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Keeping the Train on Track

Keeping the Train on Track

“Talent is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration.” Thomas Edison

I experienced the privilege and joy of sitting back and watching my daughter perform in a Suzuki Festival this weekend at Yale University. In its glorious Woolsey Hall, oversized, magnificent gilded pipes for the front-and-center organ stared us parents (and more-than-proud grandparents) in our faces while we watched a couple hundred musicians balance pint-sized violins, maneuver mini-cellos and stroke lightweight guitars on stage. Classical and folk music filled the air, starting with Copland’s invigorating “Hoedown” and ending with the Suzuki signature “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” which we parents have enjoyed (or endured) anywhere from a hundred to a zillion times, depending on our length in the Suzuki program. But we sat there, all of us, mesmerized and busting with pride. To think that our kids could have multiple books of music permanently ingrained in their brains; that their thin little fingers could glide over the strings at lightning speed; and that they could produce such beautiful music with complete strangers in perfect harmony, their only bond being the study of the same music under the same pedagogical training, was almost too much to comprehend. It was nothing short of splendid.

It was a sadly striking observation–especially given the glory of the occasion–to note the high rate of “de-selection” out of the system as kids grew older. While dozens upon dozens of little ones proudly played “Twinkle,” only a handful of teens took to the stage for the advanced pieces.

Now, this could be said of practically anything. How many toddler girls enjoy all of that pink tulle for those first few years of ballet, after all, only to drop out right before going on to pointe? Or enthusiastically embrace early morning lap swimming with the neighborhood gang, only to drop out when the coach asks them to swim five hours a day? How many unused drum sets, guitars, easels and athletic equipment are collecting dust in garages across the globe as overly-ambitious pursuits–quick shots out of the blocks each one of them–fizzle to a grinding halt once the realization of all of that hard work sets into our youngsters’ collective consciousnesses?

Let’s face it: it’s a lot more difficult to stick with something than it is to get something started. Drumming up enthusiasm for a new project, be it taking up the oboe or taking up oil painting, is no harder for most of us than getting our fannies up and off the sofa. We order the new gear, new art supplies or new instruments, practically salivating at the vision. We enthusiastically walk into our new lessons, proudly toting new stuff, bubbling over with excitement and energy for the newness of it all. Like staring into a new baby’s eyes and understanding that this life holds such promise, we zealously embrace new projects, and realize, all too slowly, the terrific sacrifices demanded for growth.

One of the most difficult challenges of parenting is discerning how long we require our children to stick with something…keeping the train on the track…and knowing when it’s okay to let them jump off.

Do we decide at the point when the frustration level becomes unbearable that “now is the time”? Or do we grit our teeth and understand that this is all just part of the process? When our kids slam the door, stomp their feet and scream “I hate this!” do we take that as a sign that we should stop now? Or do we simply acknowledge that as a good time for a strong cup of coffee, a bit of dark chocolate and a time-out?

I have remained amazed–over these past almost twenty years–of the number of parents who throw in the towel too soon, as well as the ones who manage to hold on through their children’s mastery. I have taken my own fair share of well-intentioned yet unsolicited advice from honest parents who simply see things differently than I do. There is a great deal of difference here and it’s a tough one to sort out. And it was particularly glaring today.

As there are, of course, vast personal differences among children and families; in constraints on time, energy and financial resources; and in personality variances of pure persistence (or of pure stubbornness), one can’t devise blanket generalizations for keeping–or moving–the train on track. There are just too many variables in the equation. Regardless, one bottom line is true virtually across the board: children despise hard work, and anything requiring mastery demands hard work! As parents, we need to figure out when to chalk up something unpleasant–violin practice or spelling drills or swimming regimens or frustrated painting sessions–to hard work, pure and simple–or to “it’s time to get the train off the track.” There are few things couples argue more over, few questions moms ask me more frequently, and few things that cause me greater personal angst, than this issue.

I wish I had the answer. I wish every situation had a pat solution. I wish it was as easy as encouraging every parent to stick with it ’til the bitter end! To battle it out until the final victory is achieved! ‘Til you hear “the” recital, witness the home run or hang the blue ribbon you’ve been waiting for. That you won’t let him quit until he finishes that tenth book of violin music or makes it all the way through the majors in Little League. That she has to take Spanish all the way through high school. Or must enroll in art school until she uses up all of her expensive supplies.

But it’s never that easy. Nope. Parenting is always full of surprises. Our kids can out-smart us, out-maneuver us and out-last us…and they will. Just when we think we’ve got this parenting thing figured out, we face another trick or challenge or dilemma and we feel like we’re back at square one. Or we realize that what worked for the first kid has no power over the second. Oh geez.

One thing I know for sure: mastery commands respect. As does consistency. Perseverance. Persistence. Stick-to-it-ive-ness. We reward singers who make it all the way on American Idol and athletes who make it to the Olympics. We love stories of persevering against all odds and of sticking it out even when it hurts. And so while that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s never okay to let the train jump off the tracks–because some times that truly is the right thing to do–make sure that you don’t trade common everyday impatience for quick fix solutions. For increased peace and quiet in the home. Or increased harmony. For less fighting or foot stomping or door slamming.

Remember, always, the dirty little secret of parenting: it takes far more nurturing, far more patience and far more energy than anyone ever warned you about. That it takes years of hard work and practice. That practice is hard work and that hard work is just practice. And that it will all be worth it when you receive the joy–as I did today–as you simply sit back, smile, and think: “We done good.”