A few posts back, I wrote about self image being the most important limiter of a child’s ability. There are actually four limiters, as presented by Bill Starr in that lecture I attended so many years ago at Mid South-East Suzuki Institute. If this post seems a little awkward or disjointed, it’s because I am still formulating and processing thoughts into a coherent order, and am not at all sure that I am right. About any of this. Anyway, the second limiter on his list was this: lack of interest.
Lack of interest, to me, generally indicates boredom or fear. Before I start though, I need to make it abundantly clear that this is not a parent slamfest. It is, however, something that I have observed over the years. It is what it is. Thinking it is easy. Saying it is not difficult. Writing it, however, is another story entirely.
It seems that American child-rearing philosophy the past twenty years or so has done a complete 180, from “do it because I said to” to giving the child both too much choice and complete veto power. Many Very Smart People have researched the reasons for the change and it is interesting stuff. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with giving children choices, but it just seems awfully coincidental to me that this combination has actually caused more harm than good in terms of self-image — financially, socially, and psychologically — for many people. It appears to have directly contributed to the selfish and annoying “me” philosophy that has pervaded our country’s youngest generations. Interestingly, many parents steadfastly refuse to acknowledge when their kids are the ones who are behaving that way, even going so far as to make excuses for it: they didn’t have the opportunity, if only someone else had done their part, we couldn’t, we didn’t, we can’t. The concept of personal responsibility, both in terms of parenting and teaching a child to make good decisions, has been excised from our vocabulary, except when it involves the judicial system.
Huge arguments have erupted in the media over who is to blame, with many parents feeling that they have been unfairly singled out for being less strict with their kids, initiating them into the adult world of myriad choices and decisions earlier, with the hope and expectation that they will have more time to learn how to be responsible for themselves. In the end, it doesn’t really matter who is right or wrong, because the question that plagues teachers all over the country is still unsolved: how do we get kids interested in learning? They aren’t interested because they’ve never had to be. Aside from living in an electronic age where many of our routine tasks can be done by a machine, our kids have had more veto power over things they didn’t like, didn’t want or didn’t think would be fun, than any previous generations ever even dreamed of. Really, it’s not a far cry from their toddler years, when they had absolutely no qualms about letting everyone in the check-out line at the grocery store know exactly what they wanted. They’re just more controlled about it now.
As a personal example, I offer you my four-year-old son Eric. If I give him a choice between two or three things, he normally vetoes all of them because none of the choices were what he wanted. I end up making the choice and he gets over it in ten minutes. Such is the life of a pre-K. He is just now beginning to learn empathy and seeing things from someone else’s point of view. Soon, he’ll have some reasoning ability, meaning he’ll think about consequences before he makes a choice. Sometimes we forget that our little ones have to learn perseverance, patience and how to use indoor voices; those things aren’t anymore inborn than playing the violin is. It is Fun! and Exciting! to make Decisions! Even if the decision is simply what fruit to have with breakfast, or what color socks to wear, or the Mother of All Decisions, The Putting On Of The Seat Belt All By Themselves. But, starting at about age five or six, kids will often stop doing something they previously found enjoyable when it becomes too hard (fear), it isn’t fun anymore (boredom), or when it pushes them outside their comfort zone (fear, again). Adults do this too, but we often continue out of a sense of duty or desperation before we quit.
If we remember that the goal of Talent Education is not to produce concert artists, but to grow beautiful people, lack of interest can be put in context and becomes a little easier to deal with. We are taught in Suzuki pedagogy classes that when provided with fine examples to follow, a child will try to copy, emulate and imitate because that is the fastest and most natural way they learn. And we know that kids generally learn what they are taught, very well. But, in reality, the things we do not want them to learn are sometimes the things that they learn best. By the time a child hits the ripe young age of kindergarten, whatever pattern has been modeled at home is already firmly established and will likely continue unless and until someone intervenes. It was a watershed moment for me when I saw nurturing firsthand in my own studio, and not the good kind. I have no doubt that every single one of my studio parents loves their kids and would do anything for them, but if you don’t expect your kids to learn, they probably won’t. They will go through school being bored or afraid, because too few people challenge them or expect anything from them. It can be very tricky to bring a parent’s expectations up to meet the teacher’s.
One of the most difficult things to teach “home teachers” is that the lesson does not stop when the violin goes in its case. Talent Education is a lifestyle, a religion dedicated solely to training up children in the way they should go, so that when they are older, they will be confident in themselves and their abilities, to paraphrase a Proverb very loosely. It’s about building people with beautiful hearts and spirits. And it is the job of teachers and parents to model it in a way that raises the child’s interest level to fascination, like it was when they were babies. We must model excitement about learning if we want them to be excited about it.
A child who is afraid to try for fear of making a mistake will quickly lose interest. We don’t discourage babies when they don’t “get it” the first time, whether the task is walking, using a spoon, saying “ma-ma” or what have you. We show them how, help them, encourage them with much love and baby talk, and cheer when they are successful. It would be unthinkable to deliberately teach our kids to give up, throw the game, or cheat. Yet we implicitly give them permission to do this when we lower or eliminate our expectations. Dr. Suzuki reminds us of this in Nurtured by Love: “To surrender to the thought of having no talent and give up the effort is cowardly.” (p. 37) Give up on learning to walk? Give up on working toward that “A” in math? Velcro is so much simpler than learning to tie shoes. Maybe, but what did they learn in the process? Many of the current problems in our world likely would be solved if we as adults could remember that feeling of single minded determination we had as infants and small children, and channel it into things that really mattered, like giving our kids the absolute best foundation for learning that we can. That foundation starts with excitement and fascination: with our children as people, of life, and of learning.
And then, for me the question becomes, is it better to withhold the opportunity to learn than to see them lose interest because they aren’t learning of their own free will?