Post No.: 0098
Rhythm is innate for most infants. So, as kids, learning to play a musical instrument can be a great joy in and of itself and if they love it then that’s perfect. But if they don’t want to put in the time and effort to do it then (like for any activity) trying to push them can be a source of unnecessary conflict and misery for both parties. It’s also about the opportunity costs – as long as they’re doing something constructive or desirable (e.g. sports, drama, art, singing (note that the singing voice is a musical instrument too, albeit one that doesn’t involve any hand/digital coordination, but it does require good diaphragm and vocal chord coordination and still requires musical intelligence), reading or anything else your child prefers and chooses) then there’s nothing more they can do to lead as full, potent and happy a fluffy childhood as possible.
Now more-or-less anything anyone ever does, learns or experiences will physically change their brain – every single encoded and stored memory of any event or thought, or the effects of psychotropic drug use, for instance, is or will be manifested as a physical change to the brain. So the real question is how useful are those changes in the real world? ‘Near transfer’ relates to skills being so specific that learning one skill will make you good at only virtually identical tasks and nothing else, whereas ‘far transfer’ relates to skills being able to produce spill-over benefits onto other unrelated tasks. So of course learning music will make one better at music-related skills such as identifying different notes (and likewise art will improve art-related skills such as visual skills, for instance), but regarding any wider benefits, the evidence is currently mixed – brain scans can identify physical brain changes to music learners, but these are proxy measures to inferred improved e.g. spatial skills or coordination of movements to sounds in real-world tests.
In practical tests, musical training may lead to a slight increase in IQ or has no effect at all. You and your child must therefore decide whether these small (potential) gains are worth the money for lessons and the time taken away from doing other possible things – if you really want your child to be better at e.g. language, maths, spatial and cognitive skills, then it’ll be more productive to learn these skills more directly via activities that explicitly support developing those skills, rather than practising e.g. music, chess or learning an extra language. All these are great activities in their own right, but ‘specificity’ means that if you want to improve a particular skill then there’s logically no better way to do that than by training that skill directly rather than indirectly (just like if you want to be a great swimmer then swim, don’t (just) run).
Therefore don’t make your child do activities with the expectation or goal that it’s purely to make your child generally smarter – let your child do them if he/she finds intrinsic joy in doing them. It’s like as long as you are being sufficiently physically active, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re playing hockey, cycling, playing hopscotch or whatever – you will get fitter in one way or another as long as you are doing it for long and/or hard enough i.e. if you are dedicated to doing it, which is to a large extent dependent on how much you enjoy the activity.
If one is going for short intensive bouts then one will build power, if one is going for distance then one will be building stamina instead, or if one is going for flexibility then one will maintain or gain flexibility, and so forth – none of these goals are alone objectively better than any other, and all are good and useful in the real-world (a mix isn’t bad either even if one won’t be the best one could possibly be regarding each individual goal e.g. one cannot be the most powerful one could ever be and have the greatest stamina one could ever have at the same time (so don’t expect top strength athletes to be top marathon runners, or vice-versa!) but a moderate mix of both power and stamina is very useful in the real-world too).
There are ways to increase the chances of your child finding intrinsic joy in doing something though, such as allowing them some room for autonomy, not piling pressure on them to do something, not overusing extrinsic rewards (e.g. saying they’ll only get treat A if they do task B), and supporting their progress by making sure they’re continually in that area between finding the activity challenging enough without being frustrating i.e. neither too easy for them nor beyond their current abilities. You want to help your child discover the things he/she’ll enjoy! If we enjoy doing something then we obviously don’t need to be constantly told to do it by anyone else. But sometimes parents sabotage the potential for a child to enjoy something because they e.g. put too much pressure on them to achieve or win something – often really for the sake of the parent’s ego. We should play to our own child’s strengths rather than compete against other parents and what their children are doing too.
So as long as a child is being mentally and physically stimulated enough, with the right level of challenge (children doing age or level-appropriate activities is to try to keep them at the optimum level of stimulation without either confusion/frustration or boredom – learning happens best at the optimum level of challenge so it’s counter-productive trying to make a child do something that’s far too advanced/difficult for them) and consistency of practice, then whatever they’re doing they’ll become more skilled at doing something that’s likely to be useful in the real-world. If one is learning a musical instrument then one will develop musical skills, if one is building with toy bricks then one will develop building skills, if one is chatting a lot then one will develop social skills, and so forth – in most cases, no skill is objectively better than another, and all are likely good and useful in the real-world (and again a mix of skills isn’t bad either and is actually recommended).
Your child is going to develop as long as he/she is doing something stimulating enough, and it doesn’t have to be a certain activity if they don’t enjoy that. And the overall advice is not to make your child specialise too early (e.g. don’t make or let them practice their musical instrument all the time that they miss out on other activities such as regular social interaction and physical play with other children) – variety is best when young, regarding all types of mental, physical and social activities (although some activities like weightlifting, powerlifting or bodybuilding-type exercises are not recommended until after ~18 or the end of the physical changes of puberty, and some activities like gymnastics may require relatively early specialisation). Specialising or being too focused on one skill at the expense of others too early in life is a huge risk because we don’t know what the future holds or what a child will really want to do when older.
Remember that whenever we do something, we give up time that could’ve been used doing something else (opportunity costs) – and we all have the same finite amount of time per day to spend as each other and so no one can be the best at everything. So as long as your child’s days are generally full of stimulation (i.e. minimising either confusion/frustration or boredom) then, whatever they do, no one can sensibly ask for anything more and one shouldn’t stress as a parent. Occasional days of frustration and boredom aren’t bad though, as these experiences teach them something too (e.g. frustration can be overcome by learning strategies like breaking a task down into more manageable chunks or accepting the things we cannot change, and boredom might spur imagination and creativity to alleviate that boredom); so maybe variety includes such days or moments too – not that most families will need to intentionally plan such days in their diaries because times of frustration and boredom will naturally come in life!
There are tons of different educational activities children could do, even if some of them aren’t considered worthy to write on their future CVs/résumés. One shouldn’t be so narrow-minded (playing is learning too). There are different ways to learn particular core skills. Anything that has scope for mastery and they’re interested in it so that they’ll put in the intrinsic effort to work on it is perfect because a more optimal learning efficiency is likely to be achieved if they enjoy an activity without the need for external motivators to make them want or have to do it. Rather than them struggling with an activity or style of learning they don’t enjoy, it’ll be more productive for them to do an activity or style of learning they do or will enjoy.
The bottom line is not enforcing oversimplistic and rigid advice or fears (commonly found amidst many social media and pop psychology sources), such as ‘your child must learn a musical instrument or read the classic novels even if he/she doesn’t enjoy it otherwise he/she’ll be left behind’, but to look at the broad frame/bigger picture of their overall mental, physical and social development. And go for variety and balance if possible, and only specialise later. You might also find that they’ll want to learn a musical instrument or whatever when they’re a bit older too, when they’re personally ready and intrinsically motivated to. There’s also no need to overfill their diaries with prescribed events – let them just be now and again, and let them explore with imaginative play to improve their creative potential. Woof!
Arguably, rather than raise a child to be a top sportsperson or popstar, for instance – the core duty of parents and society is to ensure that all children have as wide a range of options/opportunities as possible, and then they can individually decide for themselves their own path (including e.g. their own religious identity).
Okay that’s the ideal world – in the real world, limitations/restrictions are placed on children all the time based on the not-unlimited time, capacity, knowledge, imagination and resources of individual parents, and the unconscious, if not conscious, biases of parents when raising their own children (e.g. it’s harder to encourage or support a child with their full religiosity options if a parent isn’t that enthused about religion him/herself, or whatever languages one may try to get one’s child to learn, one will only ever realistically present a tiny subset of all the existing languages out there for them to choose from). No child or therefore person ever has strictly full freedom or opportunities – choices made by, or unavoidable circumstances of, the parents/guardians and the current state of society will force and restrict a child’s life right from conception and in path-dependence beyond. But we should do the best we can and hope we get lucky because it’s hard to predict what the world will be like in around 18 years time and what skills or values will be valued in that time (read Post No.: 0027 too). So why not most of all prioritise a happy childhood? And that involves, in part, helping your children discover what they personally enjoy rather than forcing them to do what you specifically want them to do too much.
Woof. Virtually every parent wants what’s best for his/her own children but some can be too strict or too lax, or even abusive or neglectful. Different cultures around the world generally have different approaches to what they believe is the right way. If you want to share with us your parenting culture or your parents’ parenting culture and what you think or thought about it then please do so via the Twitter comment button below.