When I was a child I took piano lessons from an older Southern lady who taught me to play Dixie (before my mother put the kibbutz on that), and then moved along to the polka. Needless to say, it was not an auspicious start. There would be other teachers and other music over the years (European classical, mostly, which I like to listen to but don’t really like to play), but my polka years loomed large and the love of piano never took root. I wanted to quit. My mother wouldn’t let me. She feared that I didn’t have any “stick-to-it-iveness,” as she called it, though by then I’d been a gymnast for 9 years, and had proven myself to be a focused and dedicated student. I don’t fault her, really. She wanted me to have the discipline and drive I would need to cut a broad swath through life — something she wanted for me, and that I’d later want for myself. Like parents everywhere, she wanted the best for me — and thought that having me stick it out on piano would somehow play a part. Of course, her other option would have been to simply let me quit.
Conventional wisdom says that sticking it out builds character, but I’m not convinced. Sticking it out builds character if. If we are passionate, if we are talented, if sticking it out, even when it’s hard, helps us toward a longer-range goal. In the absence of one of these “ifs”, it can actually be a good thing to let our children quit. As it happens, quitting builds character too.
Ideally we emerge from childhood knowing how to commit, and what to commit to. Too often, the “what” of the equation gets short shrift.
If we want our children to develop discipline, focus and the ability to stick it out, even when it’s hard, then we need to give them a good reason to stick it out even when they don’t want to. I can only think of three: passion, talent and purpose.