But each of my kids plays an instrument. My eleven-year-old son plays the violin and he practices 40 minutes a day. My eight-year-old son plays the piano and the cello. He practices 30 minutes of piano and two hours of cello each day.
Their music education is the Suzuki method, which is completely the opposite of unschooling. But I’m totally comfortable with it. Here’s why:
1. I’m teaching my kids to work hard at something. We cannot work hard at everything. We can really only work hard at one or two things. If you’re really working at it. That’s why people who are very hands-on parents can’t hold down a job. It’s why most famous artists were not primary caretakers. Kids need to play. And they need to learn to work really hard at something. I don’t think it necessarily matters what that one thing is. They need to know the feeling of it so they can continue to do it in their life with whatever they choose to work hard at.
2. Kids need to learn the purpose of focus. If you focus on one thing it’s a risk. But you can’t get good at anything if you don’t focus. Dillitantism is not fulfilling. We know that from decades of research. But focus is very high risk. If you choose one thing, you also choose to give up lots of other things. That’s actually a big reason people are horrified by the Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom – because of everything she asked her kids to give up. But teaching kids how to consciously give things up prepares them for adult life where we must do that all the time.
3. Expertise is essential to self-actualization. People are happier when they are an expert in something. They are being their true selves when they are doing something that is right for them. And they are feeling the joy of gaining high-level skills. You might think that some people don’t need that, but in fact you are misunderstanding expertise. There are people driven to be experts in social grace. There are people driven to be experts in caregiving. The problem is that sometimes we don’t recognize the range of possible expertise or the importance of it. To learn grit and determination – two essential traits of resilience – you must teach expertise.
4. Kids don’t have the self-discipline to do something difficult. Their brains are not fully formed enough to force themselves to do something hard. And also, they don’t understand the value of doing something ten minutes a day and making very small progress that adds up. Parents know this value intuitively. They say, “You have to make your kids do school because they need to do stuff they don’t like.” But that’s not exactly true. Kids need to learn to do stuff they like that is hard. Because adults wish they had more of that skill. Every adult wishes that.
5. Kids benefit hugely from learning a second language early on. I don’t need to link to the research for this. You are already either congratulating yourself that your kid speaks two languages or you are beating yourself up that your kid does not. Music is a second language. It counts. And unless you speak a second language, or you hire a full-time nanny to speak a second language, your kid is not going to learn one early on. Music is the exception.
6. Suzuki is a cult. I’m not going to lie to you. It takes over your life. Because you absolutely have to practice each day. And you have to do things the same way all the other kids are doing it. Finger by finger. Song by song. What I like about this cult, though, is that the kids are very focused and the parents are very involved. It’s a cult of parents who are putting their kids first. It’s a cult of parents who are not raising their kids like other people tell them to. They are doing what they instinctively think is best, and it looks different. It’s a cult I like. And it makes me a better parent to be part of it.
7. Suzuki teaches skills to learn anything. My older son is studying for his bar mitzvah. There is no synagogue near us so we do it ourselves. He studies online. And he uses the same practice skills for Hebrew that he uses for music. I didn’t even have to show him—he knew it intuitively because he’s been trained how to learn effectively. The research about becoming good at something is not about how much time you put in as much as how effective you are at practicing. Noa Kageyama has a whole blog dedicated to how to practice. It’s about music but it could be about anything. Even sports. Good practice habits are the same for anything you are trying to learn.
8. Accomplishment is very important for a kid to experience. Winning a soccer game when you practice once a week for the whole season is very different than moving to book two after practicing every day for two years. Your sense of accomplishment is only as big as your commitment to working toward that accomplishment.
School does not teach accomplishment—everyone graduates if they show up. Everyone gets A’s if they are well-suited for school. The smartest kids don’t even have to work that hard.
Unschooling doesn’t teach expertise unless the parents are very involved and committed to fostering that expertise. It doesn’t have to be music. But it needs to be something.