Art of parenting: when to step back and when to step in

I took this photo when I was sitting in the audience for a weekly recital. We were waiting for the piano accompanist. I was so nervous. I wanted to walk up to my son and fuss over him. Remind him to use vibrato. Make sure his A string was in tune.

But he needed none of that from me. So I took the picture. I took the picture of the moment when I realized that my son was up there, alone, and I couldn't help him. I had to just wait, and watch and see what he did.

Did I tell you Zehavi plays piano? He does. He doesn't like it nearly as much as cello, and this is a picture of me screaming at him to shut up and play the damn song so we can finish practice. I think that might be a trademark technique in the age of iPhone parenting: take a photo so you can separate yourself from the situation and you are less likely to yell.

Anyway, these photos together make me think about how the key to being an effective parent is knowing when to step in and take control and when to say that it's clear that my kid is better off if I step back.

When parents decide to put their kids in school, they are deciding to step back: school will decide what's best for your kid on a daily basis. For a while it was unclear if Philadelphia schools would open because the school district has no money. So parents were trying to figure out what to do, and many announced  they would homeschool if the schools don't open.

It turns out that the school district borrowed money to open on time, but what blows me away here is that parents are putting up with huge amounts of uncertainty in their lives from the school. When school is not even a sure thing – when you can't schedule your family life around knowing school will be there in the fall – then it looks to me like it's time to step in and take control. You can say, "My family needs more stability than this school system can give me."

It happens in other ways with school. The school controls your kid's destiny for the year by which kids go into the classroom with your kid. Does your kid sit next to the trouble-maker to calm him down? (It's always a him.) Does your kid sit next to the slow reader to give him tips? (Statistically a him as well.) You can't control any of this, but it affects your kid every hour of every day they are in school.

Read this letter from a teacher published in Instapundit. Notice how the teacher argues that kids perform poorly in school because they think of school as something that's done to them rather than something they do themselves.

Most parents have the same attitude.

If you think I like making my son practice piano, you're wrong – I hate it. But he wants to compose music, and composers need basic piano skills. So I'm taking responsibility for helping him meet his dreams. I'm stepping in. It would be so much easier to just sit and watch, waiting for the schools to open.

Posted in Parents
11 comments on “Art of parenting: when to step back and when to step in
  1. Taylor @ Wise Family Living says:

    You are so right, Penelope. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Joselle says:

    I live in Philly and the schools are a mess. But, a reason why many parents can't homeschool is that Philadelphia is a very poor city.

  3. Suze says:

    "Does your kid sit next to the trouble-maker to calm him down?"

    This was always my job. I hated it with a passion.

  4. mh says:

    Sometimes, our entire homeschool is piano. Just… piano.

    My little one is unstoppable. Sometimes I have to set a timer on him, just so other people can have a phone conversation or a chance to play the instrument. We also have an electronic keyboard (with headphones) — little man is always there.

    And then he gets up there for recitals, all alone and so LITTLE. I know how you feel, Penelope. I can't do anything for him. Except smile. And maybe a thumbs-up.

    Music training is possibly the best training, because all the practice pays off so quickly.

  5. Michael says:

    When my kids were taking violin I realized my desire to interfere was based on wanting to learn to play for myself. So I did, and in so doing from a first person perspective realized how harmful interfering would be.

    I also came to understand better the emotions, both positive and negative that arise during practice and why many people often "don't feel like" practicing.

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      That happened to me too! I decided my son was so terrible at violin that I was going to learn to play so that I could teach him better.

      Then I saw how difficult the instrument is. I learned so slowly and I was so bad. I saw how arrogant and insane I was every time I got frustrated with him. And I saw how rude I was when I interrupted a song to correct him.

      Honestly, the whole experience made me think he is heroic for learning to play violin in spite of all my interference. And I realized he is actually really good, because if you practice every day you can't help but be good.

      He's not great. He's not going to be a professional musician, but instead of returning my full-sized violin rental, I pay the fee each month to keep it resting on top of the piano to remind myself to leave my son alone and have respect for how hard he works and how well he plays.

      Penelope

      • Di says:

        This is such a beautiful, loving comment, Penelope!

      • Michael says:

        I found your response to be life affirming to me as well. Sorry it took a week to get back to it!

      • Sam says:

        That's fantastic! I love that you tried the violin and realised how hard it was. I don't have kids (3 weeks to go) but I know that arrogant feeling that 'I could do it better' and it's a good lesson to learn that you can't!

  6. Forest Rose says:

    "When parents decide to put their kids in school, they are deciding to step back" Such a riveting and utterly true statement!

    Forest Rose

  7. Dawn @ The Momma Knows says:

    Yes yes yes! And as my boys begin homeschool band this year, may I learn to keep my big fat mouth shut. I needed to read this. Thank you!