My oldest child started piano lessons back in the nineties, due to somewhat base parental motives. A friend who volunteered in prisons had told me that a common denominator among inmates was a lack of childhood music lessons—which, admittedly, had more to do with financial than with aesthetic poverty. But still. I’d read Yvonne Thornton’s Ditchdigger’s Daughters, and if that dad in a crime-ridden neighborhood could produce highly educated children by forcing them to practice music, then surely music lessons could help my suburban kids stay out of trouble.
Our ambitions rose as the kids joined the school band and the possibility of scholarships and concerto nights loomed, especially for obscure and difficult instruments. I bought an oboe for our clarinetist son and paid for lessons from a symphony musician whose menagerie of birds, dogs, and cats created cacophonous background noise at every lesson. Unfortunately, the new embouchure started goofing up his clarinet-saxophone playing, so the oboe ended up in a basement closet. But our aspirations persisted, fed by research showing musicality’s uber-benefits: quicker reading acquisition, higher IQ, dexterity and creativity, math mastery! Who knows whether Einstein would have been Einstein without his violin? Maybe music could not only prevent prison time, but ward off failure, ordinariness, and pain.
Our ambitions reached fever pitch with Suzuki method strings. Kids could learn Bach on tiny violins and cellos at absurdly young ages, sounding like prodigies by listening to CDs for two hours a day. Oh, and Mom had to attend all the lessons and practice with the kids constantly, and the method demanded a steady stream of group lessons, summer institute attendance, and solo recitals. Thus, after several years of getting the three middle kids “nurtured by love,” in Dr. Suzuki’s words, Mom was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Our family life seemed off-kilter. The practice of continually inviting unsuspecting friends and family to watch my children perform in solo recitals felt unsavory and narcissistic, and it eclipsed my non-string-playing kids.
Amid the exhaustion and stress, I had an epiphany. Surely a non-catatonic mother is worth something, maybe even more than her daughter’s ability to play Praeludium and Allegro by age seven. And surely one of the benefits of having a lot of kids—eight, in our case—is in resisting the temptation to overparent. After all, going from being a horrible parent to being an adequate parent, according to one social scientist, makes an enormous difference in a child’s life—while going from adequate to excellent makes only a negligible one.
I’d even add that uber-parenting, such as Marlin attempted in Finding Nemo, creates its own can of worms, with its manipulative delusions of being able to stack all the dominoes just right. Viral cautionary articles like “What Overparenting Looks Like From a Stanford Dean’s Perspective” warn that attempts to expunge risk and disappointment from childhood years result in raising quasi-adults unaccustomed to running their own lives and solving their own problems. “Without experiencing the rougher spots of life,” warns Stanford Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims, “our kids become exquisite, like orchids, yet are incapable, sometimes terribly incapable, of thriving in the real world on their own.”
Spiritually as well as emotionally, childhood years require not only joy and nurturing, but also suffering and growth, if the young person is to face adulthood maturely. And fortunately (or ironically), our musically obsessed phase never ended up shielding my kids from anything. It is a truth universally known, though willfully ignored by zealous parents, that adolescence is full of ups and downs, regardless of musical, athletic, academic, or other extra-curricular accoutrements. Indeed, competitive string and other high-pressure worlds spawn their own particular burdens.
At any rate, we withdrew from the Suzuki method, embracing our negligence and going back to the neighborhood piano teacher. Which isn’t to say that the string players don’t feel grateful for the magic that sometimes comes when they pick up a bow. At times, their playing feels positively transcendent, and I’m grateful to have been part of that gift. However, the kids we raised during musically subpar parenting phases found their bliss in other ways, and today I see little to no correlation between our kids’ professional-personal fulfillment and whatever instrument everyone played.
I still remember the Christmas when my oldest, then in junior high jazz band, celebrated the silver trumpet his teacher had painstakingly picked out, within our budget, to replace the rental one. The ghost of my grandmother arose. One day in late-nineteenth-century Utah, a piano miraculously arrived at her house. She burst into shocked tears, unaware how her parents had sacrificed for this day. She ended up, years later, at the Chicago Musical College.
I hope that my children’s experience with music somehow hearkens back to Grandma, whose farming parents obsessed more over their crops than over their children. Providence and faith had to take care of extras, like instruments and lessons, because uberparenting wasn’t an option. When I was a child, I never endured the tedium of practice when a good book could be had, but I wish I could play decently today—wish I had let Grandma practice with me as she wanted to. I found my bliss in other ways, and Grandma providentially, maybe epigenetically, passed her gift on to others.
And providentially, maybe ironically, the esoteric oboe returned: Well after we had given up uberparenting, our second-to-youngest found the abandoned instrument in storage and wanted to play it. His music teacher provided mentorship, delayed gratification, and, every once in a while, transcendence in her small basement studio. Our work as parents lies less in planning which plant our kids should grow into, than in doing what we can to let their gifts—whatever they are—grow.
Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City.