BY TIFFANY MacCALLUM, TEACHER, JAMESTOWN
I t began with a simple statement, “Andrew, you need to practice your piano.” There were several requests, redirections, and finally the music began. Until he made a mistake and then it proceeded to involve screaming, kicking, flailing limbs, throwing papers, slamming doors, and shouting ‘You are so mean, you are not the boss of me’. There were parental responses involving ignoring, demanding, escorting to the bedroom, threatening, punishing, and yes, I even shouted. Finally, thirty minutes later, there was peace and quiet. Apologies, hugs, dried tears and all is well, until I said, “Andrew, you still need to practice your piano.” And then, we started all over again. Back to the screaming and all around chaos. At this point I am seriously questioning my parenting skills, where did I go so wrong?
This is my life right now and I’m not exactly enjoying the drama! It is not just piano and it is not just my 8 year old. This is the part of parenting that is simply exhausting. In any given day I might make 30-40 requests of my children: “Brush your teeth, flush the toilet, don’t yell at your brother, put your shoes in the closet, close the door, don’t wipe your hands on your clothes, get a Kleenex, do your homework, read your book, give that to your sister, clean up your toys, put your bike away, practice your piano, and turn off the TV.” Out of those 30-40 requests, how many are done with a smile and a cheerful attitude? Well, not so many. In fact, when I get an “Ok, mom,” I usually do a double take.
In the midst of our particular piano drama, Andrew has been trying to make a strong case for being the boss. After all, this is the mantra we teachers instill in our students from the moment they walk in those school doors, “You are the boss of your body”. Hmm, slight interpretative difference going on here. I tried to explain the subtle distinction between maintaining self-control and still having to answer to authority. No way, not buying it at all. Mom is wrong, school is right.
So this is after numerous attempts at approaching piano practice from every combination of ideas possible, from earning special items to losing privileges, even from practicing with him to having him practice alone. I would guess I’m on plan #23 and hoping #24 will work better than the last one.
After much thought and discussion with my husband and friends I’m on to implementing plan #24. Cross your fingers, drum roll please …
Collaboration, ownership, and choices were my three objectives.
Andrew and I sat down together and made a weekly practice chart, he chose a week instead of my suggested month. I wrote in the days of the week and he wanted to include the month and date on each one. I then wrote 20, 25, 30, 35, or 40 across the top of the paper to indicate the number of minutes he will ‘choose’ to practice. Next we wrote 3 times in each box: 7:00 am, 4:00 pm, or 6:30 pm. He will also get to choose when he will practice. We then made a list of all the rewards and privileges he could earn: going to a movie, overnight with a friend, new video games, gum or treats, hockey cards and gear and many others ideas. I did use my parental right to veto the new pet guinea pig. At the beginning of the week he can pick which reward he is working toward and then we decide together how many ‘points’ (minutes) he needs to get throughout the week. He also gets to pick one ‘skip’ day each week and piano lesson day automatically counts for 45 points (minutes). He is responsible for filling in the chart each day and then one big sticker from mom or dad seals the day’s practice as successful.
Ownership, collaboration and choices are three things that contribute to Andrew’s ability to be successful when he has a job before him. This is especially true with those horrible jobs we “mean” parents make him do.
Maybe it’s not just my kids! I had a friend this week whose daughter was also struggling with her desire to practice piano. Gracie is in 4th grade and was just ready for a break from piano. Her mom decided that she was allowed one pass from going to her lesson but she’d have to understand this was a one-time deal. They discussed her commitment to piano and practicing and decided together (collaboration!) that she would have to see it through until the summer. Gracie’s mom also decided to impress upon her daughter the importance of ownership and choices, so she had Gracie call her teacher and tell her why she wasn’t coming to her lesson. Gracie could make this choice, this one time. What did she tell her teacher? How did she explain her need to skip her lesson? Spring fever!
So we are on day 5 of the new plan, all has gone smoothly so far. Practice day 1 for 30 minutes without whining, complaining or any of the other behavior of the past. Day 2 he practiced easily for 35 minutes, and so on with day 3, 4, and 5. Just so happened that we have tickets to see Jack Hanna this Friday so the reward was already set up. We added on the bonus of getting to have his friend spend the night after the show. We’ve taped his chart right on the piano and he’s focused and determined.
Whew! That problem’s solved. Right? Ok, probably not. But I can rejoice in the fact that the last 5 days have been drama free, at least with one out of three of my children. Progress, not perfection.
Tiffany MacCallum is an educator for Jamestown Public Schools. She has been a teacher in the district since 1999, teaching 3rd and 4th grade as well as Academic Intervention classes for grades 1-4. While home on maternity leave this year, she has pursued the final requirements for her reading certification. She is presently subbing for an elementary Kindergarten-2nd grade reading teacher at C.V. Bush School to finish up her final practicum hours. She thinks keeping a group of kindergarteners on task for 20 minutes is a major accomplishment.