It’s clear that the most effective way to teach kids is to customize teaching to the way the kids learn, and to the interests the kids have.

A great example of this type of learning is me practicing music with my sons. Parents who have a young musician in their house are probably familiar with what I call the 80/20 rule: twenty percent is the kid’s motivation and eighty percent is the parent screaming at the kid to practice.

And not just practice. But practice in a focused, thoughtful way. Because a good half-hour practice is better than a mindless ten hours of practice. (For more about how to practice, go to the Bulletproof Musician. It’s a great blog.)

Since I want customized education for my kids, I have customized yelling. For my older son, who does not aspire to be a professional musician, I remind him to poop before he plays. “Remember,” I tell him, “no stopping in the middle of practice to go to the bathroom.”

Yes. Really. I’m convinced that the bathroom interruption impedes his ability to learn focus. And, in case you’re wondering, water breaks are against the rules as well. If he says he has to poop or drink, I throw a fit. And, one time, I even threw his bow. And broke it. But whatever. At least the broken bow meant he couldn’t practice which meant he wasn’t going to poop during practice.

For my younger son, who has much higher musical aspirations, I yell if he forgets what we are working on: “IT’S A SHARP! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE IF YOU ARE NOT REMEMBERING THE NOTE YOU’RE PLAYING!!!”

At that same moment I am congratulating myself that by some miracle I noticed the difference between a natural and a sharp.

I realized, as I was customizing terror tactics, that if I stick to each son’s personality type, I can pretty much guess what they will need as a motivator. My youngest is an ESFP. He was born to perform because he wants everything in life to be a party, with him at the center.

So, for him, I turn the whole practice into a game. I draw pictures on note cards and he picks blindly. Sometimes he gets a card that says “Kiss your mom” or “make cow sounds on the cello.”

Then he loves me so much for being fun.

My older son is an INTJ and his idea of fun is reading at a restaurant between courses. He likes each practice to have a list. He goes down the list methodically, and pounces on any error or omission in either strategy (“Mom, doing all the scales at once would be more efficient.”) or spelling (“Mom, it’s not ‘sale’ it’s ‘scale’!”)

Of course, giving your kids what they need to flourish means you are being a good parent. But the big question is, if you customize your bad parenting as well, does it mean you get to do more bad parenting and still be called a good parent? That is the data that advocates of customized education are missing.

10 replies
  1. Genuinely curious
    Genuinely curious says:

    “A great example of this type of learning is me practicing music with my sons. Parents who have a young musician in their house are probably familiar with what I call the 80/20 rule: twenty percent is the kid’s motivation and eighty percent is the parent screaming at the kid to practice.”

    How do we reconcile this with self-directed learning?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The kids can quit whenever they want. They know that’s the deal. But if they don’t quit then they have to practice every day.

      I would have the same deal with the biology tutor. My son learns biology because he likes it, but if he didn’t do the assignment each day then I wouldn’t let him have a tutor.

      That said, there is no purely self-directed learning because you can’t totally eradicate environmental influences that the adults create. So I’d rather have it be my influences than some random teacher I don’t even know.

      Penelope

  2. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    OK, I’m working hard to not smile at this post because I must frown to not endorse the yelling. So then I’ll tell you that yelling puts kids in a state of ‘fight or flight’ that impedes the ability to learn focus way more than bathroom interruptions. But reading on, I think you know this, it’s just way too automatic and hard to stop.

    So in that case, in lieu of any data, I’d suggest we borrow Dr. Gottman’s magic ratio for couples of 5:1, so five positive interactions for every one negative one. So for every time you yell, you have to balance it with 5 positive things (and be generous) so:
    * 1 point for caring
    * 3 points for the type-specific fun games/lists
    * 1 point for saying something nice (or shutting up for 10mins)

    Then you could set yourself a goal to target that each practice session and have your sons score you. ENTJs love a goal!

  3. jessica
    jessica says:

    Is this a daily thing? I’m having a hard time understanding how that form of communication to get the kids to continue something they want to be doing is an effective long term strategy to prepare them to one day do it on their own (without intense external motivation).

    There is facilitating and then there is force. Why not remind them of their daily practice times, and let them go about it without intervening, and see what happens? Would they quit music or the courses altogether?

  4. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I’m not a perfect dad. I get grumpy. I yell sometimes too. But I have to say that the 80/20 rule as stated does not at all apply to my son’s music practice.

    I’ve probably yelled at him about something in the past week, but it wasn’t music practice. I think it was him shouting at me because he was wearing headphones and me yelling back to take off the damn headphones and speak in a better tone of voice.

    I think if you check around you might find that your approach – or the feeling you have that you need to yell at your kids to get them to practice – is unusual. Or maybe it’s me who is in an unusual situation; perhaps it is I who should check around. I don’t know. Survey?

    My son is practicing now. All I had to do was say okay, breakfast is done, you have just enough time to practice before swimming class, and turn off the documentary.

    Sometimes I fuss at him about using the metronome more, and sometimes I go in and say I think he needs to find a good youtube of that piece to really get the rhythm, because that’s not it. And sometimes I say “hey, Zelda is not on your list this week.” But practicing is his thing, for his purposes, and he does it twice every day because these are his goals. Me yelling just isn’t part of this, let alone 80% of it. We write down a list of goals together every Monday morning, and the first line item is practicing ten times. If he doesn’t check them all off, he practices extra on the weekend.

    That said, I really like the big picture of this post. It’s true – and this blog has helped me come to appreciate it – that a huge part of what we must do as homeschooling parents is come to understand the personality of our children and what they need to be happy. It’s not the same for everybody or all of our children.

    For my son, number one is just constant companionship. It’s idiotic on my part that it took me so long to figure that out. It’s hilariously stupid how long I projected and thought that never leaving him alone would be some sort of punishment instead of just asking him what he needed and finding it was the opposite.

    It’s hard on me sometimes, but less hard than it was when he wasn’t getting what he needed and was acting out because of it. Giving a child what they need helps them become the best version of what they are, and at this point my son is great company and fun to be with. Being with him every minute all day long when he’s his best self is much much better than leaving him alone a few hours a day and having bad behavioral results.

    The “big question?” Now, that is droll.

    Sometimes, as I share with my son the sort of experiences I didn’t even know existed at his age (the truffle dinner at L’Espalier last night was fabulous, and omg he was adorable in his blue velvet blazer) I vacillate between thinking I am spoiling him and thinking I am preparing him well for his future. Maybe it’s both.

    Yes, he’s still practicing. Viola now. No yelling involved.

  5. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    Oh my gosh I’m actually laughing out loud (not silently to myself in my head!).

    But back to the 80/20 rule. If you costumize your bad parenting then you don’t need to do more bad parenting. You can just choose the 20% terror tactics that will yield 80% of the result. Unless, of course, you want to do more because it’s fun and you’re a high achiever.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “I realized, as I was customizing terror tactics, that if I stick to each son’s personality type, I can pretty much guess what they will need as a motivator.”

    Where does motivation for learning come from and how is it sustained? That’s the question I often ask myself. It does vary from individual to individual so a customized approach to learning does work best. Basically, motivation is derived intrinsically, extrinsically, or some combination of both. Some individuals require more extrinsic influence to motivate them than others. So I think one of the hard aspects of parenting is to develop techniques of being a “good” parent while sometimes being a “bad” parent in the process. The parenting handbooks available for purchase are not customized for an individual parent – child relationship. There are many ideas and scenarios described and explained. However, it’s only a start. Parenting is a very experiential process where both the parent and child are ideally in a learning mode. So, getting back to motivation, when the parent is trying to provide extrinsic motivation to the child, the child is hopefully learning how to somehow become more intrinsically motivated in the process. Maybe. And then again it may be just a crap shoot. But the next crap shoot may have the odds be more in your favor for ultimately becoming a “good” parent.

  7. Shelly
    Shelly says:

    “So, for him, I turn the whole practice into a game. I draw pictures on note cards and he picks blindly. Sometimes he gets a card that says “Kiss your mom” or “make cow sounds on the cello.”

    Then he loves me so much for being fun.”

    1. What a cool idea, I love it.

    2. I’m glad that I am not the only one who feels like a great mom when my kids think I’m fun.

  8. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Nope I don’t yell or nag about music. That said if I’m paying for lessons there will be regular practicing happening without me nagging. If this doesn’t happen then lessons are over. My daughter saw this happen with her older brother and it may be personality to some degree but she wants to continue so she practices every day without any mention from me.

  9. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    A Chinese-Canadian friend in Beijing is having a similar problem with her French husband who is learning Chinese. She’s been screaming at him for a year that he doesn’t do his homework, so his Chinese isn’t improving. (She’s paying for his classes so I get why she’s stressed.)

    Part of why she loves him is how laid back he is. It’s also part of what she can’t stand about him. It’s good if kids learn this while young, so they don’t drive their type-A spouse crazy when this matters a lot more – when they’re considering to start a family..

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