Flick on the television, and there's a rock star with screaming fans or a player whacking a baseball out of the park. Our children didn't see the years of guitar study or the hours spent swinging in the batting cage. No wonder kids hate to practice. What fun is it laboring at a skill if they're just reminded, through dreary repetition, that they're not yet good enough to be famous?
As adults, we know that the accomplished people who inspire and guide us and our kids achieved skills through passion and diligent practice. Sometimes, it's hard to convey that idea to kids, and harder still to avoid being frustrated into arguing with a child who seems to dread practice.
So what works? How can you get reluctant, frustrated youngsters to practice the skill that they'll be proud of in the future? The answers involve some work on your part -- and nary a raised voice.
Ballet requires enormous amounts of focus and commitment, which can weigh heavily on a 5-year-old. So Ariel Carpenter makes sure her daughter, Emma Rose, sees plenty of the fun side of ballet. "I am taking her to more stage performances like The Nutcracker and buying her DVDs of professional productions such as Peter and the Wolf, Swan Lake, and even Barbie of Swan Lake," says the Pasadena, California, public relations executive and former professional dancer. Ariel also reads books about little-girl dancers to Emma Rose and treats her to pretty ballet accessories -- tutus and chiffon skirts.
Dianne Daniels encourages her 14-year-old daughter, Ariana, to experience the thrill of performing live on her flute for anyone who will sit and listen -- friends, family, and audiences at community events. "She loves the attention and the sense of accomplishment after learning a new piece," says the Norwich, Connecticut, image consultant. "It is something that makes her relatively unique among her peers -- helping her to define her identity."
Stacy DeBroff, a parenting author and founder of the online community MomCentral.com, says silly games and experimentation can break up the tedium of practice. For instance, if your child is going to play a musical piece four times through, have her play it once normally, once standing on one leg, another time while looking out the window, and a final time with her eyes closed. Children also find practice time more tolerable when they get the "boring" work done first and have a fun phase of practice to look forward to. For instance, with martial arts instruction, have your child do the repetitive drills first. At the end of the session, let him learn a new move or have sparring.
Rather than emphasize a performer's "moment of perfection" -- the musical solo or home run -- give your child glimpses of the hard work that leads up to perfection, says Rebecca "Kiki" Weingarten, a life coach and educational consultant based in New York City. Scout out professionals willing to visit your child to talk about how their practice routines led to the thrill of performance. Encourage your child to read biographical sketches of great musicians, journalists, athletes, or artists so they can understand that top performers are real people who had to struggle to develop their talents. Common daily occurrences offer opportunities to teach about patience and long-term gratification, Weingarten says.
Has your child mastered a video game? Say to her, "The first time you played that game, did you score as many points as you did the 10th time?" If you spot a particularly nice flower garden in the neighborhood, ask, "What steps are involved in achieving that?" This will lead to a discussion of the unseen work of planning, research, shopping, planting, watering, and weeding. If your favorite professional baseball team performs poorly in a game, comment, "This doesn't mean they'll quit playing -- they'll probably get some extra batting practice."
Don't demand that your child become passionate about any pursuit when you can expose him to a variety of activities and let him decide what direction to take, says Robert Schleser, PhD, a child development and sports psychology expert at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. There's a fine line between letting a child give up an activity prematurely and letting him quit once he's given it a fair shot and is no longer interested. "You can't force a person to be anything," says Schleser. "You can get him to do it, but the kid will do it only until the parent stops making him do it."
Like many parents, Schleser had hoped his daughter would follow in his footsteps -- in this case, pursuing psychology as a profession. Instead she decided to pursue her passion and is now studying at culinary school. "And that's fine with me," he says. As a parent, you need to let go of the "what will other parents think?" mentality. That's too much angst for some kids. If it feels too pressured and frustrating, they might rebel, Weingarten says.
If you plan to observe your child practicing at home -- say, playing violin in the family room -- getting involved can be constructive. But there are limits. Ask your child's instructor for guidance. There will be some matters that you can closely supervise, and there will be others that children need to work through on their own. Don't pounce on every mistake your child makes during practice. Obviously, his skill is a work in progress; wincing at every sour note will only frustrate him. It's better to show enthusiasm for effort and achievement. But avoid dominating the practice sessions.
Ariel Carpenter doesn't force her 5-year-old to practice ballet at home. "But when she says, 'Look, Mom. How's this?' I try to correct her, break the step down for her, and praise her profusely for trying her best."
It may surprise some parents to learn that kids will pay -- at least in part -- when they become passionate about developing a particular skill. When Ariana Daniels decided she wanted to focus on flute playing, parents Dianne and Aaron made her a "stakeholder" in the venture. Ariana paid part of the cost of the flute, shares maintenance costs for the instrument, and pays for the song books she wants. A similar approach could work on more costly sports equipment, such as skis or golf clubs. Because they're financially involved, the kids become more motivated and committed to practice.
The quieter and more peaceful the environment, the more your child can focus on practice. Whacking tennis balls against the garage door or practicing free throws in the driveway may not be the best venue if siblings are getting in the way or neighborhood friends are distracting them. Arranging time at a local school gym or court, or even practicing at a local park may be the key. Similarly, a young musician needs a distraction-free retreat in the home for practice, says DeBroff. Make sure the TV and video games are off, and other distractions -- siblings included -- are removed from the room.
Despite the best intentions, your child might never quite get around to practicing. Scheduling regular in-home practice ensures that time is set aside for this priority. Schedule practice for times when your child is usually at her best -- not worn out, cranky, or sleepy. Your child might prefer to work straight through her entire practice time in one shot -- say, 30 minutes -- or play two 15-minute sessions with a break in the middle. Let your child decide.
Treats for practice don't necessarily create in your child real motivation -- the drive to develop a talent just for love of the activity. A better alternative: Occasionally provide a treat after the practice -- spontaneously. This way, the good feeling of an ice cream cone is connected with the practice, but the student didn't work through the practice thinking that he was getting paid for it.
Has your child hit a frustrating plateau? In that case, a rewards program might get him over a tough hurdle, says Virginia Shiller, PhD, psychologist and author of Rewards for Kids. A rewards plan in this case should have some flexibility to it -- for instance, a requirement that the child practice his hook shot, his curve ball, or whatever his interest might be for, say, 21 days out of 30. Chart the progress on a check-off sheet. Link the reward to the effort made, not to improvement of the skill.
Practicing toward a large goal, such as mastering an entire song on the piano or memorizing a complete martial arts routine, can be overwhelming to kids. So set smaller goals for each day's practice, says Weingarten. On piano, this might mean stretching the fingers a bit farther to hit the desired keys. In baseball, it might mean practicing a swing with a different grip on the bat. Small goals add up. Soon you'll hear your child saying, "Wow, I did better today than I did yesterday." That's the first step toward helping kids see practice less as a way to achieve perfection and more as a method of indulging their passion and pleasure.
How did parents ever get bamboozled into adopting the slogan "Practice makes perfect"? Perfection is an awesome expectation to drop onto the shoulders of a kid who is forcing his first squeaks and squawks from a clarinet or swinging his way through the travails of Little League. With a few strokes of the pen, Weingarten offers kids and parents a rewrite that will calm households the world over: "Practice makes you better." Weingarten says this simple yet powerful revision puts the focus of practice where it rightly belongs -- on the joy of accomplishment, rather than on the unreachable goal of perfection. And that kind of practice really is perfect.
Originally published in Better Homes & Gardens magazine, June 2006.