I've been thinking about this all morning! (I read it last night.) I can see that you allow your kids to follow their inclinations (or obsessions), which in With-a-Why's case is developing a skill other parents feel the need to drill into their kids. You don't have to drill him because it's his dream, not yours.

But it seems to me that homework is different. I always did my homework w/o nagging because I have always done what's expected of me -- but my son isn't like that. So do I nag him? Or do I let him fail?

Rana said...

...seconding Lorianne - I think that's one reason I love teaching seniors - you just wind them up and let them go. On the other hand, it's also profoundly moving when you set first-years free to write on something of interest to them, and show real interest in their words, because so often they are so grateful and I find that terribly sad.

My parents were pretty good when it came to balancing nagging and letting us do our own thing; mostly they pushed at us when we'd made a commitment to something and were faltering (like signing up for jujitsu class and not wanting to go), but they encouraged us to find our own paths, even when those paths worried them.

Even so, I'm not as resilient and self-motivated as I would like to be; I wonder very much about a lot of my students, who have been so programmed from the time they were little. The other day I was talking with a colleague whose students had been complaining that there was "nothing to do" on the weekends, here in a town with lots of interesting stuff, a whole college of peers, and Cities Full of Culture only an hour away. It turns out that the students meant scheduled activities, of which there are many during the week - they don't seem to understand that they can go do things on their own.

jo(e) said...

Let me take a stab at responding to some of these comments:

Yes, I think that my laid-back approach does translate into my approach in the classroom. Or actually, since I was a teacher before I was a parent, it might be the other way around. My teaching approach is very similar to my parenting approach, and I promise to write a blog post about that at some point.

I think one of the tricks to parenting/teaching is to figure out how to get kids to take responsibility for their own learning and behavior. I imagine that with some kids, that might mean letting them crash and burn, letting them fail something and accept the consequence so that they see that they need to be more responsible. So much depends on the kid (and the parent) -- I think there are all kinds of effective parenting/teaching styles, and different things work with different kinds of kids. I suppose an important part is figuring out what motivates a kid/student and what you can do to tap into that motivation.

I've tried with kids to avoid control battles because that is the one thing that I learned from teaching seventh grade: once something becomes a control battle, everyone loses.

Anonymous said...

... Okay, and now following up the teaching thread as a parent of a 5-year old: I want to parent that way, and a 5-year old will tell you she doesn't want reminders, and yet ...? So, Jo(e), can you possibly add yet another post to your stack of blogs-to-be about how early parenting (teaching) can morph into where you are now? That is, how did you START building the self-reliance and internal motivation? Surely, say, tooth brushing wasn't/isn't optional at some stage?

Are all of your kids equally self-motivated? Or, did one merely need to be, and then they infected all the others? You posted that band was viral ...

jo(e) said...

Anonymous: I suppose I could try to answer some of that now. I think it's important to figure out when rules are non-negotiable, and when you can give kids a choice.

For instance, my kids always had to wear a life jacket in a boat. That was a non-negotiable rule. The consequence (a drowned kid) was not one that I could live with.

But other stuff, I could let them learn from their mistakes. Like if one of my kids wanted to go outside without mittens on a winter day, I wouldn't fight him. I'd let him go out, knowing he'd be back in ten minutes later, saying his hands were cold and then grabbing the mittens.

Or Halloween candy, for instance. I never took charge of it. If a kid wanted to just gorge on candy for a few hours, well, I'd let him. Once you've gotten sick from eating too much candy once, you don't usually make that mistake again.

My son Boy in Black did not do his homework in first grade because he thought it was a waste of time. When his teacher talked to me about it, I told her that homework was his responsibility, not mine. At some point (second grade, I think), Boy in Black started doing his homework on his own. I was glad I hadn't gotten into some kind of routine of being the person in charge of his homework. Maybe if he had reached seventh grade and was still not doing his homework, I would have had to try some other approach: I don't know.

My main approach was, whenever I could, to try to empower my kids to make their own choices and accept consequences. But much of that depended on the circumstances and whether or not the consequences were something I could live with.

nimiecat said...

Great post! The thought I'd like to add is that you can't make a kid do anything that they don't love or want to do themselves. Especially when it comes to things like piano lessons, sports or dance. If the child doesn't like it enough to to want to do it and you have to nag or cajole them in to it, then everyone's time (and most likely money) has been wasted.

Joe - Just love your parenting style. I wish I had the patience and grace that you posses.

Silver Creek Mom said...

What a great Senctence...I loved it when Miranda got on her forms, She has a wonderful touch and feel for the panio. AND I like you said when she wanted to take up panio I will never tell you to practice this is your thing. ANd it has been. I never made them take anythign they did'n't want. Same with home work. IS your homework done and that's about it.
As for food they eat what they want but I limit the sugar> Eat as much good food as you want. BUT I control the rest. It works for us.

Anonymous said...

I wish I'd read this post BEFORE I had children 10 years ago. My tactic is to pick my battles, which works about half of the time. Being a control freak sure doesn't help in the parenting biz.


Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

We DO make Piano boy practice and do his homework some of the time, because when we tried NOT doing it, he made bad grades and didn't practice. All he wanted to do was play video games. However, I MOSTLY let him feed himself and lately he's been getting his homework done before he even comes home. The reason I MOSTLY let him feed himself is that if left to his own devices, he would never eat with us, and once or twice a week, we request his presence at the dinner table.

He does excel at piano and often requests his own choice of music.

But he's never been described as having sparkle. Glad With-a-Why has it.

skatey katie said...

i'm totally with you on the eating and music practising (or not) levels jo(e).
funny thing, both J11 and S10 came to me the other day and asked *me* to "schedule in some music practice time each day" for them both... and i am thinking, "what? when? wherever did you get that idea from???"

love that *bumble bee* piece that With-a-why is playing. J11's piano "teacher" (our friend julie) has been teaching him complicated pieces since he started learning on her piano a couple of years ago, and this year they thought they'd supplement the pieces and did grade one theory.
it's working fine, J11 is so motivated to learn something new cos it sounds so beautiful when he plays it, and he has the kind of temperament that just patiently tinkles something until he's worked it out. whay would i wreck that by insisting he "practices"???
blah blah rave rave
i gotta get to bed X