Pushing, pulling, or supporting? The work of the Suzuki parent

Pushing, pulling, or helicoptering

There’s a cultural anxiety about child development and parenting that is almost palpable. Browsing through the aisles of the book store, you begin to appreciate how insecure we all are about how best to raise children. Books like Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun, Julie Lythcott-Haims’ How to Raise an Adult, and others I’ve read recently look at modern families through the lens of a shared anxiety about our kids’ futures.

A growing number of professionals - teachers, child psychologists, and even college deans - are calling for cease-fire in the over-parenting arms race. By doing too much for kids, we risk sending them out into the world poorly equipped to make decisions for themselves. By constantly shielding them from failure, they become fearful and confused when facing all of the uncertainties that adults have to deal with.

There’s little to disagree with in all of this. Over-parenting is clearly harmful. But isn’t the role of the Suzuki parent just a little bit of over-parenting? After all, I was a traditionally-trained music student beginning in the early 70’s when the Suzuki method wasn’t well known; and I did OK. My mother dutifully dropped me off at the teacher’s studio or waited in his waiting area. Each week I came home with a notebook of assignments. I either practiced or I didn’t. If I didn’t, I had to deal with the uncomfortable anxiety of not being able to play what I was assigned. But by sitting our kids down to practice aren’t we just another example of overbearing parents? Should we not just let our kids decide whether to practice or not?

We aren’t born innately responsible

Music may be a universal human impulse; but practicing is not. Children don’t intuitively know what they must do to live a good life. They have to be shown through sheer repetition and clear articulation of our expectations how to be persistent.

Passion isn’t “out there” waiting to be discovered. Children need help to develop it.

We are in love with the idea that each of us has some passion that is somehow encoded in our genes and is just waiting to be uncovered. But nothing could be further from the truth. Psychologists distinguish between states and traits. A state is something that’s changeable - something malleable. But a trait is something that is fixed and unchangeable. Using this terminology, passion is state not a trait. It’s something that develops through persistence and feedback. You don’t discover passion. You develop it. Our role is to setup the necessary conditions for it. Creating this environment isn’t pushing or helicoptering any more than arranging the set of a play is taking control of the script.

Character before achievement

Suzuki was honest about his goals for children. The process of learning music was never about just the music. Certainly, he was proud of his students who went on to achieve high honors in music; but his eye was always on the character of the child. How did the process of learning music in this way bring out the “side-effect” of responsible, kind-hearted, sensitive people? Taking Suzuki’s lead, I think that parents can differentiate themselves from the pushy, tiger-mom, achievement-oriented crowd. When our goals are both on character development and on musical achievement, it’s less likely that we’ll get caught up in an overbearing parenting style that robs kids of their independence.

Preparing for self-direction

There is nothing about the Suzuki method that says parents must forever walk our children into the studio hand-in-hand. So long as we keep our eye on the long-term goal of self-directed learners and begin early-on to give children the opportunity to have some choice in practice, I don’t think that parents need to worry about their role.

There’s no shortage of worry about the role of parents in contemporary society and the ways that they may be handicapping their children by failing over-scripting and over-managing their lives. But I think that thoughtful, skilled Suzuki parents can worry less. Our role is more about setting the stage, gently enforcing habits, and allowing kids to flourish.