Smart Love


Do piano lessons have to be a daily battle?

By Martha Heineman Pieper, PhD. and William J. Pieper, M.D.

Q: I need your advice about how to deal with my 6-year-old son who wanted piano lessons but doesn't want to practice. His piano teacher says he should practice at least 20 minutes a day. When I remind him, he says, "In a minute, Mom." But a minute drags on and on and he never gets to it. Then I tell him that he either has to practice or he can't watch TV or play video games. He gets mad and slams the door to his room. Once in a while, he will sit down at the piano and spend about a minute playing before he stops and says he has practiced. When he keeps playing, he asks me every two seconds how long is left. This clearly isn't working, but I don't know what to do. He likes his piano teacher and says he doesn't want to stop taking lessons, but this conflict over practicing is making me crazy. How can I get him to practice without so much unpleasantness? C.A., Orland Park

A: Fighting with your son over practicing is not going to achieve your aim of helping him enjoy music. Unlike school homework, piano practicing is optional. If he doesn't like practicing piano, there are lots of other instruments your son might prefer. Or, perhaps he is more interested in art or sports. We can't overemphasize that extracurricular activities should add pleasure, not conflict, to life. So take a deep breath and tell your son that if he doesn't want to practice, you will help him find another activity he will like better.

Skittish 2-year-old needs comfort Q:I am having a problem with my 2-year-old and I don't know what to do. He is scared of loud noises. When we are outside and there is a big machine, a fire engine or even loud traffic noises, he starts to cry and clings to me. I explain what causes the noises and that these things can't hurt him, but it doesn't seem to do any good. My husband tells him to stop acting like a baby, but he only clings to me harder. It's getting to the point that he doesn't want to go outside anymore. What do you advise? R.H., Elgin

A:First recognize that when your 2-year-old appears terrified, he is terrified. Children do not fake fright and unhappiness. So don't hesitate to comfort him as you would if he had skinned a knee or broken a toy. If he feels he can take refuge in the security of your arms when he is frightened, the fear will seem much less overwhelming. Refusing comfort only increases his fear by forcing him to cope with it alone. In addition, shaming your son by calling him a "baby" only adds shame to the pain he already is experiencing.

The answer to why loud noises are so frightening to your son may lie in his everyday experience. Often young children are frightened by noise when there is fighting, yelling or unusual tension in their home life or at daycare or preschool. The noise of family conflict gets generalized to other loud noises. Children who are made to feel their anger is unacceptable may become frightened of anger. They equate loud noises with anger and feel overwhelmed. Help your son become comfortable with any angry feelings he may have and, as much as possible, reduce the conflict he experiences in his world.

Big brother needs a lighter touch Q:I have a 4-week-old and a 3-year-old and I am a little concerned because the 3-year-old can be rather rough in the guise of "loving" the baby. He hugs her too hard, holds her hand too tightly and bounces her up and down too roughly. I have told him over and over how delicate babies are and that a boy as strong as he is can really hurt her, but his behavior doesn't seem to change. If I tell him he can't hold the baby, he gets hysterical, but I worry about the baby's safety. Please tell me what to do. P.D., Hinsdale

A:There are two conflicting issues here--your 3-year-old's feelings about having a new sibling, and keeping the baby safe. The baby's safety takes precedence. No matter how upset your son gets when you tell him he can't hold her, if he hurts her, his upset will be deeper and more permanent. So closely supervise your son's interactions with his sister. Never leave them alone together and be especially careful to keep him with you while she is sleeping. If he holds her too tightly, simply take her away saying, "It seems as though you are finding it difficult to be gentle with your sister, so I will hold her." If he cries, tell him gently but firmly that for his sake and the baby's you can't allow him to hurt her. If he promises to be more careful, you decide whether he can control himself at that moment.

Help your son recognize and share his negative feelings about his sister as well as show him she hasn't robbed him of your love. Tell him all big brothers and big sisters sometimes feel angry at babies and it's important to talk to you about those feelings and not take them out on his sister. There are many excellent story books describing the mixed feelings siblings have, such as "A Baby Sister for Frances," by Russell Hoban. When your son feels safe enough to tell you he "hates" his sister, don't be outraged. Accept his feelings--"I know you feel that way sometimes, just like all big brothers."

Also, your son has to see that his sister hasn't appropriated all of your affection. Use the baby's nap times to give your son a good dose of undivided attention and he will be much less resentful of the new arrival.

Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., have a new book, Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work, and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill, 2002), about helping parents and other adults improve their own lives. They also wrote Smart Love (Harvard Common Press, 2001). The Piepers have spent more than two decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.

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