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.
Passion is the best reason. If our children are passionate about the things they’re doing, then the time and effort they devote to their endeavors will seem worth it. When their enthusiasm wanes, we can remind them that it takes hard work to develop proficiency — even at the things we love — and that the people who achieve, intellectually, creatively or athletically, put in the work.
Talent is another good reason (though talent without passion or purpose isn’t worth much). If your child has a talent for something but isn’t very passionate about it, your job as a parent is to help them explore what their talent might be for. For example, if your child is a talented runner but he doesn’t like to run, you might consider the possibility that he might be passionate about using his running skills on the football field or basketball court (and if his enthusiasm for training on the track starts to wane, you can take the opportunity to teach him the role of discipline in developing skills we need to realize a goal, even when working on the skill isn’t fun. Helping your child see the link between their talents and their goals will also give them experience of seeing how a sense of purpose can imbue even the most tedious task with value and meaning.
Which brings me to the third and final reason to stick it out. Purpose. Sometimes you stick it out because sticking it out enables you to achieve your purpose. Purpose and passion go hand and hand. If you have these two, even a modest amount of talent will do. Jennifer Lopez and Madonna are not the strongest singers, but armed with passion and sense of purpose, they’ve taken their modest singing abilities and exceptional performance abilities and transformed themselves into international superstars.
Sticking with piano lessons did not make me a great, or even a good, pianist — and it didn’t cultivate my love of music (though I am deeply in love with music, and only wish my early experiences had been with soul and the Blues instead of the polka and Dixie).The missing ingredient, of course, was passion and purpose. I wasn’t passionate about the music I was playing — and had no inkling what the piano could do when loosed from its formal moorings. If I’d known you could play piano like Alicia Keys plays it, I might have thrown myself wholeheartedly at the task (and who knows, I may throw myself at it yet, learning to play piano or guitar, this time with a clear sense of purpose in mind — to enjoy the playing and perhaps to write some songs).
Letting your child quit something she isn’t passionate about, or that she lacks the talent for, or that she can’t connect to her sense of purpose frees her to find out who she really is and what her passions and talents really are — information that will enable her to build a realized life. Unless you’re a child prodigy, and maybe even then, the best use of childhood is to discover and explore. Sometimes, as a parent, that means you have to let your child try something and quit. Trial and error is the name of the game. What is childhood for, after all, if not for trying on, and then discarding, the things that do not fit? How else can we find the things that do?
PHOTOGRAPHY via JCrew and Le Catch
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.