By MAUREEN DOWNEY
As a longtime fan of advice columnist Dear Abby, I valued her practical answers, especially about raising children. However, one question stumped her years ago, and she threw it out to her readers to answer: Should children who hate piano lessons be forced — even kicking and screaming — to continue because they may eventually find joy in it and even decide that music is their passion?
Abby’s mail was split. Readers wrote that they hated every second of their childhood piano lessons, and the experience soured them forever on music. Others wrote to say that they were now with the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music or the Boston Pops and were forever grateful that their parents held their ground.
One mom maintained that parents force kids to do many things, including bathe, brush their teeth and eat their vegetables. Why should music be any different? Her son begged to quit piano when he was 10. Today, she said, he was a noted conductor and music professor.
But another mother lamented she had made a mistake insisting her child stick with weekly lessons. The lessons never stopped being a grim ritual, and her highly musical child lost her enthusiasm for music.
The problem is knowing which child yours will be, the one who blossoms into a symphony musician or the one who flinches whenever Mozart is played.
I have no idea how you tell the difference. Nor do I know if passions are deeper and more lasting when they’re discovered by the child rather than force fed by the parent.
My own parents left me and my brothers largely on our own to discover our talents and interests. A battered hoop in the yard was enough for my older brother to fall in love with basketball and become a top-rated college player. Somehow, my younger brother found his way to ice hockey, a sport he still enjoys as an adult.
(I am still searching for any sign of artistic talent. I had two guitar lessons as an adolescent before the teacher and I mutually concluded that I lacked both passion and talent. My choir career ended in sixth grade when Sister Josita pulled me aside, explained to me the meaning of “tone deaf” and then asked me to mouth the words rather than bellow them, as I had been doing under the belief that I could sing.)
With my first child, I was surprised to discover that even 7-year-olds take all sorts of after-school lessons and that the coolest summer camps fill up in February. While I learned how to make pot holders at my day camps, today’s campers can master beekeeping, surfing and French cooking.
Parents today believe that their children’s lives should be a rich sampler, so their kids take violin on Monday, Irish dance on Tuesday, soccer on Wednesday and drawing class on Thursday. When a glimmer of real talent emerges, they are far more willing to spend time and money to nurture it.
I have a cousin who wakes at 5 a.m. to drive her 8-year-old daughter to a skating rink in hopes she will become the next Kristi Yamaguchi. I don’t know if the little girl will conclude at age 16 that she’s not Olympic material and never lace up her skates again, as happened to a high school classmate of mine. My classmate complains often of the weekends spent on the ice rather than at the movies, the sleepovers she never had and the intense focus on skating that essentially turned her life into one long training session.
The problem for parents is that they can’t foresee the rueful adult mourning a lost childhood. They only see the extraordinary young skater who seems to come alive on the ice and has the possibility for greatness. And how does a parent distinguish between the usual griping about any regular activity, whether it’s homework, Sunday school or chicken for dinner again, and true discontent?
There comes a point when a child can’t be carried downstream any longer by the current of the parent’s enthusiasm. The turning point seems to be around age 14 when the violin prodigy announces that he’s switching to drums and the promising cross country runner says she’s tired of the morning practices and would rather concentrate on her art.
Of course, that’s not where the story ends in some cases — there’s always the possibility of that conversation 10 years later that begins, “Mom, I wish you had never let me quit …”
And that’s why Dear Abby was smart enough to realize that parents can never know for sure where their child will fall.