March 10, 2017
By Ekta R. Garg
Last Monday evening I had a conversation with another parent that looped back around for me later in the week.
The girls have music lessons—violin and guitar for Ten; guitar for Eight—after school on Mondays. Eight also takes cello on a different day. Her cello teacher requires all students taking private lessons to participate in a studio class, which is a group lesson. That means more music to practice and more time to practice it.
The topic of practicing came up on Monday as I waited for the girls to get out of their lessons. The six-year-old who takes violin right after Ten showed up, bouncy and bright and just a touch sassy. Full disclosure? Ten and Eight don’t really like her very much exactly for the reason that she’s pretty cheeky. Sometimes it’s on the border of being downright disrespectful.
In any case, the six-year-old went into her lesson and Ten came out. Eight’s guitar teacher was wrapping things up with her, and she hadn’t come out yet. The six-year-old’s mother dropped into the chair next to mine with a weary smile.
“So your daughter takes violin?” she asked.
“And guitar,” I added. “My younger one takes guitar too.”
“Oh, wow. How often do they practice?”
“They probably practice about five days a week,” I said. “We usually miss a day or so because of something or the other going on.”
By this time Eight had joined us. “Yeah, we have dance class on Wednesdays, so it’s kind of a long day.”
“And I don’t make them practice on lesson days,” I added. “It’s kind of like practicing.”
“Yeah,” the mother said in agreement. “Wow, that’s great. How do you get them to practice so often?”
“I don’t give them a choice,” I replied. “I mean, we pay a lot of money for renting the instruments and for the lessons.”
“I know, right?”
“I just tell them they have to practice.”
“Oh, wow,” the mother said with a trace of wistfulness. “I wish I could get T. to practice like that. Someone suggested bribing, so I did that for a while. But then I stopped, because…well, I don’t know, I guess I got tired of it.”
Or because it stopped working, I thought.
“Then I told her if she wants to do ballet—because she keeps bugging me to do ballet—that she has to practice her violin. That worked for a while, but lately she just doesn’t do it anymore.”
I murmured some sympathy and left the conversation as gracefully as possible, wondering for the hundredth time why parents find it so hard to stand up to their own children. Does our society and our current age really condone kowtowing to people who are shorter, younger, and much less experienced than adults? Is it really so horrible that I just tell my children they have to practice, or do their homework, or put their laundry away, without offering justification for it?
That’s not to say that telling the kids what to do is much fun. They usually end up stomping away, full pouts making their lips curl. That leaves me feeling like a heel. No one likes to play bad cop, but that usually becomes my default role.
It’s a lousy job.
That lousiness got reinforced on Thursday of last week. Ten and Eight are in an after-school club on Thursdays, and last week they went on a field trip with the club to a local nature center. By the time we got home, it was around 5:15. They came in, washed up, and went right to homework. Eight, as per her routine, asked whether they could watch TV after homework. I told them if they finished practicing their instruments and had time before dinner, they could pick one show.
In theory, they had plenty of time to practice and then watch TV. The trouble with the girls, though, is that somewhere along the way instrument practice also turns into chatting time. Sometimes it turns into playtime. They do get their practicing done eventually, but occasionally as they each switch from one instrument to another their conversation carries on for quite a while. They lose track of the time, and what should theoretically be about 35 minutes of practice has sometimes turned into almost an hour.
On this night, too, I heard the kids chatting and giggling in between instruments. I didn’t really have the heart to scold them for that. I really enjoy their friendship as it continues to grow around their sisterhood, and, really, even though they go to the same school they don’t get much time together during the day. So I let them chat.
Around 6:40—about 10 minutes before I planned to serve dinner—Eight came into my studio and asked if they would have time to watch anything. I told her no, that she and her sister had spent too much time practicing. Her eyebrows turned down, and her face scrunched in anger. She stomped away, and I turned back to my computer.
About two minutes later, she came back.
“Mamma, I’ve been thinking,” she said, relatively composed. “I’ve been thinking about quitting practicing.”
“Well, you know what that means, right?” I asked. “Quitting practicing means quitting the guitar and cello.”
“That’s what I mean,” she said.
“Quitting your instruments just because you can’t watch TV one night isn’t an option,” I said. “That’s not a good enough reason to stop taking music. You know your teachers always tell you how good you sound, and that’s because you practice. So, no, you can’t quit practicing.”
And off she went once again, stomping and angry.
I don’t like being the bad guy. I really don’t. It takes energy and time to reinforce the rules, and I feel awful when the kids are upset with me.
In my heart of hearts, though, I know they won’t stay upset long. By the time Saturday rolled around and I told the girls in the morning after breakfast to go practice so they’d get it out of the way, Eight skipped along behind her big sister. The two went up laughing and chatting, and I got to enjoy listening to their current music pieces as well as the giggles that usually come with practice time.
I wished I could explain all that to the mother in the music school last week. No doubt she’s doing the best she can. I just wish she, and other parents, weren’t so afraid to play bad cop once in a while. When it’s for the right reason, the reward far outweighs the risk of an angry child.
And when I’m really upset about it, I just eat chocolate. It definitely helps.