Wednesday, August 03, 2011
The turning point in "The Music Man" comes in the River City (Iowa) high school gym. The townspeople are convinced that Professor Harold Hill should be tarred and feathered for cheating them by selling them useless, overpriced band instruments and uniforms. Their children have had no lessons and can't possibly play these expensive toys. Suddenly the young people burst into the gym in uniform, carrying their instruments. Hill is encouraged to lead them in the "Minuet in G" which they have been learning using the "think method" for several weeks. He raises his baton, the children begin to play, and a caterwaul rises from the group. With barely any hesitation the parents stand up and shout out in pride – "that's my son playing!" Amid the wretched sounds that jarred the deaf Beethoven in his grave, the parents heard what they wanted to hear and that was perfection.
The moral of the story: We parents naturally take pride in our kids' accomplishments no matter how off-key. Evidence of our pride surrounds us. Every living room contains at least one ceramic handprint next to the Wedgewood. My mother actually framed my pictures from middle school art class and hung them next to her Picasso lithograph. Clusters of trophies, photos, and art projects fill every child's home without regard to the interior design. We give up a sense of style and perfection in order to honor the achievements of our children because those mementoes are worth more than gold. We save school homework, we film the third grade concerts, we cheer at dance recitals, and we sit through three hours of beginner piano pieces just to hear our son's one minute performance. We tell our children how good they are no matter how their talent compares to the rest of the world because in our eyes they are wonderful and worthy of our pride.
The difficulty comes when our pride gets mixed up with expectations. Telling your daughter how wonderful her shot on goal was is different than telling her she's good enough to make three goals a game. When we only see our children through the filter of our own standards, we do them a disservice. While it would be wonderful that every child who took up the piano or ballet or soccer could become an international sensation, the reality remains that most kids will do their hobbies for a few years, have some success, and then move onto a regular career and family path. If we treat our children as if they have a gift, when in fact they don't, we pressure them rather than uplift them.
Certainly nurturing and encouraging a budding talent is part of a parent's job, especially when our children show the interest and commitment to move to a higher level. But having an unrealistic view of their talent can lead to unhealthy demands and put you at odds with coaches and teachers. I hear all the time on the sidelines how parents think the coach doesn't understand how good their child is. We take the job of being a good parent as translating into being a good judge of athletic, artistic, or academic talent in our children. We know our child but not necessarily how our child compares to others in her peer group. We single out the one skill our child has and somehow expect that to be enough to put her in the top echelons of the activity. And we can often feel that the coach is ignoring that talent. Most coaches and teachers see the bigger picture because they have two advantages we parents don't have: they have years of experience in the activity so they understand the levels and skills which are either normal or exceptional; and they don't have the bias of our pride to cloud the issue.
Nevertheless, it's difficult for parents to not let their pride dictate how invested they get in their kids' activities. Finding a balance which gives a parent a clear view of how truly good his or her child is makes for less stress. Rather than talking to coaches and teachers about how they should recognize our child's talents, we should be asking them to help us put those talents in perspective. We should be asking "what could Mary be doing better?"; "are there additional classes or training sessions she could be taking?"; "do you see any special spark or talent in her we could be nurturing?" We also need to be sure that we have a good read of our children's interest in an activity. Sometimes we'll need to encourage them over a hump where their interest flags temporarily and sometimes we have to accept that they no longer have any interest. We have to be able to step out from behind our pride and offer good advice that encourages but doesn't pressure. It's difficult. I know this from personal experience – our daughter who had the chance to dance with some of the top ballet companies in the United States decided she couldn't take the pressure of the constant threat of rejection. She continued to take dance classes to keep up her fitness and her love for the art, but she no longer wanted to pursue dance to the next level.
When "The Music Man" parents shouted out their pride in their children's musical talents in the film, it probably seemed a bit ridiculous to the movie audience. We could all hear how terrible they were. But the message wasn't off the mark. We see the possibilities in our kids and we are delighted when they reach even the fringes of those possibilities. The pride in the child who is 15th
chair in the orchestra is no smaller than the pride in the child who is 1st
chair. But the pride has to be grounded in some realism. Parents, even the parents of River City, have the ability to recognize the limitations of their children's talents. We have to be willing to exercise that ability while never giving up on our pride in what our kids do. Kids are smart enough to figure out what they love to do and what they are good at. They have a keen sense of how they fit in with their peers. So our pride in the things they do isn't giving false hope, but if we push, if we buy into false hope, then we create pressure rather than support.