Practice for Life

An over-scheduled life has me struggling with a nasty bout of writer’s block.  In an effort to get the creative cogs turning, I began sifting through some of the posts hanging out in my “drafts” bin.  I came across the following essay (which is over a year old) and thought it might be good enough to share.  Although the child and the situation have changed, I’m currently struggling with this same parenting issue.  As you’ll see, I astutely predicted that would be the case.

I am sitting on the edge of the sofa in the late afternoon sunlight.  Ace is standing beside me, bow in his right hand, upright bass supported by his left.  He keeps absent-mindedly tossing his head to flick the hair out of his eyes and attitude is oozing out of him like hot lava.  He is disgusted with me and I’m trying desperately not to return the favor.  I sigh and look out the window.  Why must everything be so hard?

“OK,”I say“Play it again and I’ll clap the beat for you.”  He groans and slumps his shouldersAs I mark a steady beat, he barely attempts the notes.  It’s a pathetic effort and he knows it.  I resist the urge to grab the bow out of his hand and bonk him on the head with it.  Instead, he takes the bow and bangs his bass with it.

“Play it again.”  I state this with authority and very little emotion. It is taking every ounce of self-control not to explode.  I can tell his disgust is multiplying by the second, but he makes another attempt and there is improvement.  I’m pleasantly surprised and Ace can tell.  Do I detect a smile?  No, it’s a smirk.

“Play it again,” I say.

“What?!”  he asks, truly incredulous.  “I’ve already done it three times.”

“Only one time well and that won’t make you a better bass player,” I respond.  As he rolls his eyes – wait, did my baby boy just roll his eyes at me?! – I try to explain that practice teaches his fingers where to go so he won’t have to look at them every time he changes a note.  I tell him that practice puts the music in his head so that he doesn’t have to work so hard reading it on the page.  I end my mini-lecture by saying practice is the blood, sweat, and tears that make the performance so sweet.  I believe I’m making a solid and highly motivational argument.  Ace’s eyes glaze over.  All he hears is “Blah, blah, blah”.

I sigh again.  I can’t help myself.  “Do you like playing the bass?”

“Yeah,” he replies.  I know he’s telling me the truth.  When he does take this seriously, he creates low melodious tones that resonate through the house.  He desperately wants to play the electric bass, too.  We’ve promised he can start taking lessons in the summer as long as he makes a good effort with this classical instrument first.  He’s not holding up his end of the deal.  I get updates from his strings teacher at school after every lesson and they are getting progressively worse.  Secretly, I feel like it’s my fault.  I’ve been so preoccupied with my own school and work that I haven’t been paying attention to the quality of his practicing. He’s been flying under my radar unnoticed for too long and now things are falling apart. I’ve forgotten that even practice skills need to be taught.  I shake my head as I think about this.

“What do you want?” I ask, looking directly into his hazel-colored eyes.  I want him to say that he wants to be a great bass player.

“I want to go over to Alex’s house.”  This matter-of-fact statement makes me laugh because I’m not expecting it.  Ace isn’t smiling.

“Well, then, once more through this song and two times through the next two.” Ace bangs his bow on the bass for the second time and groans in frustration.  I’m on the verge of losing my cool.

“If you don’t do what I’ve asked, you won’t being seeing Alex tonight at all.”  I’m resorting to threats and I hate myself for it.  Ace finishes practicing because he knows I mean it.  It’s a painful five minutes.  I’ve frustrated him to the point of complete apathy.  The bass whines and moans through the notes.  Was there even a melody in all that screeching?  It’s so awful, I can’t even tell.  Aaron resists any of my advice and argues with me when I tell him he’s playing a G instead of an F#.  By now, everyone within earshot just wants this to end.  When he’s finished, he rests the bass on its side, tosses the bow on the couch, and walks toward the front door.

“Same time tomorrow, then?” I say brightly.  He doesn’t even turn around.

I throw myself back against the cushions and close my eyes.  For all the joy and pleasure I get of out of parenting, at the moment I can’t decide if it’s worth going through these hassles.  Does it really matter if Ace practices his bass regularly and well?  Should I be creating situations like this that frustrate my children to the point of anger?  Why am I constantly second guessing myself and my parenting choices?  Once again I find myself marveling at the complexity of parenting tweens and teens, the layers of meaning that seem to permeate every encounter.  The terrible twos were a piece of cake compared to this.  It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting work and I often don’t feel up to the challenge.

Teaching my children to strive for excellence is very important to me.  I believe it honors God when we do our best regardless of the circumstances.  When activities and responsibilities are fun or encompass favored skills, talents, and interests, excellence is easily achieved.  The ballgame changes considerably, however, when the task at hand is boring, disagreeable, uncomfortable, or inconvenient.  The interesting thing about this striving for excellence is that God makes no distinction between situations in which excellence comes easily and those in which is does not.

Colossians 3:23-24 says: Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.  It is the Lord your are serving.

Striving for excellence even in the difficult or boring things has been a very hard concept for my kids to grasp. Understanding and application is requiring significant amounts of failure which has been hard on all of us. With Ace, it’s his skill with the bass and his desire to rush through the things he hates (like homework) to get to the things he loves.  For Buddy, it’s learning over and over that effort made towards assignments is directly related to his grades.  Lovey, who is the farthest along in developing the character trait of excellence, still did poorly on a scale review in band recently because she didn’t feel the need to practice.  Poor grades, weak performances, pitiful cleaning attempts – it really doesn’t matter what it is because it is all relevant.  Every situation is an opportunity to practice the pursuit of excellence.  The kids are slowly learning that if they slack off in the boring or hard parts, they have no hope of excelling when the rubber meets the road.  There have been many scenes like the one Ace and I have just endured.  I’m pretty sure there will be many more.

As I consider all of this, I recognize that I really cannot teach this life lesson to my kids.  The learning comes from living out the choices they make, dealing with the consequences, and learning from mistakes. Trying to control their behavior too much just postpones the real learning opportunities and makes the consequences potentially more serious.  My job as The Mom is to offer guidance and insight that encourages them to recognize the benefit and satisfaction of a job well done.  As hard as this is for me, I need to let the mini-Whimseys fail if their choices and behaviors produce that outcome.  Then, I’ll help them pick up the pieces and work through what went wrong – the failure needs to be experienced for real understanding to take place.  For Ace, this means helping him develop good practice skills and setting the expectation of practicing 15 minutes everyday.  Then, it is up to him.  How he does during his lesson is directly related to the effort and commitment he chooses to apply.

The next couple of years flash before my eyes and I feel tired just thinking about it.  More and bigger battles are yet to come; it is inevitable.  No doubt, it would be much easier to allow the kids to wallow in the mediocrity of things poorly done.  So. Much. Easier.  I wouldn’t have to endure frustrating instrument practices, whine fests about cleaning bedrooms, and heated discussions about how poor grades couldn’t possibly be —–‘s fault even though —— never bothered to study.  However, if I don’t encourage my kids to work toward a particular standard, I’ll be practicing my own version of parenting mediocrity.

My attitude and reactions during the difficult times have an impact on whether these struggles are helpful in moving the kids along the path to maturity or turn into stumbling blocks. God has blessed me with three incredibly bright and challenging children and I want to do this parenting job well.   My goal is to do the very best I can to raise kids who are intrinsically motivated to give life their best effort because they love God and want to give Him their finest.  This means helping them develop the skills they need to do a great job, cheering them on, allowing them to suffer the consequences when they fall short, and being honest with my own shortcomings and failures.  I “work for the Lord” when I diligently and lovingly support and guide my children in developing the desire for excellence (not perfection) in the nitty-gritty of their lives.

I open my eyes and lean forward to pick up a piece of sheet music that has drifted to the floor.  For a brief second, I find myself wishing for the Terrible Twos again.  The very worst of the toddler years is nothing compared to this parenting teens thing.  The last fifteen minutes hasn’t been fun.  But, I’ve already decided I’ll be doing it again.  It’s my job and I will work at it with all my heart, as working for the Lord.  I just pray that God will bless my imperfect efforts and grant me an extra measure of self-control because hitting my son on the noggin with his bow would be a definite hindrance to the cause….

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Ace has come a very long way since I first wrote this post.  This photo was taken at his Spring 2013 concert. The practicing has really paid off!

7 thoughts on “Practice for Life

  1. My wife’s a music teacher and all of our kids had initial lessons with the “invitation” to continue. Non chose to, although two of them now strongly wish they had. Forcing them would have been counterproductive… but we’ll see if any of their children learn from their error and ask Grandma to teach them how to play…

    1. Sometimes it feels like a very fine line between insisting that the kids practice and forcing them to play an instrument they don’t want to. 🙂 My husband is the only member of the family who doesn’t play or read music and he often mentions how much he regrets it. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

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