Why The “I Don't Want To Force My Kid To Practice” Approach Is Ineffective
by Eric Bourassa
Your child asked for a guitar for Christmas or their birthday, so you got them one, hoping desperately that it wouldn’t be a waste of money. Months went by, and nothing happened. In fact, after Day 1, they never touched it again! So you found a guitar teacher in the Fort Worth area and got them some lessons. The teacher, of course, stressed the importance of practicing at home. You responded with, “Well, I want them to to want to practice. I’m not going to make them do it.” After all, you don't want your child to hate making music because you made them do it and they now resent it. So you let the chips fall where they may and hoped they would put the iPad down long enough to play their daily 20 minutes of guitar. But they didn’t. And when you reminded them about it, a forced grunt and whine was the only reply.
You even tried making them do it once or twice just so they would see how great it will be. You promptly decided that is a fight you’re never having again. “I have to fight with my kid to do their homework and put on the pajamas- why on earth would I add this stress to my life?” So, after a few painful months of minimal progress, your child wanted to quit playing altogether. You regretfully informed the teacher of your intent to discontinue lessons, but secretly, you were a little relieved that you didn’t have to worry about this problem anymore. And just like that, your child’s dreams of being in a band were gone, likely forever. Your intentions were good, but the result was the opposite of what you had intended.
How do I know this story so well? Because I’ve seen it happen over and over again to well-intentioned parents who didn’t know the best way to ensure their kid’s success on a musical instrument.
The solution? Parents need to force their kids to practice their guitar on a consistent basis.
Making your child practice will usually leave you feeling like this the first year or two- I've been there!
I know that this approach works, because out of the many hundreds of guitar and piano students I have personally taught plus the vast number of violin, drums, voice, and even more guitar and piano students that our other instructors have taught at Fort Worth Guitar Academy (and the former Ridglea School of Music), the very best ones almost always come from a home where the parents require them to practice daily. Conversely, almost every student who is not “forced” to practice fails within the first few months.
My goal now is to explain why this happens. It took me a few years to recognize this pattern, admittedly. But once I did, I started asking why. There are two reasons:
1. Lack of Results - Discipline for practice is never developed, so results never show up, which leads to:
2. Lack of Belief in Self - Because there is a lack of results, the student believes they just “don’t have any talent” for music.
Let’s look at point #1 a little more in-depth. Isn’t it odd that we treat music lessons this way, but virtually nothing else? Think about it: what if we approached general hygiene this way? “I don't want to force little Bobby to brush his teeth - I want him to love it.” See the problem?
We force our kids to do all kinds of things regardless of their passion for it, because we know what’s best for them. We force them to bathe, do their homework, go outside and play (if they prefer sitting in front of the TV or iPad), read, etc…
Can you imagine if we waited until our children were inspired to read to actually do it? My daughters love to read, so it’s easy. My son, on the other hand, would rather spin in circles until he falls over. It’s a fight, but it’s one I’m willing to have because I know the supreme importance of reading. Eventually he will be so conditioned from reading daily with his mother and me that he will eventually do it on his own. And who knows? Maybe he’ll even come to enjoy it.
Music is no different. If we truly care about the success of our kids in playing an instrument, we have to instill the discipline first. For some, the sheer joy of playing one note is enough. For others, they need to be pushed more. But the only way they will ever experience success at all is if we make them do it routinely for months on end.
Addressing point #2- because we don't make our kids practice their chosen musical instrument, they don’t ever get better, and they show up to lessons each week reviewing the same line of music from six weeks ago. They experience no results, and therefore no joy, so they conclude that they have no talent for it. And this is true - but their potential for talent is there and must be developed. If a child believes they cannot be successful on their instrument, they will mentally give up. Once this happens, all is lost, many times for life. They will allow this negative experience of taking lessons for a few months to shape their self-perception about what they can and can’t do well into their adult life. I have met many adults who simply believe that are incapable of learning a musical instrument because the discipline was never developed and results never manifested.
It’s up to us, as parents, to prevent our children’s music lessons from becoming a negative experience and instead, being a life-changing experience that teaches them the value of self-discipline and the other “side-effects” of taking at least two years of rigorous music instruction:
Increased math comprehension
Increased reading comprehension
So, our small fear of our kids not wanting to practice pales in comparison to the life-long benefits of making them practice.
Finally, in case you think I’m just reprimanding parents, know that I’m in this with you.
My daughter is 5 and has been taking piano lessons at Ridglea School Of Music for a few months now. The first month was brutal at home. In fact, we started at home over a year ago just getting used to being in front of the piano, and it’s been a real fight. She loves going to classes (which almost all kids do - in fact, parents frequently tell me, “My kids loves class, they just hate practicing at home!” The solution is to enroll them in 2 or 3 classes a week, but that’s a different topic for another time), but practicing at home with her was tough at first. She has always had a routine of getting ready for pre-school, then watching TV or playing Yoshi’s World on WiiU. So when Daddy disrupted this routine by making her practice piano instead, things didn't go so well.
But you know something? Now we’re getting into a groove - quite literally. I have video of what my daughter’s piano practicing was like a year ago and what it’s like today. Funnily enough, I took the most recent video exactly one year after the first and didn’t even know it until I edited the video! At first, she complained about practicing, but today, when I say, “Time to practice piano,” the response is almost always, “OK, and then we go to school?”
She’s starting to expect it as part of her routine, and she’s beginning to enjoy it. Plus, I know the secret benefits for life that a 5-yr old could not care less about.
So if you’re thinking about getting started with lessons, heed my advice- be ready to make your child practice and have that fight. And, if you already have your kid in lessons, and you’re ready to pull them because they don't want to practice on their own, hang in there and start making them practice. It will pay off.
2018 UPDATE- My daughter is 7 and has now been playing piano for two years and practiced this morning without complaint before she did anything else. Not only does she practice willingly now, she's also quite good at it. It's been a long road, but it is worth the fight! Hang in there.