When our son was in first grade, he wanted to take guitar lessons. We asked around and found a professional musician-teacher who was highly recommended by his school and by other parents. We bought a beginner’s guitar for a child’s small hands. We found a time that worked for the teacher and for us.
We are good parents for nurturing our kid’s musical interest.
The teacher seemed knowledgeable, organized and professional. With high hopes and a declining bank balance, we wrote a check for the first semester’s 15 lessons. Our son was a complete beginner and would need lots of instruction.
This is a good plan. We are good parents for sacrificing this time and money, and for trusting the process.
The first lesson was only a little challenging. We arrived late and the teacher reminded us in front of our son that the time would not be made up at the end of the lesson. The teacher encouraged us to bring any concerns to him. He wanted us to be prompt, he told us, because he wanted to have all of the time he scheduled to build skills that were the foundation of a lifetime of playing.
We are responsible parents and this won’t happen again (we hope).
After the second lesson, the teacher asked how often and how long “we” were practicing. The truth was that “we” were not practicing at all, and it was our (mistaken) belief that the noise we had heard from his room was part of our son’s expected practice. The teacher asked us to treat this like training or a homework responsibility, make a schedule, and enforce it.
We’ll try, but we aren’t sure how to motivate him to practice.
By the third week, our 7-year-old son had decided that guitar was not for him and while he went to his room at the scheduled time, he refused to practice what the teacher assigned.
Your teacher is expecting you. We agreed that if you got a guitar, you would practice.
On the next lesson day, the guitar was nowhere to be found. We decided that our son would have to tell the teacher that he could not find it. The natural consequence of a little embarrassment would help, right? We took him to the lesson, imagining that the guitar teacher must have seen other kids who had lost instruments.
But the teacher chided, “People do not just lose guitars.”
“I did,” was our son’s assured reply, followed by a crescendo of crying. At least there was music.
It is not supposed to be this hard.
Back at home, we reminded our son that he needed to be responsible for his instrument and to his teacher. Remember, we said, that you wanted to get a guitar and take lessons. You agreed to practice every day and take care of your instrument. No, he told us. I said that I wanted to play guitar. You said that I would need to take lessons and practice to do that.
I do not want lessons or practice. I just want to play the guitar.
Our 7-year old was not using the same planning skills that we were. As his parents, we were excited that he wanted to play an instrument and were imagining him happy as he learned new skills to reach his dream of playing. We believed he would need lessons and assumed that he would want explicit instruction.
In psychology this is called Mental Contrasting. The version of it that I have adapted for use with my clients uses the acronym WOOPH 🐶
Here is what the child’s version of it could sound like:
WISH: I wish I could play the guitar.
OUTCOME (of the wish): I would have a band. We could be in videos.
OBSTACLES (to achieving wish): I do not have a guitar. I can’t play yet.
PLAN (for making wish come true): I will get a guitar and start playing.
HELP (allies who will support me): I will do it myself.
Here is a parent’s version:
W: I wish our son wanted to learn to play an instrument.
O: He would find joy in playing. It would be better than video games.
O: He will need an instrument, lessons and practice.
P: I will hire a teacher with great reviews and get a small guitar.
H: The teacher will have lots of experience and guide the process.
At the beginning of the story, the wish is for playing the guitar. At this point the parents need to slow the process down. But their own excitement leads them to solving their child’s problem and implementing plans before their child understands the obstacles to making the wish come true.
The WOOPH 🐶 process (Mental Contrasting) shows the gaps between our future wishes and our present reality.
The child is factual: I do not have a guitar. I can’t play yet.
The parents are projecting, well-meaning but using “never” thinking: He will need an instrument, lessons and practice (or never be able to play well).
People work toward a goal when their wish is meaningful, compelling and makes sense–to them. One of the fastest ways to demotivate a child is to project their wish into required behaviors before they are ready, and when you are unknowingly attempting to motivate them by “never” thinking. The more abstract the goal, the harder it is to engage and reach success. The higher the stakes of not achieving a goal, the harder it is to stay motivated.
How do I know that this works?
Our son went on to play five instruments (including guitar and drums!) and became an audio engineer, tuning performance spaces for optimal sound experiences. He played in a variety of bands for fun and for school while still in grade school. In high school he took fourteen music electives and earned A’s in every one. He swept the senior music and technical theater awards. He was a music major in college and worked in live theatre.
As an adult he became the sound and video manager in a top off-Broadway theater, supervising employees and contractors two to three times his age, and did sound design for shows, working with writers and directors. This happened when he was in his 20’s.
Mental Contrasting helps to keep you in the game until you either reach your goal or choose a different path. (You can try an app and learn about the research-based version for adults here.) That first music teacher was motivated by “never” thinking. It encourages anxious thoughts about what might “never” be if action is not begun right away. It seemed like a good fit for us as parents, but the music lessons were for a child who merely had a wish to be able to play the guitar.
Be your child’s ally.
- Explore the child’s wish to understand what they really want without judgment.
- Go slowly. Don’t feel compelled to make it real for them too quickly.
- Expect lots of ups and downs. Even the grittiest performers and athletes have times when they want to quit.
- Choose other allies for your child who support the wish and who do not unintentionally motivate with fear.
- Money changes everything. Never blame the child for wasting it. When you offer lessons, it is an investment and you might seem to lose some of it, at least for a while.