Photo Credit: Laurel Loftin
Kids play in a water truck's mist at last year's Athens Water Festival.
I had a burst-your-bubble moment recently. My daughter, who has always had an inclination toward music, has been taking piano lessons for the past year. I never took music lessons when I was a kid, but for some reason, it seemed like one of those quintessential childhood things, like riding a bike. She seemed to enjoy the chance to give her great-grandmother’s upright piano some purpose, since it was already sitting in her playroom.
Much like the appeal of a new toy two months after Christmas, her enthusiasm began to wane. Before long, I found myself digging to new parenting lows, trading Popsicles for practice times and upping the ante every time we needed to get through a lesson.
It was frustrating to watch, because, as a child, you have no concept of the value years of lessons in anything can have. No matter how many times I would say, “You’ll thank me when you’re 18,” she never took the bait. Every evening, as practice time approached, I braced myself for World War III.
Living in Athens, surrounded by music and culture and higher education, it’s hard not to expect your child to get caught up in it, too. As we jump into the new school year—and as we start juggling afternoon schedules to fit in soccer practice or dance classes or whatever else we think our kids want to do—it’s hard not to foster dreams of their taking an activity and running with it. Maybe your child will be performing at Juilliard? Maybe she’ll get a swimming scholarship? Maybe he’ll be in the Olympics?
The reality is, this rarely happens. According to the National Collegiate Scouting Association, just 2 percent of 7 million high school athletes have a chance of getting a spot on a college team. Only half that number have a chance at a scholarship to a Division I school. And, really, how many classical violinists can you name? All this is a moot point, anyway, because these activities shouldn’t be about lining up success after college, but instead about fueling a passion in anything.
But when you’re 5 or 7 or 9 years old, do you really know what your passions are? Do years of practice in one thing set you up for potentially hating that subject over time, if your heart’s not in it? And as a parent, how do you know when to pull the plug?
Tough questions. To get some answers, I chatted with Meg Hines, who teaches classes on teaching gifted and creative children in the University of Georgia’s College of Education. She’s also a mom, with kids ages 5–11. She, too, has had her share of piano battles.
Any sort of “enrichment opportunity,” Hines says, “helps foster interests. But interests change over time.” She learned that lesson with her oldest child, who showed musical talent and played the piano for several years. But eventually, lessons became a battleground. Hines realized the fighting wasn’t worth the end result. There’s no magic teaching tool to get kids interested in an activity if they simply aren’t.
This is when, Hines says, you have to step back as a parent and take a bigger look at the situation. In her house, they commit to the length of the activity, and if it’s not something the child wants to pursue afterward, they move on. Camps and lessons for younger kids are like the appetizers, setting them up for full-course meals when they’ve reached middle school and have a better understanding of who they are and what they like. “We’re giving them the opportunity to see what they like when they’re younger,” she adds. “In middle school, they’re getting to experience different things, and they know what they like… Let the child lead you."
Who knows? Your child may come back to that sport or artistic activity when she hits middle school, where most kids end up taking some kind of art or music class, anyway. It’s up to us to open the door, at least a little bit, so that down the road they know the path to get through it.
And the piano lessons my daughter is no longer taking? Well, she’s been asking for months to learn violin. And I finally listened to her. So maybe, in another 10 years, you’ll know the name of at least one classical violinist.
And now, a quick shout out to some events taking place next month, now that our Athens lives have kicked into high gear with the start of school.
Families On! Challenge: Started by Athens natives John and Drew Brantley, this event is part obstacle course, part family bonding session. Groups of two or more go through the 2.5-mile course of things like drawing on walls or jumping on beds. After the race—which can be done at your own pace—there will be food, music and performances by local kids. The event has staggered starting times beginning at 8 a.m. and takes place Saturday, Sept. 6 at Heritage Park in Watkinsville. Entry fee is $29 in advance and $49 on race day, so sign up early for the discount. Visit www.familieson.com for details.
Athens Water Festival: I can’t believe it’s been five years already since the county’s water department (and other agencies) started this event. It’s a great way to explore Sandy Creek Park, learn about water as a natural resource and keep the kids happy, too. Learn about the water cycle or removing waste from watter or test your knowledge at different interactive stations. Last year, we had fun making boats from recycled materials, then putting them to use on Lake Chapman. The Athens Water Festival is 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13. More info: www.athenswaterfestival.com.