Wednesday, October 23, 2013

For parents of musically gifted children: Get out of your own way so your child can flourish

Part Two: Get out of your own way so your child can flourish.

Parents of gifted young musicians can support their child’s musical growth by understanding their own reactions and feelings. As noted in Part One, parents often experience strong emotions in response to their child’s musical talent, and these emotions warrant scrutiny and management. By understanding their feelings and motivations, parents can avoid counterproductive responses and behaviors that might interfere with their child’s progress.

As hard as it might be to admit, most parents of musically gifted children experience some emotional reactions that could negatively influence their child’s progress. To be blunt, parents sometimes project their own needs, wishes and anxieties onto their child’s study, creating unnecessary confusion and conflict for their child. The potentially negative effects these emotions might have can be mitigated by recognizing, understanding and challenging the feelings and the behaviors they elicit. Some questions to consider include:

  • Are you making the music too important? Has your child’s musical talent become the repository of your hopes and dreams? If you find yourself becoming overly invested in the importance of your child’s musical accomplishments, you may inadvertently convey this attitude. As a result, your child might feel compelled to pursue music primarily to please you, or conversely, might rebel and quit in protest.
  • Are you expecting too much? Do you compare your child’s accomplishments to those of other young musicians, and feel frustrated that he or she is not as successful? While success in music requires dedication and diligent practice, some children lack the drive and motivation to follow through with this degree of effort. Each child progresses at his or her own pace, a product of talent, opportunity, drive and education, and comparison with other children only fosters resentment.
  • Are you using misguided motivational tactics? Do you find yourself regretting harsh words and arguments over practice? Do you cringe over shaming statements and criticism that you thought might motivate your child? While you may have been influenced by some teachers, books or the media to believe that harsh discipline is a necessary part of musical instruction, it is more important to appreciate its impact on your child. The best learning comes from excitement, inspiration and intrinsic desire, not drudgery or a “boot camp” approach. While short term gains may be achieved, the long term effects can damage your child’s love of music. More importantly, it can hurt your relationship with your child.
  • Do you set unrealistically high goals for your child? Are your expectations unrealistic? Do they create too much pressure and stress for your child and family? Just as intellectually gifted children may display asynchronous development, where social development lags behind intellectual abilities, musically gifted children also may not be developmentally prepared to tackle the rigorous demands required to advance their musical talent. Excessive pressure may create resistance or anxiety in a child who, frankly, needs more time to play with his or her friends.
  • Do you downplay your child’s musical interest? Do you have mixed feelings about your child's participation in musical activities? Does it worry you that music may be a distraction from more productive/useful/socially acceptable interests? Are you worried about music as a future career path? While it is reasonable to express valid concerns to your child as he or she matures, especially those involving peer influences or potential career paths, communicating ambivalence without explanation is unsettling and confusing to most children.
Admitting to any of the behaviors listed above is hard enough for any parent. Understanding how your child’s musical talents evoke unmet personal needs for fulfillment, a desire for approval from others, a drive for perfection, or a range of other emotions is even more difficult.  Yet, recognizing when your own needs and wishes differ from what is in the best interest of your child is critical to your child’s musical success, and to a healthy parent-child relationship. You can avoid “acting out” these emotions with your child by trying the following:

Get informed: 
Speak to a trusted music teacher or musician about what to expect from your child at different ages and stages of musical development. Do some reading that could provide some useful information. Books such as “Kindling the Spark” and “The Musician’s Way” are a good place to start.

Seek support: 
Reach out to family and friends for help with reactions and frustration. They know you best and will hopefully provide honest, caring feedback about what might blind your judgment. Seeking support from fellow parents of young musicians is also invaluable. Look for opportunities to join organizations such as band parent associations, for example, or form relationships with parents you meet at recitals. If your worries seem excessive, overwhelming or persistent, counseling with a mental health professional would be helpful.

Monitor your child’s behavior: 
Most importantly, remain attuned to your child’s adjustment. Pay attention to whether your child truly enjoys the music. Every young musician loses interest in practicing and gets frustrated at times. But if your child repeatedly complains, or cries and becomes angry about practice or lessons, it may mean he or she needs a change. As with most aspects of parenting, raising a musically talented child involves being aware of your own feelings, but ultimately remaining attuned to your child’s needs.

Parents: what has been most helpful with your musical child?

Haroutounian, J. (2002). Kindling the Spark. New York: Oxford University Press.
Klickstein, G. (2009). The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance and Wellness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Parenting a musically talented child: Understanding your own reactions so you can encourage your child

Part One: Awareness

Most parents delight when their child performs in a recital or school concert. Yet they usually recognize that these musical efforts are an enriching activity and not a future career path. What happens, though, when parents realize that their child is musically gifted? How do they react to this, support their child’s growth as a musician, and make the best choices for their child and family?

Although parents may suspect that their child has talent, it usually takes outside confirmation to validate their perceptions. Often it comes from a music teacher or instructor, and is reinforced as the family witnesses how their child surpasses other children and grasps music in a manner well beyond the child’s years. When parents eventually realize that their child is musically gifted, they may be flooded with a range of feelings. How well they manage their feelings and reactions, and how these reactions are conveyed to their child can influence their child’s attitudes toward music. 

Developing an awareness of these emotions is a critical first step toward gaining a handle on them. Without understanding what they are feeling, parents may end up responding in counterproductive ways. The first step is recognizing the typical reactions most parents experience. These may include:

Excitement – Parents are often thrilled when they realize that their child is musically talented. They may take pride in their child’s abilities, and perhaps even feel in awe of his or her talents. If the child is their biological offspring, reactions may range from immodest pride (“I guess he’s got my musical skills”) to bewilderment (“how did I end up with such a talented child?”). Parents who are also musicians may feel a special bond with their child, as they can fully appreciate the child’s experience.  

Uncertainty – Along with excitement, parents often feel uncertainty. Many wonder how to best support their child’s abilities. And if they are not musicians themselves, entering an unfamiliar world of new terminology and expectations can be particularly daunting. They may question whether they can find the best resources for training, how to assess their child’s teacher or music class, and if they will be able to afford the costs of lessons, ensembles, camps and other opportunities. They may wonder what role they should play in their child’s daily routine and how much to push their child. Should they be a taskmaster and insist on regular practice, or allow their child to develop at his or her own pace? Have they done enough to foster their child’s musical growth and development? Even if they follow advice from teachers and other musicians, nagging doubts may remain.

Fears - After the initial excitement fades, many parents worry about what lies ahead. Music study takes tremendous discipline and dedication, and the commitment often eliminates time for other extra-curricular or social opportunities. Parents may feel conflict over limiting their child's extra-curricular choices to make time for dedicated practice. Some parents also worry that their child will be ostracized because of appearing different, and will be unpopular, especially if he or she performs traditional classical music or musical theatre. If their child performs jazz, rock or alternative forms of music, parents may worry about negative peer influences their child may eventually encounter. Long-range concerns include college planning, realistic career choices and whether a music career can sustain a viable income.

Emotional turmoil – Parents also weather the emotional ups and downs of their child’s successes and failures. Pride and excitement following a solid performance, anxiety prior to an audition, or frustration when their child lags behind with practicing all come with the territory. Parents may be surprised to discover their own competitive feelings toward children who surpass their child at auditions, or feel guilt due to ambivalence about their child’s involvement with music. Some may resent the cost of lessons and instruments, and the time spent traveling to rehearsals or competitions. Many feel saddened and angry if their talented child fails to live up to his or her potential or gives up music completely.

Raising a musically talented child can be invigorating, frustrating, intense, infuriating, worrisome, joyful, and deeply fulfilling. Parents' increased awareness of their own feelings will improve their ability to support their child by reducing the tendency to respond in a counterproductive manner. (More about this in Part Two.) Once parents are aware of their reactions, thoughts and feelings, they can take steps to minimize any negative effects on themselves and their children.

Part two will focus on what parents can do to address their reactions. But the first step is awareness. Are there any reactions that you would like to share?