The Piano Lesson

Around age six, my daughter began to show interest in the upright piano pushed against a wall in our living room. Whenever I would sit down to play, she’d come stand by my side and listen. “Do another one, Mommy,” she’d say. “I like it when you play.”

Certain the attraction wasn’t my (very slim) musical talents, I made a mental leap: time for piano lessons! I signed her up at a local studio and thus began her weekly lessons—and our weekly battles.

“Have you practiced?” I would ask.

“I don’t want to,” she would answer.

“Come on, just 15 minutes,” I would coax. “You have a lesson tomorrow.”

Sometimes she would oblige without a fuss. More often, she’d go into warrior mode…bringing out the warrior in me.

“Becky, sit down and practice right now,” I’d say in my firm Mommy voice.

“No!” she’d respond.

Her face would tighten. Our voices would escalate. Then each of us would persist until one of us wore the other down.

About halfway through Becky’s second year of lessons she gave me a chilling wake-up call. There I was, by the piano, barking, “I said now!,” when she covered her ears and said, “Mommy, I can’t hear you. My ears hurt.”

As I stared at my little girl trying to block out the noise emanating from her mother’s mouth, I finally grasped the obvious: I was being absurd. My child had no interest in piano lessons. None. Why was I compelling her to do this?

Upon (overdue) reflection, I realized that I’d been operating from the well-intended but frail assumption that learning a musical instrument would enrich her life, just as it had enriched mine. I also assumed that she would enjoy practicing once she developed a habit. Like mother, like daughter, right?

Wrong. She’d been telling me as much for almost two years. But trained on my vision of all the wonderful benefits that would accrue as she gradually achieved mastery of the keyboard, I hadn’t heard her.

This was not one of my prouder parenting moments, but it taught me a valuable lesson. No matter what I might think was “good” for my daughter by way of life-enhancing activities, it was one thing to offer her an opportunity; it was another to impose it.

Acknowledging that your child is not interested in the same things you are doesn’t always come easy. If you starred on the baseball diamond and have fond memories of the dugout antics, it’s hard to swallow that your son hates swinging a bat. If you were the kind of kid who could lose whole afternoons curled up with a good book, it can seem incomprehensible that your daughter finds reading b-o-r-i-n-g. We assume that if we once reaped rewards from a certain activity, they will, too. Even as they balk, we cling to our memories of the benefits that come with persistence and determination (including, but not limited to, enhanced musicality, team camaraderie, good grades), so if only they will hang in there a bit longer…

Yes, our intentions are good. But forcing our kids to stick with something they don’t enjoy can have consequences. A once-agreeable child may turn balky or resentful. A child already inclined to proclaim, “I’m the boss of me,” may turn downright combative. And children of any temperament may lose their enthusiasm for sharing their ideas and interests if they feel their parents aren’t listening.  

In the wake of my own piano battles, I have little patience for the parents who turn up the noise and pressure to turn out prodigies. Instead, I favor a simpler approach: listen to your kids. They will tell you what they do—and don’t—want to do, if only you’ll listen.

In my case, my daughter decided in middle school that she wanted guitar lessons. That lasted a nanosecond. Come high school, she announced that she’d signed up for a sport my husband and I knew nothing about: crew. When we learned what went into the grueling training, (“The only excuse for missing a practice is if there’s a death in the family!” the coaches announced at their one and only meeting with parents), my husband and I murmured to each other, “Becky won’t make it through the first season.”

Wrong. She rowed for four seasons and walked away with a bunch of national medals. 

Jill Smolowe

Jill Smolowe is the author of An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood and co-editor of A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents