Bringing up Children: Do We Have It Right?

Boys acting as pop singers

taking time for fun

It’s total sacrilege to say it, but have we got the process of bringing up children all wrong? Parents have an unenviable job in these busy times, particularly mums who are often, through necessity, juggling jobs and giving their children every possible opportunity. How dare I say that maybe it is all going wrong?!  Auch!

The truth is that the average child is exposed to more and more in their early years, but seems to be less focused, less goal-orientated and less likely to stick to activities. Why is this? – certainly children are no less intelligent. The children I come in contact with as a teacher are often doing 2 or 3 after-school activities per week, some have an activity every afternoon.  Do they seem happy – no!  Many children find the constant activity tiring and stressful. Like you and me children like to relax after a day’s work, and although one or two activities are looked froward to, more become a chore and a stress as children realise they are not going to be able to live up to parents’ expectations.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some children who take it all in their stride, and crave more,  But more often than not our overloaded children are showing signs of stress and may be on the road to greater problems later. One of the sad side-effects is that we become used to our children not succeeding, which sends a message to the child that they are not very good. We begin to have low expectations often just because of this overloading.

As a studio piano teacher I find my job coming harder and harder.  More and more children seem to lack the skills to succeed.  Often television is blamed for causing shorter attention spans, but the answer is more complex. Everyone knows that interested children concentrate very hard for long periods of time. There are probably many reasons for lack of focus, but tiredness and our own lack of expectations, coupled with their lack of day-to-day problem-solving skills and sense of responsibility must weigh heavily. Many children from an young age do not expect to succeed.  Parents would do well to cut down the activities their children are involved with, and allow them to have time to think and order their own lives. Help them get their noses out of the iPads and explore their environment.

Happy girl playing chess


I know every parent wants the best for their child, but these days we take a lot of responsibility off our children. We chauffeur them from door to door because of stranger danger, so they acquire little road sense; we don’t let them go to the park or shops alone so they perceive it is something they are incapable of doing; we book them into many extracurricular activities so they are given the impression that they can’t organize their own time without you. Not surprisingly children are losing the ability to think for themselves and to set their own goals. Of course we do not want to expose them to danger, but building up their coping skills and talking about day-to-day dangers and how to avoid them will greatly increase their self-esteem and stop them being helpless prisoners. Likewise, talking about what they would like to achieve and then supporting them to achieve that goal is helping them grow into a self-sufficient person.

Too many extracurricular activities can mean things are poorly done, so again children feel everything is too hard for them. They feel defeated and don’t expect to succeed. We should be gradually giving them more responsibility as their age and experience warrants.

How can we help our children be more independent?:

1.  Start giving children more responsibility in certain areas.
2.  Discuss things with them and encourage them to come up with solutions.
3.  Assume children will succeed in their endeavours and support them only as much as they need.
4.  Give that support with enthusiasm, joy and the confidence that they will succeed.
5.  Help them set their own goals – and set them a little higher that you would expect – they might surprise you!
6.  Enjoy your children.  Only allow them to take on activities that they really want to do, and give them time just to be a kid and do some free thinking.

children walking

happy children

Committing to Learning

Yesterday a small incident in my teaching day left me pondering things for quite a while. It turned my whole philosophy of teaching on its head. So I’d like to share it with you, and invite comments.

happy teenage girl

Being joyful but determined

I teach a beautiful 16 year-old  girl who plays like an angel. She really is very good, a joy to listen to and very enthusiastic. My husband had just commented on her wonderful playing and I was telling her. “Why thank you,” she said, “It wasn’t always so – I used to hate coming!” I was stunned but before I could answer she said she would like to share a secret with me. It appears that when she first started coming when she was eight, she cried and screamed before every lesson but her parents took no notice and come she did.

She had arrived from another teacher and technique was poor in every way, but I could see that she was very musical. I do remember her resistance to reading music, but was unaware of her feelings. Apparently this went on until one day when her father pretended to phone me saying she would no longer be coming to the lessons because she hated it, and then she screamed that she did want to come and the tantrums stopped.

Wow! I have another pupil who I do remember kicking and screaming in her lesson with her mother keeping her on the music stool and me very embarrassed, hoping she would give up – but no and seven years later she also is a very competent player. So I was not quite sure what to make of all this. I always feel that if a child is not enjoying playing they should not be playing, and yet here were two extreme cases which have resulted in excellent and very happy pianists.

Young girl playing piano

setting patterns

The conclusions I can draw are that playing the piano is a skill and as such requires regular practice of that skill and perseverance. These parents were cluey enough to realise that it was going to be a hard road and were happy to support and encourage that commitment, even when the going got tough, and it often does at some stage when learning the piano. Parents are the salt of the earth and I admire them greatly. These parents had held firm even when pressure was on and have been rewarded with children who now have a life-long skill which they love.

It’s tough bringing up children, and we all want our children to be happy, but committing to anything is a quality worth learning and the play-offs are enormous, far beyond learning a great skill, no mean feat. It effects character and relationships, trust and abilities and is definitely worth the learning. Committed parents make committed children and strong character. And certainly makes our job as teachers much easier.

Practice and the Beginner

Piano keys

practise means getting better and better

In these free and easy times when we love and respect our children and acknowledge their rights and feelings, it is sometimes hard to enforce the need for self-discipline in order to get homework and piano practice done. In music lessons I see many bright children who make very little progress from week to week. They have not yet realized that they should be practising their set work daily.

The need for daily practice applies to learning an instrument, a sport, a game; in fact any skill that needs to be mastered needs to be practised regularly if it is to be mastered.

Parents make two big mistakes:

1.  They don’t realize the need to practise in order to perfect a skill. Only a few become a professional footballer, or professional musician. Even just to learn an instrument for fun, a child needs to acquire some competence in order to gain much enjoyment.

2.  If the parent realizes the need for practice, they mistakenly think that children will organize their own practice – nothing could be further from the truth.

Your child should practise 20 minutes a day, 30 minutes by the time they have been learning a year. And no buts!! Children thrive on routines, they love to know that life has order, it makes them feel safe. Once a routine has been established it is as easy as brushing their teeth (and lots more fun!) You may need to help plan practice time, especially if your child seems to have finished everything in 5 minutes!

So here are some tips to help establish a practice routine:

1.  Find a set time to suit the child and the child’s age, so piano practice is not competing with a favourite television programme.

2.  Young children, even up to eight and nine will need you to take an active interest in their practice. Older children will still need you to make comments to show that you are interested, and make the whole thing have value for the child.

3.  Very young children, 4-8, will need you to be very enthusiastic and make the whole thing an enjoyable activity that you do together. Be gushy in your enthusiasm!

4.  Tape your child’s lesson so that it an be replayed and remembered later.

5.  Sing as you play together.

6.  Let an older child teach you! This will make them listen to the lesson so that they can teach and not disappoint you.

7.  Be endlessly supportive and encouraging, just how you were when your child was learning to talk.

8. Bribery works well! A sticker chart for good practice – small reward for so many stickers.

young girl excited at playing piano

I love piano!

Commit to giving your child the gift of music for life. Don’t be half-hearted. You invest a lot of money in lessons. Showing interest is the first step. Helping children organize practice is the next.

Teaching Theory Through Games

I was reminded this morning of how wonderful it is to teach through games.

studio games area of Music Adventures

studio games area

Group teaching can be so rewarding and so beneficial.  I’ve never had much success teaching group piano.  I know teachers who do it brilliantly, but for me it slows the whole learning process down.  I find it difficult to be spontaneous as to follow one child’s idea can be irrelevant/boring/confronting to another child.  I find rivalry can lead to shutting down of other children who quickly decide they don’t want to compete or it isn’t their thing.  This could lead to a whole new article, but suffice to say that I love teaching group theory for all of the above reasons.

Throw out all the boring, dry book theory – I’m talking real living theory where children learn through exploring and playing.  This morning I used Music Mind Games by Michiko Yurko, but any well-designed resources are fine – or make your own.

Learning through games means children are focused and alert.  As they are working with others in participation they are totally focused and alert.  They need to know the rules and learn the skills, so they quickly pick it up. Works like magic! In these enjoyable groups all are spontaneous.  We joke and have fun and, because they don’t realise they are learning they do, each child taking out what they are ready for and learning from one another. But the weakly competitive environment means they readily hone up their own skills.  Nothing is irrelevant.  Children help one another so the rivalry is friendly, not confronting.

Concepts start to be understood.  There are plenty of ah-ha moments when things they have struggled with suddenly make sense.  Signs can be taught through games, so children really feel the meaning eg. – make self into small ball to star jump.  Patterns of note groupings can be taught through games; intervals taught on small and giant staves; the recurring pattern EGBDFACE; counting backwards through the musical alphabet; building triads; circle of 5ths…  and ear training through dictation and bingo.

girl playing with alphabet letters

learning through games

There is no limit to what can be taught through games.  Theory can be taught in this manner from early childhood right through primary school. I urge all instrumental teachers, certainly piano teachers, who have the responsibility of providing theory and musicianship training to hold regular theory games lessons.  Once a month is fine – make it a Saturday special…  Once a fortnight is better…  But teach it with love, and enthusiasm will soar!

Music and Babies

black and white photo of toddler

first music steps

From time to time I am asked if babies should be taught music, or if 18 months is too early to start music, and once, could an 18-month old start learning piano as the mother had started putting the baby’s hands on the piano and felt they could cope!  In this case the answer was NO!  But as to whether the very young are ready for a music experience there is not a clear answer.

Babies are receptive to music from the womb.  I discovered that after playing a certain Chopin Nocturne through my pregnancy, my new-born baby was particularly soothed by that piece of music.  I was surprised when singing to my new-born who rarely slept and with whom I spent many hours walking the flour and singing, that when I sang Rock-a-bye Baby for the hundredth time he became very distressed, until I realised I had sung it to the wrong tune.  When I sang the correct tune all was well!

This, other personal experiences and reading much literature, seems to suggest that exposing a baby to music from an early age creates a life-long love of music and a happy baby.  I encourage parents to enjoy music with their baby and sing to them often.  Your baby will not be critical of your voice but a strong bond will be created.

However I don’t think babies need to be “taught” music.  There are music classes for babies and some of the better ones, such as Kindermusik are excellent.  Most of the experiences are a way of teaching the mums possibilities that they can do with their baby at home and there is nothing wrong with this.  These classes provide a great way to meet with other mums whose children are a similar age and life-long friendships have started that way.  But don’t worry if you don’t want to take your baby to a class, don’t have the time, or can’t afford to.  Most of the ideas you can do yourself at home if you enjoy involving your baby in music.  Certainly there is evidence that music helps brain development.  But your child’s brain will develop just fine without it.

Here are 12 ways to enjoy music with your baby:

1.  Play and sing music when you are pregnant.

2.  Play and sing to your newborn.

3.  Continue to sing to your baby as they get older, particularly to soothe and put to sleep (lullabies are great!).

4.  Listen to a variety of music with your baby.

liquorice assorts arranged in row

Life is a game

5.  Dance to music with your baby.

6.  Massage your baby gently to soothing music.

7.  Stimulate your baby’s skin while listening to gentle music or singing, eg. stroking with flower petal, soft material, trickling water….

8.  Giving your baby a ride on a blanket to appropriate music.

9.  Bouncing your baby to music, older babies will like it rougher, especially to horsie songs!!

10. Swing your baby in a blanket (2 adults needed!) to lullaby.

11. Use soothing music at feeding time for a fretful baby, or for fussy-eater older baby.

12. Tap the beat of a song gently on baby’s back.