You might want to make sure the kids are occupied while you read this, because I’m about to tell you something that, if used judiciously, will give you the upper hand in getting them to practice. Seriously, take a sec and make sure they’re not reading over your shoulder (they read the blog, right?). Go ahead, I’ve got time.
Good. First of all, thanks for all the great feedback on my previous entry, both online and in person. A lot of you are enhancing the musical culture in your own households in creative ways and are having fun while doing so. Bravo.
However, a lot of you are finding that getting a regular practicing routine established is much easier said than done. A lot of questions that come my way essentially boil down to “Carrot or stick?”
In a perfect world, the carrot works better than the stick. My experience tells me a child is more likely to respond to rewards than punishments. In reality, though, incentives lose their luster and minds wander, and when that learning curve gets a little too steep, this is when they need a push more than ever.
I recommend having an ultimatum in your arsenal, an ace in the hole, a clear and tangible consequence potent enough to light a fire under their butts without seeming cruel or overbearing.
What you need is The Nuclear Option.
The Nuclear Option is a way to administer negative consequences to a practice-challenged child that doesn’t involve physical abuse, nagging, or even long term psychological damage. Even if your child is a habitual practicer (in which case, well done!) I would recommend you use it anyway just in case they hit the wall later.
Despite its chilling name, The Nuclear Option is really just a simple rule: if someone is unprepared for a lesson, they have to pay for it.
Elegant in it’s simplicity, huh?
I first learned about it when it was imposed on me and my siblings by my mom (who knows a thing or twenty about dealing with stubborn kids). She wisely left all the power of determining what “unprepared” meant in our teacher’s hands. (Fact: music teachers can smell unpreparedness in much the same way a doberman can smell fear. The two actually smell quite similar, come to think of it). If the report came back that you had apparently blown off practice, it was time to bust open that piggy bank.
Looking back at this from the other side of the line that separates grown-ups from kids, this was an absolutely brilliant move on my mom’s part for several reasons: The disincentive was menacing enough (even reasonably priced lessons like mine would cost what I hope is still a small fortune to a kid) that we had to keep working consistently to avoid it. Ultimately, it was excellent training for accomplishing goals in a fixed amount of time. It also sent a clear message about the sacrifice that our parents were making and it helped us to respect that fact. I don’t think we even complained about the rule or questioned its fairness. Finally, it was a continuous lesson in responsibility, both personal and financial.
And the icing on the cake was all that sweet cash she raked in. If I had to guess, from the time of its inception to the point of my graduation, The Nuclear Option netted her a grand total of…
Zilch. I honestly don’t remember ever having to pay for one of my lessons, nor do I remember it happening to either of my siblings. Not a single time. It was as if we thought some loan shark was going to collect our hard-earned allowance in front of the teacher’s house if we screwed up those scales too badly.
See, it’s called The Nuclear Option because, at least in my mom’s case, she never actually had to enforce it, and she still got to stop pestering us about practicing all the time, or at least get a break from it. She calls that a win, since she probably wasn’t doing it for the money anyway.
Of course, not everyone will get such ideal results. Some kids may be foolish enough to think you are bluffing, and this is the critical requirement for invoking The Nuclear Option: you must be ready and willing to come down on them immediately should they decide to call you on it. If you can stick to your guns, at the very least you’ll save a bundle on lessons, or if your kids don’t get an allowance or they’re flat broke at the time, you can get free car washes or bathroom cleanings until you decide the debt is paid off.
Remember, you didn’t hear it from me. Thank me later…
…Or thank me now (shameless plug time):
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