Monday, November 01, 2021


When our daughter was eight, she wanted to take piano lessons. Knowing many parents who had been marching their children through learning to play an instrument, I was surprised. I'd honestly never experienced a child that young who had actually asked for it. Most had simply been told, "I signed you up for lessons."

Her school offered lessons after school. That's exactly what she had in mind, so I signed her up with a bit of a swagger. Amidst all those kids who didn't want to be there, mine was self-motivated, and given her love of music, I had high expectations. She started off okay, but it wasn't long before the daily practice expected by her teacher became a grind, which impacted the lessons themselves. After all, it was no fun having someone scold you. So, I began to prod her to practice, gently at first, then as she became more resistant and surly I found myself grinding my teeth, not because I particularly cared whether or not she knew how to play the piano, but because I wanted to protect her from the growing anxiousness over disappointing her teacher every week.

I never went so far as to try to guilt her into practice (Your mother and I paid good money for this!), nor did I want to feed into her anxieties (Your teacher is expecting you to practice!). I definitely wasn't going to threaten punishment or offer rewards. It was hard to watch her struggle, but in the back of my mind was this notion that it would be good for her to learn to "finish what she started."

It's a rationale we've all heard, perhaps even voiced, to justify compelling kids to do things they no longer want to do, but when I look back over my own life, the list of things I've quit is quite long. Do I have regrets? Yes, a couple, but none from my early years. For the most part I look back on the relationships, jobs, and activities I've given up on in the spirit of "good riddance." I feel the same way about books I've abandoned, movies I've walked out on, and meals I've left unfinished. Indeed, what I see is a history of learning when and how to move on. Like anything worth doing, quitting takes practice.

I wasn't surprised when our daughter, in tears, told me that she wanted to quit learning the piano. She told me she felt ashamed each week as she went in unprepared, that she dreaded it, that her tummy felt bad whenever she even thought about it. That was more than enough for me. She was worried that she was somehow letting me down as well. I told her that the fear of letting others down is always a risk of quitting, but if they really care about you they won't want you to be miserable.

Once she realized she could quit, the air was suddenly fresher. As we both let go, the relief was palpable, but more invigorating was the empty space, the infinite space, that opens up when we've finally made the decision to quit. I took her keyboard down the cellar and we both agreed that it made the family room feel more spacious. Then, in the same spirit, we wrestled the unused family treadmill down there as well. We then went to the store and picked out a big bouquet of sunflowers to put in a vase in a corner of our lives that was now free for the next thing we thought we might like to try.


If you're interested in learning more about alternatives to commands, punishments, and rewards, please consider registering for my e-course The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think. You have until close of business Sunday to be part of this cohort as we examine how the language we use with children creates reality. In this limited registration course we will explore how the way we speak with children creates an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Click here for more information and to register.

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