Dear Kid Whisperer,
My eight-year-old daughter does not enjoy practicing the piano. She has lessons once per week and is supposed to practice for thirty minutes per day. I am very busy, but I find time every day after work to sit down with her and work on piano with her. She is extremely resistant and passively aggressive, and it kind of ruins a good part of our nightly time together. Is there any way to improve this situation? I know I’m doing something wrong because the other day she was playing on her own and when I approached her and said that we would start practicing, she got upset and then didn’t want to play at all. -Marc, Phoenix, Arizona
For the answer to your question, think for a moment about your own job. Imagine that every day, your boss was at your desk to greet you upon your arrival, at which point he gave you a specific instruction as to what you should be doing that day. Imagine that, immediately after the instruction was given, he told you to do it, and he told you that he would be watching constantly to make sure you did it right, and that he would be correcting each mistake as it was made in order for you to attain peak performance.
How would you feel?
How hard would you work?
How well would you complete tasks?
Would you like your boss?
Would you like your job?
The answers to these questions are obvious. You would feel terrible, hate your work, and hate your boss.
So why would your daughter feel or act any differently than you would? Your daughter probably doesn’t dislike piano—at that moment, she probably just dislikes you.
Let’s fix this.
As a general rule, avoid habitually telling kids to do things immediately, and make sure you have the least amount of presence and influence possible in the activity/practice/chore/job/etc. Here’s how I would set up your daughter’s practice time. Keep in mind I know nothing about music, and am assuming that you don’t actually need to sit with her constantly. I could be wrong, but here we go:
Kid Whisperer: Hi, Kid! How was school?
Kid Whisperer: Great! My work was great. You know, one of the reasons my work is so good is that my boss is nice, and she respects me enough to know that I can do my work on my own. She expects me to do it, I do it, it gets done, and everyone’s happy. I realize I am not giving you the same respect when you practice piano. I’m sorry. It’s just that just seven short years ago, all you could do was cry and poop, so it’s hard for me to remember how capable you are.
Kid: Yes, I can do things!!
Kid Whisperer: I know, and I’m sorry. From now on, you can choose when you practice, as long as it all happens before dinner. Also, you can choose whether you need help. I’ll leave you alone unless you want help. Just let me know.
Kid: What if I don’t do my thirty minutes every night?
Kid Whisperer: I will continue to pay for each week’s piano lesson for kids who get their thirty minutes every night. If you choose not to do your thirty minutes, I’ll just have you pay me back for that week’s lesson. I’ll keep track for you, but I’ll keep my distance, and I’ll count good practice minutes. If you need guidance on what good practice minutes are, I am available to guide you.
The chances of non-compliance and power struggles plummet when you set up your evenings in a way that allows you to act as an objective scorekeeper, and not a nagging referee. When we fulfill Kid’s control needs and set firm, enforceable limits without lectures or warnings, we improve our relationships and our evenings.