Parenting and Music

Published on 2024-01-22 by Patrick Martin

About a year ago, I realized that we had a problem. My daughter refused to try to read. She'd get incredibly frustrated and rage quit halfway through a page. It wasn't just reading either, anything that took effort wasn't worth doing.

After a number of chats, I pieced together a cause I wasn't expecting: she's surrounded by superhumans! In the time she might spend on a single tricky word, the adults that surround her can read a whole page. Adults can do math in their heads, are magically good at video games, and can ride bikes without training wheels. Imagine if every single thing you tried to do, the people around you could do instantly and orders of magnitude better. Every time someone helped her solve a problem, as innoculous as it may seem, her self esteem took a hit.

This stinks. How do you level the playing field between a bunch of adults and a five year old?

Well, with music of course!

It turns out that her favorite superhero is "Ghost Spider" from Spidey and his Amazing Friends. Ghost Spider was a drummer, and my daughter had been gifted a kid sized drum set a few years earlier. So she was overjoyed to learn that I'm signing her up for drum lessons!

The next problem is that although we didn't play instruments currently, we had in the past. As parents we weren't coming in from 0, and watching us basically become awesome in a fraction of the time would totally undermine my plan. How do we level set the adults?

Really weird instruments of course! My wife had always wanted to learn a banjolele and that was suitably different than the piano. As for me: have you ever heard of a hurdy gurdy?

So, how's it going?

My daugher calls my hurdy gurdy a swarm of bees. Where I've plateaued, she's clearly getting better at drums! This doesn't solve the problem though: she needs to see that it's possible to succeed. So I eventually picked up a pennywhistle which led to the irish flute (for which I now take lessons at the same time as her drum lessons). She's watched me go from horrid squeaking sounds to playing some of her favorite songs.

It also turns out that I'm really bad a drums. A year in, and she's already blowing me away. I don't have to try to be bad to boost her self esteem, she has a learned skill of her own.

So now, when she can't finish a sentence in a book or game, we start talking about music. About what my hurdy gurdy sounds like, about how my pennywhistle doesn't squeak anymore, and the fact that I can't bounce drumsticks for a drumroll. We haven't magically solved self esteem -- and a career's worth of imposter syndrom leads me to think that that's impossible -- but now we have tools to talk about and frame the problem. Besides, when all else fails, we can play a bit of music together.

Should you do the same?

In my first flute lesson (no one in Colorado teaches the hurdy gurdy), my instructor said: "don't be offended, but I'm going to have to teach you like an elementary school student for this." Music might not be what you choose to learn with your kid, but choose something where you'll have to learn like an elementary school student. Maybe programming, art, martial arts. The point is to do something genuinely hard and really grow in parallel with your child.

For us, music was the perfect choice. I've revived my love of music and have gotten good enough at the mountain dulcimer that folks will actually come over and listen when I play. My wife has her banjolele and we can generally sing songs with some backing as a family. And my daughter is one step closer to being her favorite superhero, in addition to getting a noticeable self confidence boost.