Let kids explore their own interests

Your kids are back to school and new extracurricular activities, but by now the shine may have worn off more than just their new Buster Browns. A reader faced with the same quandary wonders what to do after her daughter begged for guitar lessons:

“We bought a guitar and signed her up for lessons, but she quickly became disinterested. Do I force her to finish out the session or do I let her quit?”

I faced the same dilemma last year. After I paid hefty registration and tuition fees for gymnastics, my daughter Holly decided to quit with half the lessons remaining. A former gymnast myself, I was bummed that she wanted to quit and worried she’d been turned off to gymnastics by the more stern‘training’ posture of her new coach. We both missed the fun-loving warmth of the teacher of her beginner class. This experience inspired several questions: Is it important to me or to her that she enjoy gymnastics? Shouldn’t I make her finish because learning to‘finish what you start’ promotes a good work ethic and fosters an ability to commit? Is my money wasted?

I realized that I had to discern what my goal was for my child. I decided that it was more important to reinforce her ability to notice when something doesn’t feel right to her. Her goal was to play and have fun, with people she enjoyed relating with. My job is to support her awareness, even if I think she’s got talent and may miss an opportunity available in the advanced class.

That said, we can talk with kids about the value of finishing, particularly if their change of heart impacts other people (a school play, for example). Otherwise, isn’t forcing the issue a little like telling kids to clean their plates? There was a time and a place for that mantra back when we didn’t know how sustaining our next meal might be, but today that way of thinking creates more problems than it solves. Consider instead the value of encouraging kids to develop their internal mechanisms for recognizing when they’ve had enough—whether it’s food or an activity.

As for the reader’s done-with-guitar-daughter, she should consider renting an instrument and paying for a few trial lessons the next time her daughter expresses an interest. Adopt a‘taste-testing’ approach to new activities. How can she know she wants to do something for an extended period unless she has the opportunity to experiment first? If a child does something simply to please you, will she ever learn to discern what it takes to please herself? Will she ever learn to follow her bliss?

Sometimes there is value in sticking it out in situations that might seem negative at the outset, but generally, forcing kids to finish doesn’t inspire them to enjoy the activity. It just teaches them who’s boss.

I took piano lessons as a child and practiced on an old fire-engine red upright. I’m fuzzy on the details, but recall a time when I hated to practice. This was complicated by the fact that our piano was in the living room, which had a cathedral ceiling and was a burden to heat during colder months so we didn’t. I still had to practice, though, and did, in my snowmobile suit and finger gloves. I distinctly recall watching the Miss America Pageant and cringing when Miss Massachusetts played the piano during the talent portion of the contest. I worried that my parents would remember I hadn’t practiced that day.

Holly tried piano lessons for a couple of months before it became clear that beyond learning"Mary had a little lamb,” she prefers that I play while she sings along with her pretend microphone, American Idol style. At 6, her finger and attention spans are still relatively undeveloped, so I’m cool with that. Fostering her enjoyment of music, no matter the method, is my only agenda.

Oddly enough, now I want to play the piano again—and I want that old fire-engine red upright, too.

Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., has been a clinical member of The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy since 1995 and is a featured blogger at chicagoparent.com.

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