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Dabbling, Digging Deep and Quitting:
The Real Costs of Parental Pressure
By Lyla Wolfenstein

piano

First, a Few Anecdotes

by Kristi, a mother in Portland, Oregon
“When I was about six I started taking piano lessons, tried ballet lessons, and started playing community soccer. My overextended parents let me try all three but then made me choose between soccer and ballet – the piano lessons were mandatory.

“I agonized over my choice – I would have preferred to take soccer and ballet and not piano. I was forced to take piano lessons for eight years. Initially, I begged to take lessons. That was because I wanted to get the stickers the instructor handed out at the practice sessions! Once the lure of the stickers wore off I quickly lost interest.

“Any remaining interest I may have had was squashed by the dread of having to practice and go to weekly lessons, and the damage to my self esteem as I floundered with seemingly no natural ability. I felt guilty while watching my parents write checks for the lesson fees each week when I did not want to go. My parents thought that learning to read (and play) music was a “good thing.” Unfortunately, once I was allowed to quit I never looked back and thinking about trying to hammer out a song today on the piano brings up major feelings of inadequacy. And I still wish I could have taken both soccer and ballet.”

 

and by Bonni, another Portland mother
“When I was a child, I was forced to take swimming lessons and piano lessons, and to go to sleep-away camp. I hated them all, but was never given a choice. At first, I wanted to take swim lessons and piano lessons. After a time, I changed my mind...except that I wasn’t allowed to change my mind. Swimming lessons were torture. I hated them and cried every weekend when I was forced to go. I often got myself so worked up I would get sick. The only way I was allowed to stop was because in my fourth or fifth year of swimming I got really sick with scarlet fever. I had missed so many lessons and fell so far behind in my swimming, catching up was beyond challenging. Finally, my parents let me stop.

“We got a piano when I was young. I wanted to learn how to play, so my parents hired a piano teacher. I had a different vision of the songs I would play and hated practicing scales. But as things were back then, there was only one way to learn and I hated that way. I begged to quit (just like swimming) but I wasn’t allowed. After years, my parents finally gave in.

“Some adults, in support of forcing their children to stick with an activity, argue that they wish their parents had pushed them to learn an instrument, for instance, and others will say that they are grateful that their parents forced them. In my mind, this perfectly exemplifies the erosion of trust in oneself that can happen as a result of parental pressure and control.”

“Sleep-away camp was a whole other story. I never wanted to go. I was and am very shy and introverted. The first year I cried everyday and tried to figure out a way to get home. The second year I only cried on drop- off day and at the end of visiting day. I spent the other days hiding in the woods and avoiding people as best I could. I was supposed to love it because my mother had gone to the same camp when she was a kid and loved it. I hated every moment I was there. I was grateful that I wasn’t forced to go a third year. I was heartbroken when my little sister was forced to go when she was old enough. She hated it too.

“These experiences have had a big impact on me as an adult.

“I hate to swim, I hate the water. The only reason I go into a pool now is for my daughter and even that is hard. When she was two, we signed up for parent/child swim lessons. We made it two weeks before I had a panic attack and had to stop. I couldn’t go back. I waited until she was older and able to take lessons without me in the pool. Lessons were her choice. Swimming is her choice. She loves the water.

“I don’t hate the piano. In fact, I wish I could play... sort of. The thing is, if it were that important to me I would learn now. I can still read music, so it wouldn’t be like starting from scratch, but I guess it just isn’t that important or exciting to me. Hmmm...maybe I really don’t like the piano. *shrug* Now the drums...watching Chloe in her lessons...the drums are something that I am learning along with her and I love it! I just need my own drum set because hers is a little too small.”

Mixed Messages

The ways in which we as parents choose to support or guide our children can have lifelong impacts on their motivation, their interests, and their emotional relationship with exploration. At the heart of life learning, and really at the heart of growing up, is the process of determining what it is a person loves to do – where and with what to spend one’s time. Children come into this world with no preconceived notions of what is or isn’t valuable, or what is or isn’t “supposed” to be enjoyable.

And frequently, inadvertently, parents send crystal clear messages about just those perceptions, messages that run directly counter to what many of us would say we wanted to convey if asked. For instance, do we frown upon those who take pleasure in their work, no matter how menial? No, not for the most part – we ascribe labels such as “a good work ethic” and “a positive attitude” to people who move through their lives, getting it done with a smile on their faces.

But then many parents get frustrated with their own children when they resist helping around the house – because we believe we need their help with the “less desirable” activities of life and, in addition, we believe they “need to learn” that life isn’t a bed of roses, and that to get by they must experience and survive some suffering. Rarely do we convey that those chores need not be dreaded, and even more rarely do we model, ourselves, that positive attitude that we profess to value so highly in others.

The innate curiosity of children is the fuel – the driving force – behind their “motor” of learning. Children do not innately value play dough over mopping, or baseball over writing. And even beyond the academic and chore paradigm, children are designed to try many things – to experience deeply and immersively some interests, and to dabble and sample others.

“Children come into this world with no preconceived notions of what is or isn’t valuable, or what is or isn’t ‘supposed’ to be enjoyable. And frequently, inadvertently, parents send crystal clear messages about just those perceptions, messages that run directly counter to what many of us would say we wanted to convey if asked.”

When parents ascribe much deeper meaning to “sticking with” an activity or sampling and abandoning an interest – when we as parents catastrophize those natural tendencies of children to follow their bliss – we send many unintended messages.

First we send a message that sticking with something, even if we’ve lost interest, is more important than following our inner voice about what feels right. That even if something feels unfulfilling, we should trudge along, enduring it – even if the “it” was something that was just supposed to be fun and interesting, not a commitment to other people or a life or death situation. Even if the person in question is only seven years old.

Secondly, when we refuse to let children “quit” something, we send the message that they might indeed be better off not trying new things at all. This can paralyze unschooling, and can also be problematic in many ways for children who are not un- schooling. When children lose the drive to try new things because they fear being forced, coerced, or judged into “sticking with it” even if they don’t end up liking it, their drive and curiosity in every area of their lives are eroded.

Thirdly, focusing on the money spent or the commitment made, rather than on the needs and desires of the child, sends the message that mom and dad care more about what others think, or about a child’s value as a human as measured by some external standard, than about how something feels to the child. It not only sends that message to the child, but it drives a wedge in the relationship, because relationships are based on empathy and understanding – and direct focus – rather than on an image of one’s child filtered through a lens of societal judgment.

And fourthly, we also send a message that some activities are more valuable than others, based solely on our own judgment as parents. In Kristi’s case, piano was elevated in importance over ballet and soccer. But what if she had a natural ability in ballet or soccer? What if she’d enjoyed them more and they had brought a wealth of enjoyment, connection, and skill building to her life? And what if being allowed to do both ballet and soccer, and not piano had sent the message that her self-knowledge was more valid than her parents’ values? Additionally, she might have even learned some of the very skills of “sticking with something” through soccer or ballet that she failed to learn with piano – even though she was forced to stick with it for so long!

It’s Not All or Nothing

Some adults, in support of forcing their children to stick with an activity, argue that they wish their parents had pushed them to learn an instrument, for instance, and others will say that they are grateful that their parents forced them. In my mind, this perfectly exemplifies the erosion of trust in oneself that can happen as a result of parental pressure and control. These folks are placing the locus of control over their own learning and inspiration in their parents’ hands, retrospectively. This is misplacement – and a very polarized one at that. Parents can and do support and guide their children through navigating the pursuit of a passion without owning the motivation or inspiration. Parental support is entirely different, with regard to learning and pursuing interests, than parental control. One facilitates the pursuit of passions and exploration; the other is erosive.

Relationships and navigation through life are too complicated to be parsed into starkly polemic choices. It’s not a choice between neglecting and not caring about your child and forcing her to do things for her own good. It’s not a choice between giving him no feedback or support and telling him exactly what he “should” do every step of his life. It’s not even a choice between being ashamed of your child and being proud of your child. The choice that can encompass all that’s needed is the choice between prioritizing the parent-child relationship versus prioritizing the behavior, activities, accomplishments, and other externally measurable and observable aspects of your child’s life. One facilitates the other, but that phenomenon doesn’t run in reverse. When the relationship is prioritized, the effects of that positive relationship permeate all aspects of the child’s life into adulthood. But prioritizing the externally measurable aspects of your child over the relationship erodes the very relationship upon which those lifelong perspectives, actions, and accomplishments are built.

Another common argument for parental pushing or even force is that every activity of value has some difficult phases, and the belief that kids will abandon those activities without pushing through the challenge, if parents don’t force them. It is thought that if parents force their children to push through those boring, frustrating periods, they will emerge out the other side loving the activity and with a huge accomplishment under their belts, and that the very act of forcing and pushing through this phase is an act of love. This may happen sometimes, but I believe it’s rare. More common, I think, will be stories like Kristi’s and Bonni’s (at the beginning of this article). And the flip side of that argument is that there may be many more children who would push through anyhow, without parental force (but with parental support) if they love the activity.

“Some adults, in support of forcing their children to stick with an activity, argue that they wish their parents had pushed them to learn an instrument, for instance, and others will say that they are grateful that their parents forced them. In my mind, this perfectly exemplifies the erosion of trust in oneself that can happen as a result of parental pressure and control.”

And those who wouldn’t may be the kids who’d emerge out the other side of that forced march hating the activity and quitting as soon as they were free to do so. It also may be that those who do stick with something and end up loving it, would have come back around to that activity on their own, if allowed to quit, because of their natural proclivity for it, and therefore, even though forced, their passion for the activity remains, but at what cost to the relationship, and with what additional emotional baggage or diminished trust in their own inner compass?

For simplicity of illustration, imagine we start with three basic groups of children: those who would love it and stick with it no matter what (including those who would quit but revisit if not forced, and end up loving it), those who would stick with it if forced, and would end up loving it, and those who would hate it in the end if forced.

Then consider the impact of each of these scenarios on the parent-child relationship and the child’s trust in her own decision making skills , and envision a matrix in which the relationship and the development of one’s own inner compass was more important than the activity, but the activity was important too. It becomes clear which approach would be a better choice overall, when a child wants to quit something.

Different People Are Different

It might appear that some children are more prone to “quitting things” and less able to “commit” to activities and stick with them – but what if you flip that around and view those children as dabblers, experimenters – open to the world and curious about everything? Those are the children who, if their trust is not eroded by parental control, will try anything once (or more than once). And yes, they will quit more things than those children who dive deep and stick around longer with one activity. But that’s due to the sheer volume of things they try! If you have a child who decides she wants to put everything she has into martial arts and music, and then decides later that she actually prefers martial arts and is tired of music for now, she has a fifty percent quit rate. If you have a child who tries sixteen different things in one year, and ends up liking four of them a lot, that child might have a seventy-five percent quit rate, but he now has four activities he loves, not just one.

And another view of the “deep digger” is that in that unilateral focus that we see (“oh, he’s obsessed with Pokemon”), the child himself sees a huge, variable universe of options. And indeed, a seemingly narrow topic can open the door to a broad and deep array of interests and explorations. (See some links at the end of this article about experiences like this.)

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Neither of those scenarios – the dabbler or the deep digger – is better than the other; they are simply different styles. And either can be tainted by parental response. If the two-activity (whittled down to one-activity) child was forced to try a variety of things because the focus was deemed too narrow, she might end up feeling spread too thin, or she might feel as if there is something wrong with her for caring so much about one thing – she might hear words hurled at her like “obsessed” or “single-minded” and start to think of herself as limited.

If the dabbling in many activities child were forced to stick with activities the parents deemed valuable but that the child wished to stop doing, that child might learn to not try things so readily – to resist exploration, and close herself off to learning. She might hear labels about herself like “undisciplined” or “a quitter” and her openness and sense of ability to learn new things might be undermined.

Children can heal from either of those versions of parental pressure too, and they tend to find their own “curve” again, once parents figure out how to be their child’s partner through life, rather than adversary, drill sergeant, or conqueror. The longer the relationship has been adversarial, though, the more healing needs to be done, and therefore the longer it can take for this partnership approach to look like it’s “working.” Children have an innate drive to learn and absorb. We really need to back off and trust their process, and support it where we can.

So, if you’ve fallen into either of these common habits – pressuring your child to try more things, to branch out, to be different somehow, which often goes hand in hand with not seeing the real depth of opportunity in what at first appears to be a narrow focus, or refusing to let your child try many things if he doesn’t stick with them – give a try to trusting your child’s inner compass! You might be amazed at the results!

Lyla Wolfenstein lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children, ages 15-1/2 and 12-1/2 when this was written. More of her writing can be found on her blog The Adventure Continues, which is located at www.lylawolf.blogspot.com.

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