Nudging The Apple Closer To The Tree

kid-playing-guitarWe all know the saying about how the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But what about when we wish it fell closer and we want to give it a gentle push (or even a forceful shove)? We all want our children to be just like us in some ways, and nothing like us in others. Parents in New York City spend a lot of money programming children—signing up for the parent’s favorite extra-curricular when the child is tired, disinterested, and really just wants to play. We fantasize over what we could have been if only we’d started ballet earlier, practiced soccer longer, or had a virtuoso violin teacher. Does a 3-year-old really benefit from Monday test prep, Tuesday dance, Wednesday art, Thursday music, and Friday sewing? This is a bit of an exaggeration, but in many communities parents do get their children involved in something almost every day.

Let’s have a moment of honesty here. I tried so hard to pull my son towards music, which is my first love and professional livelihood. For years, I seemed to fail miserably, though I certainly tried every angle at every developmental stage. Now, however, my 13-year-old plays electric guitar every day and every night non-stop to the endless annoyance of his two brothers and to my delight.

Back when he was 3, I volunteered to play music in his class. Teachers noticed his incredible rhythm and how easily he remembered melodies. Maybe I should take him to a music class? I happily registered for a class in Manhattan where serious aficionados begin a child’s musical journey. Well, that didn’t go so well. Children were expected to sit, listen, dance when told, and be good musical citizens. Not my boy. He was so excited that he spent the whole class underneath the piano which upset the teacher’s sense of decorum. She suggested we find another class.

Every once in a while I’d take out my guitar and try to teach him some chords. He didn’t have the attention span or strength and would quickly leave in frustration. I didn’t push and squelched my disappointment. A child can’t really play chords until they are about 8, but reason plays no role in these parent/child ventures.

In grade 2, everyone learned recorder. He came home with his practice book, and we’d toot around together. Very soon, we’d skip the book and play things like “By The Rivers of Babylon” or “Ode to Joy.” But there was no outlet for playing the recorder in grade 3, so that interest lapsed.

Until grade 4 when he picked clarinet thinking it would be an “easy” instrument. Miraculously, I connected with my own middle school music teacher—the one who inspired and supported me as a flutist applying to music high schools—and my son worked with him. I’d sit in on his lessons, a great cheerleader, envisioning him following my very path. But he never practiced. As the weeks went on, and my former maestro became frustrated, I couldn’t take the embarrassment and we withdrew. I was a very sad Mommy.

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In grade 7, music surfaced again. He asked for violin lessons. His Suzuki teacher demanded that a 12 year old boy play “Rattle Rattle Dump Truck” and “Candy and Popcorn” as starter rhythms. He wouldn’t say the phrases let alone produce on the violin. I want to play Mommy, I don’t want to do this silly stuff. We returned the violin rental after a month. Again, very sad.

In grade 8, a small miracle happened. His advisor at school was also the music teacher. One day, when no one showed up for advisory, the teacher put a guitar in his hands and showed him a few chords. He went back to hang out with the music teacher again, and then again. No formal lessons, no Mom involved, just kids together banging out some tunes. Lunch hours, after school, at home late into the evening, was he was playing. He had goals, he was working up the tempo, and discovering a whole new world of rock guitar that seemed within reach.

Three weeks later, “Smoke on the Water” resounded through my apartment. “Mommy do you know this or that riff?” It helps to be a walking encyclopedia of 60s and 70s rock. Suddenly I’m the cool Mommy. Happy Mommy!

Did he learn to play guitar because of or in spite of my interventions? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, any time I pushed him to play he retreated. When he found the instrument on his own, he engaged with passion. His guitar teacher said he speaks so highly of my playing, and that he’s really proud of me. But that’s kind of a secret.

The bottom line is that if a parent truly loves the guitar or soccer or swimming or ballet and wants to get a child involved, they only make an invitation. The child might walk away. Right now. But keep inviting. One day, they might come home from school asking whether you’ve ever heard of a song called “Stairway to Heaven.” And then you know you’ve done something right even though you thought you were failing every step of the way.

Renee Bock is a dedicated early childhood educator, who is currently the Chief Academic Officer at Explore+Discover, a social learning center in Manhattan that is committed to setting the standard for infant and toddler care and education. Renee has more than a decade of experience in the field and holds a Master’s in Early Childhood Education from Bank Street College in New York. She has three sons, Ariel (16), Raffi (14), and Shaya (13). She can be reached at [email protected].