"9-Year-Old Doesn't Want My Help Anymore"
:My nine-year old daughter has been taking piano lessons for three years. She and I have shared an interest in the piano ever since she was big enough to sit on my lap and hammer on the keys. For the past few years, I've sat with her when she is practicing and have offered help when she gets stuck. Lately, when she gets frustrated and I try to offer suggestions, she yells at me, "Don't talk to me!" or "Don't you think I know that?" This is very difficult for me. She is obviously struggling and needing help, but she won't accept it.
One of the hardest things as a parent is to watch your child struggle and not be able to help. It may even be harder for the parent than it is for the child. Being able to help, teach, guide and support our children is at the core of being a parent. When, for whatever reason, we are unable to fulfill that role, we are likely to feel frustrated and inadequate.
As children grow, change, and become more independent, the kind of support and guidance they need changes too. A good guide for parents is to "offer as much help as needed so that they can do it by themselves." But, figuring out how much help and in what form to give it is not always clear or easy.
There are several possible explanations for your daughter's behavior and a number of things to consider as you formulate a response to it. Nine-year olds are making an important shift. They are beginning to see themselves as members of the world's family and not just members of their immediate family. This discovery produces new feelings of independence. Your nine-year-old may be considering for the first time, that when she grows up, she will no longer live with her parents. With these exciting feelings of independence also come fears. Will I be able to make it without my family? Whoa, that means I will need to buy the groceries as well as make my own breakfast! What a big job independence is. I better start practicing now and refuse any help!
Children are also still working on defining themselves as separate and unique individuals. In order to do this, they may defy or resist both parental help and ideas.
Another contributing factor is your daughter's ability to see herself as a learner. At nine, she is keenly aware of her "progress" and can mentally compare her learning to that of other's around her. Invariably, there will be times when children perceive that they are not learning or performing as well or fast as others. This can lead to periodic feelings of discouragement, hopelessness, and self-criticism. When children are in these phases, any outside criticism, negative feedback, or even positive suggestions can add to their own self-criticism and lead them to feel overwhelmed.
Another part of your daughter's awareness of herself as a learner is that she is beginning to set goals for herself. This is another indication of her maturity. Very young children don't have an idea that there are "skills" they can learn. They are focused on the project or interest of the moment. Now that your daughter is aware of various levels of musical skill development she is setting goals for herself and comparing her progress and mistakes to her goals. While setting goals is an important part of the learning process, children don't yet have the experience with mistakes or the resilience to deal with them gracefully. For them, it can seem like it will take forever to achieve their goals, and that frustration lurks around every corner.
Here are some things to think about as work to support your daughter through her struggles:
. Help your daughter develop a healthy relationship to making mistakes. Your daughter (as well as many adults) doesn't know that mistakes are a necessary part of learning something new. Without taking risks and making mistakes, people can't figure out new ways to do things or learn skills. You can tell you daughter about mistakes you made on the way to learning the things you now seem to know so effortlessly. You can also tell her stories from her life about times mistakes have been useful in her learning. Mastering walking is a good example. You have to lose your balance and fall down in order to understand how to stay upright.
It can be useful for young people to read or hear about how talented people have used mistakes in their life. You could have her Aunt Suzi talk to her about the mistakes she made learning to surf. Or you could have a musician friend talk about the mistakes he makes both then and now, and how he deals with them.
. Help your daughter understand struggle. Many of us also don't understand the relationship between struggle and learning. The energy, persistence and even frustration present in struggle are important forces in helping us to learn new things. You and your daughter have probably had lots of opportunities to practice struggle throughout her life. Parents can help their children develop a positive view of struggle through encouragement, information and modeling.
You can provide encouragement and information by staying close when your children are struggling. You can use your tone of voice to convey that you aren't worried or scared to see them struggle. "I see you trying to figure out how to climb that rock. It's steep. It's a challenge, but I bet you'll figure it out, if not on this trip, on the next one."
. Talk to your daughter about techniques to deal with her frustration. It sounds like your daughter is really trying to figure out how to deal with her own learning and her own frustration. Even though she may not want your help at the moment she is actually feeling frustrated, you can support her by helping her develop strategies she can use on her own. Try doing this when she isn't in the middle of having a hard time. Later, when she isn't feeling frustrated, sit down together and come of up with a variety of things she can do when she's feeling challenged at the piano (or anything else).
From experience, the two of you will probably come up with a pretty good list. It could include things such as: take a quick lap around the block, play with the dog for a few minutes, wash my face, write or draw in my journal, call my piano teacher for guidance, growl or hit a cushion, play something easy on the piano, or call a friend to talk about it.
. Respond to your daughter in the moment. When you daughter yells at you that she doesn't want your help, you can listen to her, provide her with feedback and offer her support she can call on when she wants it. "It sounds like you really want to figure this out on your own. You can tell me in a gentle way that you don't want any help. If you change your mind about help, I'll be right in the other room." Or, "You can let me know if there is a particular kind of help I could give you with this."
It is helpful is you can stay somewhat close. As much as our children push us away and need their own space and independence, they simultaneously need our help and support. A part of children's growing independence is being able to ask for the help they need, rather than us automatically giving it to them. If your daughter is the one to ask, she is still in charge of her own learning process.
. Listen to her feelings. Sometimes the best support we can give is just to be responsive to our children's inevitable feelings of frustration. If we can just listen empathetically without needing to give advice or "make everything better," our children will feel our support and confidence in them.