How To Talk So Kids Will Practice
Just about everyone I’ve talked to has a challenge with getting their kids to practice.
I too had this issue.
When my son Alejandro was young, not only was I the parent, but also the teacher. It was very challenging and we would often end our lessons in tears – his and mine!
It was extremely frustrating!
It’s like that quote from the film Cool Hand Luke.
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
It’s true. Communication is probably the biggest challenge humans face in all walks of life.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
– George Bernard Shaw
At age 9, Alejandro went to camp and became “piano guy” as he banged out requests on the old upright in the mess hall. Now at 16, he seeks out time to practice on his own. It’s become an outlet, a passion and a constant companion. Music has become part of his identity.
So how did we get here?
Flashback to ten years ago. My brilliant and beautiful wife knows a lot about developmental psychology. Besides giving me a time out! – she gave me a book to read. You may already know about it.
by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish.
Reading this book was a major breakthrough for me.
In the book, the authors discuss four key strategies:
- Listen with full attention
- Acknowledge their feelings with a word
- Give their feelings a name
- Give them their wishes in fantasy
Listen with full attention
This is a rarity nowadays. I’ve seen so many parents staring at their smart devices while their children are begging for some attention. When Alejandro was a toddler, he would grab our faces and literally turn our heads and say, “Look at me!” Pretty funny and effective.
Getting attention is like getting oxygen. Your child wants your attention, approval and notice of what they are doing. Practice time can be an incredible bonding time. Get interested in what they are doing, and they will do more of it. It’s why I recommend always placing the piano in the center of the living space. It shows you care about this and it’s important to you.
Did you ever notice how sports-crazed kids usually have sport-crazed parents? It’s the same with music, movies, arts, crafts, dance, whatever. Your children want to share in your passions. In other words, where your attention is.
Acknowledge their feelings with a word
It doesn’t even have to be a full word. It can be just, “Oh” or “Hmm” or just a caring look and nod of acknowledgement. One thing that is also very powerful is to just reiterate what they said. This works wonders when your child is upset. They don’t necessarily want or need you to fix things, they just want to be heard. As a man, I know I have the tendency to want to fix the problem, as the book Men are from Mars, Women from Venus illustrated for me. My wife sometimes just needs me to hear her, not fix the problem! The same is true for your kids.
Give their feelings a name
This is especially useful for younger kids who don’t have the vocabulary to express what they are feeling. Heck, many adults don’t either! There is a movement towards social-emotional learning (SEL) with full curricula to emphasize this.
When your child is upset, they don’t always have the words to tell you what they are feeling. Giving them a vocabulary is relieving in that they are acknowledged.
This chart used to be on my refrigerator. It is a useful way of articulating how you’re feeling.
You can try having your child point to the picture that most describes what they are feeling right now.
Bonus points if you make that face too!
Give Them Their Wishes in Fantasy
This is fun and a way to build empathy and connection. Obviously your child knows it’s a fantasy. But they feel heard and acknowledged. You’ll see what I mean below.
Here’s two examples of how to talk about practicing, one obviously better than the other.
Child: I don’t want to practice
Parent (looking at phone) : You have to practice! How are you going to get better?
Child: But I don’t want to!
Parent: It’s not a choice just go do it!
Parent: You know you need to practice – why don’t you just go practice?
Child: I don’t feel like it.
Parent: Well I don’t feel like doing many things either, but I have to. Do you think I want to go on the stinky subway everyday? Now go and practice, NOW!
Child leaves crying and bangs on the piano.
Parent: What did I do?
Child: I don’t want to practice
Parent looks directly at child: Hm. You don’t want to practice.
Child: Well…I know I should, but I don’t feel like it right now.
Parent: You’re not ready to practice right now.
Child: No. I want to go to the beach!
Parent: Well, that would be fun. But I know the beach is over an hour away. I wish I had a magic wand to make us just fly to the beach right now!
Child: Ha ha….
I’m a little hungry, can I have a snack?
Parent: Ok I’ll make a snack.
Child: And then I want to show you the new song I learned!
There’s so much more in the book. I encourage you to try these strategies out. Also share this with your friends and families.