On Quitting, Judgment, and Choosing My Battles

As you may recall, Lyle took up the violin last fall around the time Baxter started playing flute in band at school and in private lessons. He was an interested and willing participant, but I certainly drove the decision and made it happen.  After a horrible start, we found a wonderful teacher who has done a fantastic job of moving him along at an appropriate pace.  Throughout the winter, he was willing to practice with only minor cajoling and made nice progress.  He was proud to have an instrument like Baxter does and loved earning stickers and moving through his book. He was never the kid who just picked up his violin and started playing on his own for fun – never once – but he did okay when I asked him to practice with me. However, as he moved from plucking strings to putting the bow to them – and then putting his fingers on those strings – it’s safe to say he shut down.  He went from being a willing participant to what my grandmother calls a “reluctant dragon”.

From there it went downhill to the point where the very idea of practicing or even listening to violin music that happened to come on the radio in the car made him apoplectic and nasty.  He stomped and fussed through the few practice sessions I could get out of him.  He didn’t want me to play my violin and he sure as hell didn’t want to play his. Everything to do with the instrument felt like pressure to the sensitive little dude. He started asking to quit about a month ago and I’ve worked hard to encourage him to keep it up by making it fun and not stressful.  Finally last week he really made it clear that he was done.  I asked him to sleep on it, and told him that once our violins went back to the rental place we wouldn’t just get them back right away if he changed his mind.  This slowed him down a bit and I know he did think about it.  The verdict: he was done.

Although I felt some sadness about this, having greatly enjoyed our early violin practices together, I wasn’t upset. After all, the child is only five years old.  I don’t see the point of a major control battle over playing an instrument when a child is five, and I feel that by letting this go without it going downhill further, he may be more willing to try another instrument later.  I’ve said on a weekly basis since he began that even if he quit that day, I’d be thrilled with how much he’s learned about music, and I absolutely am.  As one friend pointed out, we didn’t do any activities at age 5, and she used the word “dabbling” to describe what kids this age do in activities; I love this perspective.  At this point, Lyle has dabbled in violin and soccer and hasn’t particularly enjoyed either of them.  Next up we’ll check out swimming and art, things that he seems to be more naturally drawn to.

But today we ran into the violin teacher when I took Baxter in for his flute lesson. Our conversation was a difficult one for me and I’ve been turning it over in my mind for the past few hours.  When I’d let her know that Lyle was discontinuing, I was extremely positive about her work with him and how impressive it was, also noting that if he ever went back to violin or wanted to try another instrument (such as the piano I think we’ll be getting this summer) I’d love to go back to her.  I talked about the motor challenges involved for Lyle and that I didn’t want this battle to get out of hand.  I don’t want him turned off to music.  But our young teacher was dismissive of the situation, telling me that the control battle was to be expected and of course he just wanted to quit because it was a “challenge” and he’s so “bright and airy” that he is used to things being easy all the time.  (Wow, that’s SO not the child I know!)  She told me that really it’s the parent who’s the teacher and suggested that I keep him thinking about the instrument by playing fun rock violin to inspire him while we clean the house together (which happens when, exactly?), because that worked for her husband, who started violin at age 3 and is a professional musician. Obviously, she hasn’t been in my car when violin music is playing.

In other words, I’m supposed to be firmly in control of Lyle’s violin playing and stay in that driver’s seat, and I’m a total wuss for letting him quit.  I was told that no one plays violin without going through a period like this.  I noted that I suppose I didn’t go through it myself because I started in fourth grade; I should’ve also pointed out that my motor coordination was a little better than his. Oh, and that I thoroughly enjoyed it and that’s what I would want for my child.

I think what’s difficult for me is that I know she’s right – it’s hard and there are going to be challenges and of course we should encourage our kids to handle challenges and work on being disciplined as they get older. But I do that all day long.  I am working with this kid on fine motor and emotional regulation challenges day in and day out.  I’m the mom who sneaks into a room before Baxter puts on his sneakers every morning and unties them so that he has to practice tying his shoes more often, for God’s sake.  I just believe in choosing my battles and since I have nothing invested in Lyle becoming a violin virtuoso, I’m willing to let this one go.

I tried to say these things when I could get a word in – and in between calling the kids back from their attempts to exit the building without me – but I don’t think it mattered.  I also tried to explain that next month I’ll start working out of the home a lot more again and our life will change.  I noted that Lyle needed to have at least a modicum of motivation to practice with other people when I am working a few long days a week, and that we wouldn’t even have a spot in her schedule anymore soon, given my new schedule.

But in the end I felt crappy and misunderstood.  I had clearly gotten my name added to the list of Lame Moms Who Let Their Kids Quit As Soon As Things Get Hard.  I’m not a big fan of that list and I’m pretty sure I don’t belong there.   I guess what I have to remember is that I’m only on that list in one person’s mind – it just gives me pause that it’s someone I like and respect.

But, really, what I guess I want to say about this is something that is probably obvious to all of my readers: judgments don’t do anyone any good.  No one knows my child the way I do, and no one could possibly see the Big Picture of our family life the way Matt and I do.  And therefore, flippantly suggesting that I just need to persevere and make my child push through this challenge without understanding more about us is not appropriate.

I always say that the longer I parent the better I become at understanding and working with families.  Let’s chalk this one up to another notch on that belt, shall we?


9 responses to “On Quitting, Judgment, and Choosing My Battles

  1. Who knows? Maybe the teacher saw something different in Lyle that she hoped she could nurture? Maybe she did a poor job of articulating it? I’m trying to give the benefit of the doubt to her because I just can’t wrap my brain around such obvious judgment and figurative finger-wagging at another parent’s decision about how to parent their own child.

    In any case, I think you did the right thing. There will be other “don’t quit” battles looming on the horizons which will be more important. (Unless you *wanted* Lyle to be a virtuoso by age 7; I kinda think you didn’t. 😉 )

  2. I got nearly the same lecture from Charlotte’s piano teacher when I let her quit piano lessons. She didn’t want to practice anymore, she didn’t want to go to lessons, she was done, too. And, at 5, I had no interest in battling her on something that might end up making her not interested in any music ever again.

    I looked at it like me quitting was her losing a stream of income, so she had an interest beyond just the well-being of my child.

  3. No one has better instincts than you do. There was never a chance that you would be bullied or shamed into changing your mind and I’m proud of that quality in you.

    For the teacher, this is a moment that mattered with her client. The move she made at that moment has damaged a relationship that would probably have been fruitful in the long run. Her first step should have been empathy. She should have dropped her agenda and felt your situation. She should have tried to find out more about Lyle and tucked that information away. She might have suggested a different instrument. She might have just been present and even said she was disappointed not to see him every week. She missed an opportunity.

  4. Yay for quitting! I’m not kidding. I think that quitting gracefully and confidently should be part of everyone’s repertoire, and should be practiced often. I’m still working on it myself, and I’ve got a way to go, even at age 33. Good for Lyle, knowing his own mind, and good for you for listening!

    I’m sorry the teacher responded in such a charged way. Give yourself points for even trying to explain, and being so willing to communicate openly. She has no idea how much she could have learned, if only she’d listened.

    And, I have to say, I question the whole premise that when an activity presents challenges, becomes “hard”, the parent’s job is to step in and compel the child to continue– especially when it comes to something that is supposed to be enriching and fun, like music! If there isn’t enough intrinsic enjoyment to be found in the activity to motivate you to keep doing it, why would you? Apply the same reasoning to swimming, or drawing, or gymnastics, and it is clearly a grotesque abuse of parental power. Why is music different?

  5. The teacher flubbed. That’s all there is to it. Some kids get prodded and poked and forced to continue an instrument and come through it and are virtuosos, but maybe there wasn’t anything else in their lives that required prodding and poking and being forced into it, so that was the Big Thing for them. Lyle obviously has other Big Things of which this teacher knows zero. What does she know? Not much. Just Lyle, in violin lessons, for extremely brief periods of his life. She should’ve said, “OK, I understand, and if you ever consider taking up an instrument again, please let me know. I’m sorry I won’t be working with him any more.” End of story. I’m speaking here as a teacher and sympathizing as a parent.

  6. Ugh! I am so sorry that happened! Like we don’t put enough pressure on ourselves as parents! If it had been me, I would have had MYSELF on that “lame moms” list, and may not have listened to my instincts about what was best for my child in this instance. Good for you for paying attention to Lyle, and to the needs of your family.

  7. Ugh. That teacher just doesn’t get it. The experience Lyle has had will be valuable in his life – especially if he should choose to play a different instrument at another time in his life: childhood or adulthood. That is, if she didn’t sour him to music altogether.

    In his many years of teaching, my husband has realized that at the 3 month mark it is clear whether a child will continue to play or not. I’m sure (as is he) that the 3 month mark is not universal, but he has seen a distinct pattern in his studio.

  8. I got the same spiel – twice! – when I pulled Reilly and Foster from outpatient PT & OT this winter because 1) they get PT and OT in school; 2) they work hard ALL DAY in school and shouldn’t be pushed to the brink after school and 3) what these kids need more than anything right now is to be kids. They need the time to play and with running for appointments four nights a week, they were on the fast track to burnout.

    I know the PT and OT was good for them. We had done it for years. I know it’s not the same as learning an instrument, but it is the same bottom line: when the kids start saying “NO” on every level, it’s time to reevaluate, and the teachers and therapists need to respect that.

    I think it’s up to you, Matt and Lyle, and that’s all there is to it.


  9. that teacher suffered from a serious a) lack of wanting to understand you, and b) lack of empathy, c) lack of grace. Period. End of story.

    I’m dealing with a similar situation where I’m having to end a professional relationship with someone, and she is known to be unstable, and I’m putting way too much energy into how to break up wtih her. And I resent that she can’t be professional enough & graceful enough to deal with it and NOT burn some serious bridges.

    I’m so sorry you had to deal with that – it would have bugged me just as much. But remind yourself – it told you a lot about her.

    XO R

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