Before becoming a parent, I always thought that knowing how to be fun around children was a pre-requisite to parenthood.
10 years on, I can confidently say that I am still not a fun parent, but am nonetheless a parent who is very much loved by my children.
I have learnt how to create fun activities and moments for them, and have fun with them. But I wouldn't say that I am a fun person to be around. I haven't asked my children what they think, but I am pretty sure they would come up with a diplomatic answer like "Quite. Mummy is not always fun but she can, if she wants to be."
They're right. Asking yourself "Can I be a fun practice parent?" is not the same as "Am I a fun practice parent?" Fun may not be in your nature, but by setting an intention and putting in the effort, you can be a fun parent. Every parent can. As the practice parent, the question is not even "Can you?". The statement is "You have to." Because that's the key to connecting with, engaging with and learning alongside your child.
This blog entry will touch on a few things:
You don't have to be a fun parent all the time.
Work is not a dirty word.
Every child's idea of fun is different.
(1) Kids don't just want a fun parent
Learning to play a musical instrument is an exciting but also a serious pursuit. There are focus points to channel attention and effort towards, concepts to understand, muscles to develop, skills to master and learning points that go beyond the music studio.
To get through all of the above, children need a parent who is firm with them. Above all, practising consistently and seeing steady progress is what will keep families in the studio and children at the instrument. Forming good practice habits and routines require firmness, which in return make our children feel secure and confident in their abilities.
Also, while we want our children to enjoy the process of learning, constantly coming up with ways to entertain them through it all would not be sustainable and would lead to pure exhaustion. A tired parent is definitely not a fun parent. The worst we could do is to be Super Fun Practice Parent for a week and without warning, crash into becoming Irritable Explosive Practice Parent for 2 weeks, before reverting to being Super Fun again. Displaying inconsistent behaviour at the instrument is a sure-fire way to create insecurity and anxiety in your child over music practice as he wouldn't know what to expect at each session.
(2) Don't shun the idea of work
I was very impressed when my children came home from pre-school announcing very matter-of-factly that "We worked with materials today." The language is positive in that it acknowledges that it is natural to work at something and that learning requires effort. Working with materials (i.e. learning aids such as counting rods, phonics cards, models of fruit / vegetables / animals) is their favourite part of their school day, especially when they are given the autonomy to choose the set of materials to work with. Even though this opportunity for "free play" is usually the highlight that they talk about excitedly as "the most fun part of the day", the children don't refer to it as playing with toys. Because work and fun are not mutually exclusive.
There are days where music practice for my children is not fun. Simply because they are working on memorising a new part, getting their notes and fingering accurate, or correcting persistent mistakes. They moan and groan, slump over the instrument in between repetitions, and sometimes even stamp their feet and cry from frustration at how hard it is. Despite all this, they don't ask to end the session if they know that they have not yet put in the work required to tackle these hard parts. Sometimes, they may ask to play a practice game - which I gladly oblige because it's a sign that they are thinking of how to make practice more effective and enjoyable for themselves.
For this reason, the practice tools that we have available (e.g. dice, puzzle erasers, digital apps, fuzzies, etc.) are not toys. They are tools and ideas that we can work with for making practice fun and to help us improve at our pieces. I make it clear that the practice tools belong to the practice parent, the stationery used to take down lesson notes belong to the practice parent, and that they are to seek permission for and return the items in their original condition should they wish to use any.
Setting house rules over seemingly-minute concerns may sound draconian. But it signals to the children that there are clear boundaries between practice time and play time. Practice time can be fun - but it is not play time. This is the conscious reason why the Positive Practice Toolkit that our Minim members receive is not instead termed the Fun Practice Pack, and that it is given to the practising parent - and not the student. Every item in the practice toolkit has to be in the location and in the condition for you to use at your will. Missing, broken or incomplete items that have been treated like toys will not be of much use in facilitating practice.
I like this quote from Plucky Violin Teacher: "Happiness is not the goal." Just because part of their musical experience is uncomfortable doesn't mean that you need to fix it for them.
Learning to play a musical instrument is challenging. It cannot be fun all the time. It is not possible for a student to be happy all the time. Just because they are not having fun every day doesn't mean that they are not cut out for learning, nor does it mean that you're doing anything wrong. In fact, it points to the very opposite - that they are growing and so are you.
(3) Not every child likes games
A big part of being in the Suzuki Early Childhood Education programme was to have a regular opportunity to observe our child learn and learn how he learns best. This deep and conscious observation of our child's learning preference continues throughout their instrument lessons. Suzuki teacher Christine E. Goodner has a useful approach to identifying how a child learns:
(a) Self-directed: Likes to feel in control of how practice goes. They respond better to being given the autonomy to choose amongst acceptable options versus being instructed by a parent on what to practice. Practice activities could include rolling dice for the corresponding sections to practice, a lucky dip from pre-selected piece titles, etc.
(b) Parent-directed: Likes step-by-step guidance on what and how to practice. They feel secure and in control of executing each individual practice task if they know exactly what is expected of them. Practice tip is for the parent to have a clear action plan (or read out from your lesson notes) and to introduce fun elements where you deem fit.
(c) Game-oriented: I have learnt that not all children appreciate having games in their lessons or practice sessions. These are children who are clear on what their practice task entails and view games as a waste of time and hindrance to completing their task efficiently. My middle daughter is like this: stoic to the bone and dismissive of any suggestions to inject a fun game during practice ("No thanks, mummy. I just want to practise." This is the same child who at 1.5 years old instructed me at bedtime to "Stop singing to me, mummy. I want to sleep.") Such children do have fun in their own, very different way. For example, while this daughter has no interest in Zoom buddy practice, when she does oblige and if there is a dress-up theme, she would spend the whole day cooking up and diligently crafting a fun outfit for the session.
My other two daughters are 200% game maniacs who get energised by games. For game-oriented children, you could consider either employing games for the practice task, or encouraging them to focus on doing the hard parts quickly and doing them well, so that they would have time to play music games as part of the practice session.
(d) Detail / Checklist-oriented: Likes having a practice chart with a list to follow and / or check-off. Fun for them could mean getting to design their own chart, and / or pasting stickers for each item or day of practice completed.
Understanding how your child perceives fun will guide you on how to create a rewarding practice experience for her with a good balance of firmness and enjoyment - and develop a positive attitude to practice.
You might have noticed that 'F' in the 100 Days of Practice Challenge F.A.M.E. qualities for parents does not stand for Fun. It doesn't mean that fun is not important. It simply means that being a fun practice parent or making every practice session a fun one is not the goal. Instead, practising Forbearance, Application, Mindset and Encouragement is what will help us most on this journey with our child. With that, we know that we can be the fun parent in the special way that the child in front of us needs us to be.
Fun or not? To each his own!