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'Motivation' Starts with the Parent

I listened to a talk recently on how differences in parenting is the deciding factor in a child's success outcomes. (Remember first that success is different for everybody.)


In other words, the choices that we make as parents determine how successful our child is now and later on in life. This statement sounds like a no-brainer, really. But the question to needle in on is...


... what drives a parent to make the choice that he or she decides upon? Each and every time?


The answer is in parent behaviour - why parents behave the way that we do in making decisions about our children. What happens to our children is largely the outcome of our parenting decisions. In turn, our parenting decisions are but the outcomes our parenting behaviour.


We all have aspirations for our children and ourselves as parents. We aspire that our children learn to play music because we have the knowledge that learning to play a musical instrument is beneficial for our child's growth and development. Hence, we sign our children up for music lessons. We aspire to make the time and financial resources to provide music lessons for our child - and we do. We aspire to be present and support our child in his music education journey and hence, we attend the preparatory programme for parents prior to starting our child on instrument lessons (known in Suzuki studios as 'Parents As Partners'.)


Until this point, we are able to match our parenting behaviour to carry out the choices that we make, which we see as necessary in realising our aspirations. It becomes harder to keep up this optimal parent behaviour when we suddenly find ourselves in the role of the practice parent who has to get our child into the habit of practising on his musical instrument consistently, if not every day. When we are not able to achieve at home what we set out to do, we start seeing the gap between our aspirations and our actual behaviour start to widen. The ideal picture of our child being successful in music starts to seem harder to attain. Why does my child not initiate practice? Why does he demonstrate his unhappiness instead of enthusiasm when it's time to practise? Why does she not play her best when I'm trying my best to guide her? We start to think that perhaps, our child is not interested or motivated to learn music - and the gap widens even further.


The key to getting into the habit of consistent, or daily, music practice is to take 'motivation' out of the picture. That is not to say that motivation doesn't play a part at all. We have motivation aplenty around us - but in order for it to work, it has to be of the right kind and at the right time. Calling upon the right motivation is a skill that our child has to learn - through the environment the parent creates. It does not come about naturally. We will touch on that in later articles.

I would say that the biggest key to success is to create a mindset and environment that 'motivates' the parent to make the optimal decision each and every time when it comes to making music happen at home. How do we make choosing the optimal parenting decision easy for ourselves each and every time? For example, I know that I should initiate and be present with my child for music practice today - and I desire to make it happen. What can I do to make myself choose to behave in the way that will actually make me do it?


The answer is in priming. We create a physical and social environment that we, as the parent, can follow through and make the decision that we aspire to make. Here are some ways:


1. We prime our rewards


Even though we take a long-term view to learning music, the journey is a lot more enjoyable when we feel rewarded for our day to day effort at working together on practising our instrument. Short-term or immediate rewards need not be a bad thing. In fact, they should be used consistently to bring about positive feelings about a good habit that we are working on building or on a challenging task at hand. For the child, it could be (and should be) as simple as a word of acknowledgment, recognition and encouragement - delivered immediately for putting effort into a task, no matter how easy it may seem. (Remember, it takes work to make something appear easy to do.) For the parent, simply feeling good that you initiated and sat with your child to practise today, instead of giving in to the temptation to put it off till tomorrow, is the reward in itself.


2. We prime our understanding


For young beginner students in particular (and even my eldest at 10 years old), our child may "act up" or "act out" when asked to practise her instrument. It's easy for the parent to attribute this 'negative attitude' and 'bad behaviour' to anything from pre-school temper tantrums to 'typical' pre-teen moodiness - and lash out. (Like "HEY! Your cello cost more than $1,000! Don't strike it like that!" Yes, I've said those exact words many a time... ) Priming ourselves to look beyond the behaviour that our child is projecting onto the situation (they're not necessary projecting it onto us) helps us to understand where they are coming from and to correctly attribute the source of the behaviour that they are displaying - and it will drive the decision that you make in the moment. You will find that a show of 'bad behaviour' is usually about the situation at hand, and is neither about your nor the instrument.


3. We prime automatic action


Much has been shared on priming our environment to encourage our desired behaviour and outcomes in this previous post. The converse also applies: If we find ourselves in a rut of making the same sub-optimal decision each time (e.g. habitually putting practice off till the next day because it's too late, you're too tired or your child is too cranky), we need to figure out what in our physical and social environment is automating these negative 'inevitable situations', and make an effort to effect a change that will help us break out of this sub-optional decision cycle.


4. We prime our identity


People hold different identities throughout the day. Sometimes, we feel like we're a few different people at once, each with their respective - and often diverging - roles, duties and goals. In the 20 minutes that you aspire to get music practice done, you can be the office worker with a work email on your mind, a homemaker planning the dinner preparation, a caregiver comforting a fussy infant, and a practice parent overseeing the practice session at hand. Needless to say, all these stressors will impact the decision that you make on how your child will practise today. This can be hard to do even for just 20 minutes a day - but if we can prime ourselves to think our identity and role as the practice parent when interacting with the child before us at the instrument, the decisions that we make with regard to music practice will likely better reflect the identity that we are feeling in that moment.


The talk I listened to cited research that showed the success of introducing parents to behavioural support tools that helped them make the right decisions, which in turn helped them advance towards their desired outcome. Progress was observed in as little a time as 6 weeks - the duration of the research trial. You will find many of these tools very familiar and already in place in the learning approach and curriculum with Nurture With Love, and in the Parents Can Coach programme:

  • Twice-yearly goal setting and review for all students, in partnership with their practice parent

  • Regular reminders (visual, written and in-person), progress-tracking and feedback for all students that they had set these goals, in the presence of their practice parent

  • Social rewards in the form of public acknowledgment and compliments to students and families who have shown progress in advancing towards and achieving their goals

The presence of these seemingly small elements (and admittedly tedious efforts - as with goal setting and tracking!) may seen inconsequential on their own. But when consistently applied to prime the parent to make the decision that he sets out to do each and every time, having a 'motivating' environment can lead to a series of optimal decisions and outcomes for the family.

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