Teach the Child You See

"That window is crap!" I blurted out.

Not my most elegantly phrased response.

She looked scared to believe me but relieved. 

The mother of an adorable daughter, age 5, had just confessed her concern about missing "the window" of opportunity for music study. I'd just suggested that her daughter, Sarah, wait another year before starting lessons with me. Sarah is just starting kindergarten. I think she'll do much better if she waits a little bit longer. She has some physical challenges and spends time working on strength and coordination with her Occupational Therapist. She's obviously bright and I'm certain she'll do well when she does start. In my professional opinion now is simply not the best time for her.

Long before there were studies about when children "should" start music lessons, there were still people who could make you feel bad about your parenting. People seem poised and ready to pounce on nervous parents.

When I was six months pregnant with my son Bryce, an older woman asked me, "Are you reading to him?"

"Uh, no," I answered, not even sure what she meant. I thought I was doing pretty well since he was hearing fabulous music in utero on a daily basis.

"Oh, they can hear for months before they're born and you need to begin reading WAY before they're born."

It wasn't enough for her that I was playing him beautiful music. (I'd just recorded an entire album of Debussy when I was six months pregnant with Bryce. I remember it vividly. He fell asleep when I was playing Jimbo's Lullaby and started kicking frantically when I started Golliwogg's Cakewalk. It was very distracting!)

She thought I needed to be reading aloud to him. It was my first run-in with guilt before birth.

I used to hear it done in a folksy way. 

"Martha Argerich started playing the piano when she was three-years-old and gave her first recital when she was only eight!"

Now there are books that tell you it takes a minimum 10,000 hours to excel at anything. Parents, a notoriously anxious bunch, rush to get their children started on those hours.

If one combines that with the today's theories that there are "windows" of opportunity for everything from speech acquisition to the perfect tennis serve one has the perfect recipe for the 21st century breed of parent anxiety. Publishers exploit this anxiety with books ranging from the dangers of vaccination (False) to the importance of free play (True.) It's not that there isn't truth in some of these theories, it's that more often than not they distract parents and teachers from what matters. In their efforts to do the "right thing" or the "best thing" for their child, parents inadvertently forget to look at the most important part of that equation. Their child.

What's a parent to do in the face of all this (mis)information that fuels our anxious minds?

As parents, when we ask ourselves if it's the "right" time to do something, we're asking the wrong question. There isn't such a thing as a "right" time to do something. There are only different children and their individual needs. From my own experience, for example, my son couldn't tie his shoes until he was eleven years old. My daughter could tie a bow behind her back at the age of four. Is it realistic to think that the criteria I would use for one of these children would fit the other? Buying into the idea of "right" puts us in the position of measuring our children by an imaginary standard that can only fog up the window through which we see our own child.

And that's not even mentioning the silliness of glamorizing early specialization. Childhood is a time for experimentation and dabbling. It's a time for taking the time to be a kid. Kids shouldn't be trying to be experts. Being an expert in one area means that the other areas aren't getting enough attention. Practicing for hours a day when you're eight-years-old means you're not spending enough time at the playground. 

Parent the child you have. Teach the child you see. Stop worrying about windows other people say exist. The only window you need to look through is the one that looks clearly out onto the child you love.

Keep it clean, ask for help when it gets foggy, and trust your own instincts.

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