What do you do when parents show off their children’s precocious talents?
Just this past weekend, I sat with my three kids and a few dozen other parents and kids to watch a five-year-old boy play two classical pieces on piano, then a girl around the same age play two violin tunes.
I squirmed. I thought about how I really don’t have anything comparable to show off about my kids. They do have some interesting talents, which I’ll mention later, but those aren’t the sorts of talents that could be shown off to others so impressively.
You see, my wife and I don’t force our kids to practice anything, and, trust me, no five-year-old learns to play classical piano without being forced to practice a lot by his or her parents. We don’t force our kids to do homework, either.
Sure, we understand that we have some role as parents in guiding our kids, but we prefer to facilitate, rather than to force. When we do force our kids, it’s almost always to not do something dangerous (e.g. “don’t hit your brother with a baseball bat!!!”) than to do something.
At that kid concert, I thought, “My kids could do that if I forced them to.” However, the honest truth is, I have no idea if my kids could do that, even if I forced them to.
Besides, even if my kids could do that, the fact is that they don’t. So, perhaps they’re falling behind. Their neural pathways aren’t being connected for musical skills like that pianist boy’s and that violinist girl’s are. And, musical skills lead to all sorts of intellectual skills, and . . .
Do I really believe this music-neuron stuff? Perhaps, I can’t say for sure. I don’t think anyone can.
What I do know for sure are that there are great benefits to our less controlling approach, and I believe that these outweigh the possible benefits of forcing our kids to do things. You see, being skilled per se is not our goal for our kids. Instead, our goal for them is to find within themselves their desire to excel. In other words, we want them to explore what it feels like to be intrinsically motivated.
In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink writes about how intrinsic motivation is far stronger and more durable than extrinsic motivation, which results from an outside person somehow forcing someone to do something.
I can’t say that my kids are laser-focused and intrinsically motivated all the time, but I do see them getting fired up and accomplishing pretty impressive things on their own terms. For instance, my oldest son Marco (8, 2nd grade) often skips doing his homework because he prefers reading. He enthusiastically jumps into his bed every night to read 25-50 pages of chapter books. He’s also an avid bicyclist. He rides to and from school every day, remarkably fast and safe for a kid his age, and he’s also a strong distance rider, having completed an 80K ride pretty easily last year.
As I wrote in a recent article, my middle son Nico (5, preschool) and my youngest son Leo (3, preschool) are “superstar players.” They keep each other busy with intense imaginative, building, or physical play pretty much every waking moment.
In addition, Nico is a sort of “savant” at image recognition. When we drive together, he can recognize the brands of cars (e.g. “Toyota!” “Honda!” BMW!”) faster than any kid or adult in our family, despite the fact that he can hardly read. Also, he can recognize a small number of bird species from very far away. On a recent birdwatching trip, he amazed over a dozen experienced birdwatchers when he was the first to recognize a red-tailed hawk two different times.
I strongly believe that all kids, if left on their own, will find things that they love and do very well. However, parents have little control over which talent develops, and when. You need to have faith in their genetic makeup (you’re not dumb and untalented, are you?), and you need to be around them enough to set an example for them.
My hope is that my kids will continue to build on the confidence and self-knowledge they gain from finding their own passions as they grow up. Certainly, I don’t want them to be openly disrespectful to authority figures, but I don’t mind if they’re not great at obeying a piano teacher, or any teacher. I’d much rather them be stars at pursuing their own interests.
How do you feel about forcing your kids to develop talents versus giving them space to figure things out on their own?