How to encourage effort, self-discipline, excellence in children?
September 30, 2015 1:27 PM   Subscribe

My daughter is 5 and starting kindergarten and music lessons. I cannot lie: in these and her future...I dunno, endeavors I guess you would call them, I want her to do well. I want her to put effort in and take pleasure in her efforts. But I don't know how to foster this in her and it's time I started figuring it out.

I'm feeling as though it's about time to start thinking about and practicing, little by little, ways of encouraging my child to develop - eventually, gradually - a good work ethic and a desire to put in the effort to succeed at something. But I am also scared of being an over-critical, demanding monster. Not unaffected by the current trends in parenting and schooling, I really and truly am worried about her possibly (who wants to take a chance!?) fragile self-esteem. Still, I would be lying to myself and inauthentic with her if I pretended that I don't care about her achievements and don't have high standards.

Currently, I try to praise effort over intelligence but that's about all I know to do. I'm pretty sure I over-praise. I treat every creative thing she makes/does like it's the best thing ever.

My own mother took a completely hands-off approach (laziness, I think). It was mainly because I was so anxious and insecure that I turned out to be a high achiever. So I have no idea how good, capable parents handle these things - things like homework, for example. Or practicing piano. Or learning to tie a shoe.

I will read ALL the books about this stuff. And listen to your advice. Thanks!
posted by kitcat to Grab Bag (32 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
She's 5. Encourage her to try new things. Encourage her to have fun at the things she tries. But the most important thing you can do is tell her that mistakes are okay. And it's okay if you don't like something, but some things we have to finish (like seeing a sports team through to the end of the season).

I honestly think, with my own kids, they're getting the work ethic by our habit of spending one morning each weekend really cleaning up in a way two working parents can't during the week. We have the kids clean up their toys while we do the dishes, laundry, etc. They moan and whine and fuss and we say, "Well, we have to do this before we can do anything fun," and, "It's time for our responsibilities. Once we're done, we can do something else." We're firm, but not over the top about it.

Kids learn by observation, so model the behavior you want to see.
posted by zizzle at 1:43 PM on September 30, 2015 [16 favorites]

I'll be the first to say that I look forward to reading this thread, because this is a thing I think of often as well. But I specifically wanted to discuss your praise comment:

Currently, I try to praise effort over intelligence but that's about all I know to do. I'm pretty sure I over-praise. I treat every creative thing she makes/does like it's the best thing ever.

You're on the right track with the praising effort over intelligence. Part B is, you gradually raise your standards over time, in a structured progression. So, for example, the first time your child puts on their own underwear, you throw them a ticker-tape parade. But then they get good at it, so you briefly thank them for putting on their own underwear and save the ticker-tape parades for when they put on underwear AND PANTS. Then when they dress themself completely without you having to tell them 45728474 times to stop doing X and put their effing shirt on. (Can you tell dressing has been a challenge at our house? ;) )

For stuff like art that's a little less quantifiable, you can do something similar, but for stuff that doesn't require a ticker-tape parade, you comment on specifics. "Oh, I like all these bright, cheerful colors." "This is very red." "Tell me about it. I agree, that monkey looks very sad."

Also, if they spend a long time working hard on something, comment on that. Micropanda is a scribbler, and also has focus issues. So the first time he spent two days working on a drawing and coloring every square inch of the paper, I praised the bejeezus out of him for "Working on it so hard, and paying attention, and thinking about what you were drawing." It, uh, looks exactly jack-shit like the dragon mask he said it was, but it's still taped to the file cabinet right here in my office. :)

For reading, first praise reading one word, then praise reading a sentence, then praise reading a book, then praise reading a book with feeling.

And also, as your child progresses through all these various things, say things like, "Wow, a long time ago you didn't know how to X but you practiced and practiced and you got better at it, and now you can do it really well!"

Finally, we have and read the book "Big Words for Little People", and though I don't like the art style very much, and parts of it are contrived, the set of words itself is fantastic and inspired me to teach my son words like "cooperate" and "perserverance". We make a big big deal out of perserverance at our house.

(I'm pretending to be a pro at this but my beloved special snowflake is still often a space cadet with very limited resilience, so I can't wait to hear what everyone else has to say.)
posted by telepanda at 1:43 PM on September 30, 2015 [18 favorites]

try to praise effort over intelligence but that's about all I know to do

Parenting is fun! As far as I know this advice is outdated. I know, great news. I've seen studies that say when a parent says 'you ARE a good artist' or whatever it has more of an impact than praising effort.

Whatever, I have no idea.

I have a kid and here's what I'm trying to do: I try to let her stand alone in her achievements. I try not to prop her up. I do however try to support her (I will work on homework projects with her, etc.). We do give her a ton of material and space -- art supplies in the living room, a table for her to work at, a desk in my office, access to the piano, an easel, etc. So artistic stuff is just 'around'.

For science stuff, her grandpa is a scientist and her dad is a developer. I am just a nerd. We all share different things with her that are genuine to us -- I'm super interested in mushrooms and she's great at finding delicious ones in the woods, so we have learned about spore prints and identification and false gills, real gills, polypores, boletes, etc. Grandpa has a telescope, etc., so science stuff is just 'around'.

Contrary to my upbringing, I cheerfully announce that math is great. She is very good at math. I say 'you're great at math. Math is really fun.' (I really did love geometry and common core stuff is like math for humanities majors, it's awesome.) Math is her favorite subject. I won't lie, I'm super proud of her for this.

Piano is just on the horizon and I've been communicating with a teacher and she asks for five practice days a week. I think the way we will do this is just normalizing it -- we don't ask 'should we brush our teeth today?' -- it's just a thing.

We heavily systematize and use sensory triggers like playing certain songs at certain points in the day (we have a cheerful 'getting out the door in the morning' song that works ever so much better than 'mom acting like a stompy asshole' in terms of inspiring a kid to put her shoes on and move).

So maybe ritualize--she gets a cup of white cocoa (warm milk, sugar, vanilla, it's delicious) whenever she's practicing, or a snack afterwards, or afterwards you do a favorite thing of some sort. Not because you're bribing her, but because you're trying to frame this in a warm glow of good feeling and positivity.

I have not actually had to deal with piano practice, however! It's all theoretical at this point. I'll be watching this thread attentively.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:44 PM on September 30, 2015 [5 favorites]

I want her to put effort in and take pleasure in her efforts.

Then put effort into and take pleasure in the things you do.
posted by headnsouth at 2:06 PM on September 30, 2015 [14 favorites]

I think it's important to teach early-on the importance of working towards a goal (i.e., slowly learning how to play an instrument) rather than giving up or just doing what comes easily. I am lucky in that I'm good at a lot of things naturally, but it's also a curse because anything I'm not naturally great at (like sports, or music, or much later on, college-level science and math) I have always tended to give up on at the first hint of trouble because I thought having to work at something meant I sucked at it. I never really grasped the concept of practice makes perfect because there was a bunch of stuff I didn't really have to practice to be good at.

So, I'd encourage you to watch your daughter's endeavors and make sure she isn't just skating by on her awesomeness. It's not being a helicopter parent to push your kid a little and encourage them to practice things that they find difficult. Obviously this can be taken to an extreme, but the alternative sucks, too. I don't like being 33 and realizing only now that I TOTALLY could have been an engineer, or played guitar, or a million other things I wanted to do when I was younger, but gave up on because I thought having to put effort into something meant I was bad at it.
posted by gatorae at 2:08 PM on September 30, 2015 [7 favorites]

Saying that she is good at what she does, is smart, and a good hard worker is awesome, so say all three.

When I was 5, my mom would notice whenever I'd struggle and give up on something promptly, and then we'd talk or she could encourage me to pursue my interests, or figure out why I'd give up so easily. She never dismissed my interests, even if my brother would sometimes. She also was not interested in pressuring me or making me into the best - she knew I was really smart and could be exceptional at anything if I really wanted to, the issue was me actually wanting to after getting bored really fast.

I remember being extremely obsessed with crystals and horses, which parlayed into me starting to draw and copy images in books I'd read. I also would get really frustrated at my reading speed, and my mom allowed me to indulge in Barbie books, which I then used to conquer reading comprehension and get to above age level.

She was very non-judgmental, and followed my suggestions. But she would also call me out if I didn't speak up for myself or my needs, since she told me that she couldn't always figure out what I wanted. I also would follow my mom's model, so be the best you you can be, and the kid will follow. Also, it's good for her to start learning emotional maturity things, so "thinking before you speak" is a good one to do.
posted by yueliang at 2:08 PM on September 30, 2015

I want her to do well. I want her to put effort in and take pleasure in her efforts.

I would try to keep in mind that these things are not always related. Someone can be really good at something that takes little effort, and that they eitehr love or hate (or feel totally meh about). Or they can end up trying really hard at something and investing a lot and never being terribly amazing at it. Etc. etc.

I would try and think about two categories of things, non-negotiables and optional endeavors.

Non-negotiables would be things like school -- whether or not you're great at a subject, and whether or not it's your favorite, you still gotta put in the effort to improve. I would definitely encourage a love of exploration and learning and experimentation, but, at the same time, no matter how much you love school, not every calculus problem or session spent memorizing French verbs will be the most fun thing in the world. So, part of it is learning that stick-to-it-ness (I think the current term is "grit", which I hate, but you could try searching for that term) that sometimes we gotta do things even if it's not the most fun because it gets us somewhere important (like a high school diploma, or being able to talk to people in Paris, which it turns out is way more fun than memorizing French verbs).

Then there's all the optional things like sports or music or art or whatever. I would encourage you here to let your daughter decide where her passions lie, and then encourage strong work ethic in those areas. My mom was obsessed with me learning the piano, and it was a CONSTANT FIGHT over practicing. And when I was finally allowed to quit, I totally quit and to this day cannot really play piano music. On the other hand, when I joined band in middle school, I LOVED the group music thing, and practiced regularly without complaint, enjoyed taking weekly music lessons from my teacher, and eventually joined the marching band in high school which involved lengthy pratices every week and travel to away games. And although I don't actively play my instrument all the time as an adult, I can still pick it up and play and will sometimes do so around family at the holidays or with a group at my church. Playing an instrument in a group with my friends was something I was passionate about; playing piano by myself was not.

Whatever your kid is into -- soccer, martial arts, sculpture, dance, playing the piano, playing the guitar, doing science experiments, building clocks that don't look like bombs (haha), writing poetry, whatever...let her explore and figure out her passions, and then teach her work ethic within that passion. Be careful about forcing your idea of what a good passion/extracurricular is onto your kid, and insisting on work ethic over something she doesn't like and doesn't want to invest in. At age 5, I feel like the focus should be on exploring lots of different activities to see what appeals, not trying to commit to one thing.

Of course, you'll never become a prima ballerina or a professional violinist if you don't start young, so there's that. But I also feel like that is SO MUCH PRESSURE to put on a kid, especially if they don't have some natural drive to go after that goal themselves.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:39 PM on September 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

Regarding self-discipline, what has always worked my daughter is giving her one free pass. For example, ever since she started softball, she is allowed to skip one practice per season with no questions asked. So, if she's sick, obviously she doesn't go, but she gets one practice she can skip if she's just not feeling it. As a result, she always give her best at practice. She started when she was seven, so a little older than your child, but it might be something to keep in mind for future endeavors. I think it's helped her make good decisions, because she only gets one, so she has to consider if it's worth it to use it. Plus, it helps her feel in control of her own life.
posted by Ruki at 2:48 PM on September 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

One tip I read that I liked (on the blog Cup of Jo) was instead of giving praise was to say: I love watching you X. I love watching you play the guitar. I love listening to you practice the piano. It takes good/bad out of the equation, and makes it ok to muck around at things we like whether we're good at them or not.

(Can you tell I'm a perfectionist who doesn't like doing things I'm not immediately good at? Ha ha.)
posted by jrobin276 at 3:02 PM on September 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

Don't be anxious about Getting It Right - they ultimately learn who you are, not what you do. If you're anxious they'll be anxious. If you take joy in something, they'll take joy in something.

That said, if you start something with them then make it a sacred trust that you will finish it. If it takes effort, expend the effort.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:50 PM on September 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

What kind of music? You might be a family well-suited to Suzuki Method music education.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:07 PM on September 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

My oldest is 10 and he is somewhat starting to get it. I think a lot of this is modeling but here is what I think also has helped the most:

He found a passion (martial arts) that is progressive and we have helped him commit and show up, and then we use that as a metaphor for lots of things "you're white-belt in French but if you stick with it...."

We acknowledge his feelings without letting him give up on things like writing proper sentences. Yes, it is lousy you are stuck inside. But you need to finish this task.

We give him real actual responsibility. Kids know when it is a faked chore. This year he is making his own lunch, including putting things on the grocery list. This is a huge help to my morning routine. No follow-through means he would be hungry.

If we let him quit things we really talk it over first. Each year he joins the cross-country team. Each year he hates it. Each year he drops out at tryouts because he hates being winded or being at the back. We talk about why, and to do it before he might take a spot someone else does, and to run more before tryouts, and I invite him to run with me in August. And he does not. I always feel a bit embarrassed but I also feel like this is his personal laboratory for failure. I arbitrarily have drawn the line at forcing him to do laps.

For skipping our rule always has been you can skip swim class but you have to personally go and explain to your teacher that you are. Once he gets there he's magic, showing up. Unlike the laps thing.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:14 PM on September 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

At that age, tracking daily behavior with charts and stickers plus rewards based on how many times I did the various activities (ranging from brushing teeth to homework to music practice) helped instill good habits in me.
posted by Candleman at 4:19 PM on September 30, 2015

Something perhaps minor and silly seeming is to create space in your household and lives for the things she's interested in and the talents you'd like to foster. This is something that my own mother completely dropped the ball on; at 16, I wanted to learn to play the banjo. We got one second hand, and for the first three weeks my mother tolerated my keeping it in our living room, but after that got annoyed that it was taking up space on the sofa. Once it had to go in its case, in my room, I never played it anymore. Inertia is strong in me and the TV was front and center. Likewise, art supplies got stowed in our basement or my closet, that kind of thing. If we had books or papers left out on the table, we were told to clean up immediately, and the result was that we did these things less and less passionately than we might have otherwise.

As an adult, my musical instruments hang from the wall in the middle of our living room for easy access. My daughter's crayons are on our coffee table along with paper and coloring books. I don't expect her things to be stowed away only in her room, because our whole house belongs to our family, all of us, and it should be set up for maximum joy and sharing of mutual interests, rather than subdivision and isolation.

If you want her to play the piano, put the piano in the living room, and talk to her while she's playing, and sing along, and tell her you love the way it sounds. When she wants to make art, let her do it in the kitchen while you cook, and talk about what she's drawing. If you want her to be a reader, let her see you read on the sofa, and let her read beside you. Make the things she loves, or might grow to love, an ordinary, joyful, welcome part of every day life. Let her see you do things that you love. Let her see you try hard, and fail, and have fun anyway.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:41 PM on September 30, 2015 [12 favorites]

Start giving her an allowance now and do not stop until she gets some kind of part-time job with steady pay (that is, keep the allowance going through the babysitting years). Hands down what separated me from my peers as a teen and into college was that I knew how much things cost and I could plan out a month of spending. And what really helped was that it was consistent. Friends who said "Hey mom we're going to a movie, can I have $40?" wound up in "Forty!? I'm not an ATM!" fights when we were supposed to be leaving. We were responsible for our own library late fees and we also had to donate some. My parents got all this from Money Doesn't Grow on Trees, which I imagine is still around in some iteration. Seriously, I cannot thank my parents enough for that. We got our age in dollars, but that was ages ago.

And building off of what Ruki said about getting one free pass, my parents also kept us in one activity we didn't really like or made us go to a stupid event every now and then to teach us that sometimes you're obligated to go somewhere and you'll be bored out of your goddamn mind but that's life and you'll deal with it.

And yeah, don't hover but stay engaged with her homework. My parents, somewhat due to my mom's illness, left me to my own devices starting in about first grade. As I got older I had more trouble concentrating on reading. I always did homework I had to turn in but stopped reading for school in about 8th grade. I was diagnosed with ADHD at 28 and I can't help but think if they had actually checked in on me once and a while it could have saved me 15 years of shame and frustration. Duh, that probably won't happen to your daughter, but I mean it's the little things like reading in the same room while she's reading Great Expectations for English.
posted by good lorneing at 4:59 PM on September 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh dear, and chores! She can start something ridiculously simple now, but Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays we each had just one chore. Taking care of your money and your home (and having the discipline to do so) is not intuitive, so teach it before she's got 5 million things on her plate.
posted by good lorneing at 5:04 PM on September 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I will freely admit the following is something I daydreamed about trying, but haven't managed to have kids yet.

One thing they found correlated highly with later success was the ability to wait on eating one marshmallow given the promise of two of them - it's a simple way to test self-discipline. They never tested to see if that skill could be taught, though. I always wanted to see if it could be taught through a straightforward process of gradually increasing wait times until the child in question could wait five or ten minutes - treating it rather as a game.

Start by figuring out how long she can wait - wait until she fails. Present it as a game - "I want to see how long you can wait to eat this marshmallow" (or other thing she likes that isn't too unhealthy in small amounts). This allows you to calibrate the time increases to her current skill, so you are neither too easy on her, nor too demanding (in psychology this is called taking a baseline).

The next time, it becomes a challenge. Last time she waited x amount of time before eating it - can she wait x + 5 sec in order to get two? Each time she succeeds, increase the time by a little. If she fails, keep it the same time and ramp up the encouragement temporarily.

Essentially what you're doing is setting up circumstances where she is learning self-control and self-regulation with your encouragement. I think it would work pretty well with just about every child because the baseline would be their baseline, so you're never setting the goal as unreachable. If you do this I would love to hear about it, as I think it will work but I have no way to try it out (yet!).
posted by Deoridhe at 6:04 PM on September 30, 2015

Oh, and this shouldn't all be done in a single day, or even a week. I'd say try it once every few days or once a week for each increase - willpower takes time to recover.
posted by Deoridhe at 6:05 PM on September 30, 2015

Mindset! I'm surprised no one has mentioned it yet. Praising effort instead of intelligence is a key part of it, so you're already partway there.

I will mention one minor complaint, which is that the book is more descriptive than prescriptive. At least for me I would have liked more concrete steps to incorporate this way of thinking into my life.
posted by O9scar at 7:01 PM on September 30, 2015

This is what I did about music for my five year old (I realize that this is probably way too low key for many parents. When she asked for music lessons at five years old (her older brother had just started an instrument at school and she wanted "an instrument that is all my own that no one else can touch"I was very happy for her to start to learn but not willing to fight about practicing.

The basic set up with that lessons were this super fun thing that SHE wanted to do. Practicing was how she earned the right to go to lessons. She had to practice each song at least six times during the week. (This was very low bar - the songs were only two lines long - the goal was playing each song twice on three different days) If she didn't practice, I wasn't going to waste her teacher's time by taking her a lesson. Some weeks she would be do all of her practicing in a big rush 30 minutes before her lesson. She stayed with it until the end of the school year (and we never fought about practicing although I did pay one lesson that I practiced because she hadn't done her weekly practice) She decided not take lessons in first grade and by third grade, she was begging for music lessons again and stuck with it until she got busy with other things in high school.
posted by metahawk at 7:44 PM on September 30, 2015

I think modeling behavior, as has been stated earlier in the thread, is important. And to put a finer point on it, how are you (the parent) modeling your reactions to your successes and failures? At 4, 5, through about the early teens, kids are watching you and how to move through the world. Be explicit about your process. If I had known more about how my parents felt about things, versus the end result of their achievements, I would be a bit more secure. Just something that I have been thinking abut, felt was missing in my own life experience. So much, nay maybe all of this achievement stuff, is based on the emotional reaction we bring to the situation. In other words, everyone defines success differently. Know yourself, model your reactions and process, and you will have will have what you desire.

Asking and considering this line of inquiry bodes well for you and your kids.
posted by Jewel98 at 8:44 PM on September 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

Just my .02 cents. Kids pick up on everything, including the anxiety of their parents. I say this as someone who had a very loving but overbearing, anxiety ridden, helicopter-with-a-capital-H parent. One who was called into the principal's office when I was 5 and got in trouble for following the school bus to make sure I got in OK.

We have a friend who has raised three loving, bright, intelligent, motivated, college-bound, social, and (most important)... happy children/teens. When I asked him how he and his wife did it, he simply said, "Love 'em." That was it.

FWIW, they are flat broke and what little money they have, they do outdoorsy stuff and give their kids amazing experiences kayaking, camping, rock climbing, etc.... simply learning life skills and appreciating nature. When they talk about their kids, they talk about them with a curiosity and interest. They talk to their kids respectfully without expecting them to be little adults. They are interested in them as people, not talking about how to systematically and intentionally instill XYZ values into their children. They model it, as others upthread have suggested.

Their kids are disciplined because it takes discipline to get up early, put on your gear, and Go Do Outdoorsy Stuff. They have confidence because it takes guts to Climb The Rock Wall and be in competitions. And yeah, their parents probably blast them out of bed every weekend, because teens will be teens. But they're motivated because ultimately, it makes them happy. It's not a means to an end.

Their authenticity as people and parents is something I'd hope to model for my own kid someday, because clearly their kids internalized it. I'm sure they've made mistakes; we all do, but honestly the mistakes of our parents is what made us who we are today, right?

It's OK if you make mistakes, we all do! There is no Perfect Parenting Solution.

Again, just my .02 cents, and no, I do not have children.
posted by onecircleaday at 9:35 PM on September 30, 2015 [9 favorites]

My daughters are / were enrolled in a Yokomine kindergarten here in Japan, which really gets a lot out of their kids. The Yokomine method (not my blog) operates on "four switches" for kids, namely:

the competitive switch
the challenge switch
the mimic switch
the assessment switch.

As far as I can tell, the kids at the school are engaged, happy and enthusiastic about what they're doing. It's pretty cool to see it in action at the big year-end event they hold.

For the original Japanese, see this site.

Here is Yokomine in action.
posted by brappi at 12:09 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm afraid this might seem harsh. But here goes --

Your daughter is here because of your choices (if not, please forgive me). She is not here to fulfill your wishes, desires, hopes for yourself, or anything else; she's here because you gave birth to her. As such, you have a responsibility to her, which is above anything else to give her a good, happy life.

No one knows how to do this, obviously, but we can try. Much more important than success is happiness. Your desire for her achievement is unreasonable and possibly inhumane, except insofar as it positively impacts her happiness. This is terribly important. Her happiness is, morally, the only objective that you may work towards.

Happiness is correlated with achievement, but it is certainly not the same thing. I know many people that are incredibly successful and also incredibly unhappy.
posted by uninformative at 3:46 AM on October 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

Please, whatever else you do, let her know that you will always love her. Whether or not she is doing well, a high achiever, or excellent. Because I know you mean well, but I can feel the pressure from all the way over here.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:16 AM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am not qualified to comment on parenting but I do have parents (both overachievers themselves) who were warm, loving and supportive but didn't believe in pushing me. Which is a great regret for me. I can barely spell the word "grit" much less employ the tool. I have decided that I would be OK with my offspring not thinking I'm "nice".
posted by Octaviuz at 5:29 AM on October 1, 2015

I think you'll find this Alfie Kohn book, Punished By Rewards, to be useful and interesting. It talks a lot about the things that make us intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated.
posted by metasarah at 8:47 AM on October 1, 2015

Not a parent, but as a piano teacher working with children, and specifically about piano practice: All you need to do is put in the time to sit with her when she practices and help her stay on task.

How to do this depends on the character of your little one. I am blessed with some students who love to practice and who do extra stuff without being asked (usually little girls). I also know some where I need to draw on something like mindfulness skills to keep on drawing them back to the task, in a kind, gentle, patient and encouraging manner. When we practice a thing x times we count down from x. Sometimes bribes are deployed ("You can play a sound effect from the silly sound effects app on my iPad for every bar you practice.") Not to mention I have music related stickers, for when they have done their homework. (I greatly enjoy awarding these stickers and I actually designed a range of them for different musical achievements and had them printed on a print-on-demand site, but that's a different story.)
posted by yoHighness at 10:40 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm also a piano teacher, and I agree with yoHighness. Be present with your daughter when she's playing. Make 'practise time' an opportunity to have fun and bond with her. Get involved with her learning (you'll learn stuff too!). All of my best students have one thing in common: they have parents who are supportive, encouraging, actively involved and not pushy. Some of the parents play music themselves, and that is wonderful, but even if a parent has little to no musical training, if they sit in on lessons and take note of what we've done and what needs to be worked on throughout the week, they can keep their child on track at home, no problems. A five year old won't remember everything she's been told in the lesson, and she has no idea how fast she should be progressing or whether or not she's 'falling behind', so it's important to check in with the teacher regularly.

But the most important thing is to make playing piano a fun activity. If your daughter doesn't really want to practise scales, then don't force her. If she's sitting down at the piano on a regular basis (because she likes being there), she's on the right track, even if she's bashing keys. The technical stuff will come later when she wants to get better, when her teacher gives her a really cool piece that is a little challenging and requires more focus.

If she doesn't have the initiative to sit at the piano on her own, then do it with her, but frame it in a way that is exciting, and not like a chore (e.g. "let's play that song you learned in your lesson yesterday; you played it so well before and I want to hear you play it again!" or "show dad/grandma/aunt whoever that awesome piece you love playing!"). Developing a love of music, and a curiosity towards it, is far more important than making her practise x minutes a day or getting her to do exams and competitions.

Some kids respond well to bribes, but this can get in the way of developing a love for music for the sake of music (which is the thing that will keep them doing it in the long term). I wouldn't recommend bribing a five year old, because in my experience they don't have a whole heap of other interests/commitments, so they will naturally approach music with enthusiasm and excitement if you simply mirror that for them.

You could apply this approach to everything, by the way. You can make a five year old believe that math homework is awesome, or that brushing their teeth is an adventure. Just use your imagination!
posted by sweetshine at 11:17 AM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

For my daughter, I have a few rules of thumb.

1. When she tells me she sucks at something (she's 12, that's her language), I point out that that thing therefore requires more practice/attention/care for her to succeed. This heads off any intention of using sucking at something as an excuse to quit.

2. I told her when she was about five that I wanted her to have two extra-curricular activities that she did for her entire childhood — one cultural, one athletic — and that she would not be allowed to quit those two. Everything else she did she could quit any time she wanted. The goal here was to teach her (a) perseverance, (b) how to get through plateaus and boring bits, and (c) the incredible high that comes from mastery. And by letting her quit anything else, I wanted to teach her to feel free to experiment, to broaden her experiences, and to meet new people and new kinds of people.

(She chose violin and sailing as her two things, and has added cello and rock climbing. She has tried, and basically quit, skiing, wind surfing, acting, and dancing. She still does these things, but they're really low on her priority list.)

3. When she's doing her activity, I encourage her to have a mixture of messing about and really focusing. For violin, for example, that means that if she wants to figure out how to play a song she knows, she can do that, but she also has to do scales and practice her performance piece. Once her orchestra was playing the Can-Can, and she turned the music sheet upside down and played it that way, and called it the Nac-Nac. This is a great exercise in sight reading and totally unassigned. She was just screwing around, and I told her I loved her creativity and joy playing her violin. And then I asked her to please work on the Can-Can so she didn't let the strings section down.

Same with sailing. She messes around with her boat on our lake, and she races in regattas. Joy and skill, playing and focusing. By keeping play part of each activity, it's something she enjoys. By requiring performances of increasing difficulty, it's something she can make measured progress in. It's that balance that is so essential.

4. I have not figured out how to do the same with cleaning her room or putting away her laundry. My expertise in child raising is quite limited. But I'm proud of her, and whenever she works hard, makes a break-through, or shows joy in what she's doing, I tell her — and I tell her why.
posted by Capri at 12:00 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I love these answers, so thank you :)

I'll add something else that I've been doing lately: I draw attention to the fact that I'm still learning to do things even though I'm a grown-up and I use the word practice for what I'm doing as often as I can. For example, I'm a new driver and we take practice drives when traffic is low so that I'll be confidant driving to a new place. And when I park, I tell her "Hold on, I need to check whether I did a good job" and if I didn't, I say "yeah, Mom could have done a better job at that. I'm going to fix it" and then I do. Occasionally in the hopes of warding off perfectionism I'll say about my parking "It's not perfect but it's good enough".
posted by kitcat at 12:38 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's lots of great advice upthread. I try to be specific with praise; e.g., "I love that you chose such a descriptive word here," (writing) or "I'm so impressed that you persevered even when it got frustrating," (math) and so on.

I save my highest praise for when my son demonstrates kindness, patience, empathy, generosity, etc., and I hesitated to post, because it may seem like those things are not achievements, but they are. It can take outrageous amounts of effort and resolve just to be a nice person--but not a doormat--in a difficult situation.

Completing homework and going to practice are requirements, but they still generate positive feedback. That said, my son is human and therefore will fall short in some area at some time, so he needs to know he will be loved for who he is, not just for what he's accomplished.

My son broke his arm and two fingers (dominant hand) once during the school year. It's easy for parents to assume that a kid would automatically know that such injuries make some accomplishments nearly impossible. But if academic, artistic, and athletic accomplishments garner the most praise, an injury like that could leave a kid feeling lost as to how to earn approval. Knowing that patience, kindness, compassion, etc. are highly valued in our home meant my kid could remain confident even when he was unable to do other things that make us proud of him.
posted by whoiam at 12:54 PM on October 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

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