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My child wants to quit piano lessons. Do I let her?

(Illustration by María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post; iStock)
5 min

Q: My 10-year-old started music lessons as a toddler and has been playing the piano for the past few years. She has (or, rather, was taught to have) a good ear for music. We expect 20 minutes of practice, six days per week, with one 30-minute lesson.

Every practice is a struggle; she will go out of her way to avoid doing it. We’ve seen tears, screams, sudden emergencies and a magical engrossment in something she believes I find more important than practice. (She’s smart, so think picking up a college chemistry book.)

Although I would be fine with her quitting piano, I feel as if it’s important to be developing/exploring skills outside of school. She’s welcome to switch instruments or move to another hobby, but she has to prove she will stick with it before quitting piano (only for a month or so).

She has no homework (her school is project-based), and I’m trying to avoid the hours of screen time every day after school. I don’t know what to do. Am I being too hard on her? A few chores per week and a short daily piano practice don’t seem like the end of the world, but maybe I’m not seeing the whole picture?

A: I can virtually guarantee that almost every parent who is reading this is nodding along. Playing piano, participating in soccer, drawing, swimming, you name it: Many children reach a point where what they started doing as toddlers no longer brings them joy. Serious avoidance, negotiations and tantrums ensue, creating total misery in the house and between the parent and child. Not to mention the waste of money and time.

I’m going to sidestep discussing what you expect right now and whether it’s reasonable (20 minutes a day, six days a week), because we have some bigger fish to fry. Let’s take a look at the developmental norms of a 10-year-old girl. (I make this assumption based on your pronoun use.) A typical 10-year-old girl may be still pretty young (physically), or she may be getting ready to have her period and starting those hormones.

Although girls tend to reach puberty more quickly than boys, every girl is different, and this development brings a heightened awareness of her peers, privacy and autonomy. Your daughter is meant to have her own thoughts, opinions and wishes. We don’t stop providing boundaries and rules for 10-year-olds, but we do recognize that it is their developmental work to find their own voice. To force, push and expect that our children won’t change or will want to do what they’ve always done is not reasonable, nor is it the goal of parenting.

What are you to do? It is clear that your daughter is fairly miserable, and she is letting you know that piano is no longer her passion. I know many children who are reluctant to begin lessons, but once they start, they enjoy their time. This appears to not be the case with your daughter.

But before you quit piano altogether, I am wondering whether your daughter can choose a new practice schedule that works with her goals and her life. Have a meeting and truly listen to her needs, and see whether there is a compromise that can make both of you happy. If your daughter has become too miserable, suggest a “break” from the instrument, and choose a month to revisit how she feels about it. Maybe some time off will let some pressure off, and your daughter may return to it.

I understand the predicament of the hours after school being filled with screens and boredom. We could argue why our culture is so different from “when we were kids,” but we largely don’t live in a time when you just send the kids outside for three hours. Some neighborhoods still have children running around, heading to parks and playing, but most neighborhoods are fairly quiet. You want your daughter to choose another activity so she doesn’t waste away, but she is at the age where she must have a say in some of the decisions here. Absolutely stick to your values around screens, but come to a compromise around what other activities can be considered, how often and for how long. Childhood is a time to try new things (what a privilege, really) and to discover what you like and what you don’t. Childhood is not a time to perfect or narrowly adhere to one hobby unless the child chooses to do so.

In that spirit, I would say: “Well, we are giving piano a well-deserved break. Let’s write down all the fun, scary, cool things we can try, and see what’s possible.” Make a list (and make it wild and fun), then whittle it down to what is affordable and has real potential. As much as possible, let go of too many expectations of what will get accomplished or not, and try to enjoy this time with your daughter. Trying new things, seeing what happens and enjoying watching her learn will strengthen your relationship with her as she enters her tumultuous tween years, and that is worth far more than talent or busyness in a hobby. Good luck.