Maybe I should have no rules

Here’s my son, in a hotel room, practicing. I forgot the chair he usually sits on to play, and the only thing short enough for sitting was the toilet.

It turns out that there are interesting acoustics in a bathroom, so it was fun to play in there. But you can be certain that it took a lot of convincing to get him to do it.

And I’m sick of arguing.

I don’t force my kids to do very much. We don’t have schoolwork with lesson plans and workbooks. I don’t make them read stuff they don’t want to. They play video games as much as they want to.

Except for practicing their instruments. I make them practice.

In the beginning I had a strong feeling that this is the right thing. Learning to do something hard by working at it a little each day is important for teaching persistence and grit. Learning to play an instrument is important for brain development. Learning self-discipline is important for everything (unfortunately).

But now I’m thinking that teaching a kid to be diligent doing something they don’t want to do is stupid. We are each able to be diligent if we are enthralled with what we’re doing.

But just as I was getting to the point where I was done fighting about practice time, each boy had a concert, and each boy was not only a standout, but they were also thrilled with themselves. They each had a great time, and seeing their reaction makes me think that the fighting is not really as big a fight as I was thinking it was.

I’m unimpressed with peoples’ analogies to sugar. I let my kids eat all the sugar they want, and honestly, they don’t want very much because they’re sick of it. And the same goes for video games. So I think they are good at self-regulation.

When I finish writing, I will have to tell them it’s time for practice. I have already poured a glass of wine to get through the practice. Which should be a sign that the arguments are too difficult, but instead I take the glass of wine as a sign of hope: maybe it’ll be fun today.

19 replies
  1. karelys.
    karelys. says:

    blah, just hearing a person practice makes you want to drink wine or something. even if it’s not a kid. or your kid.

    i don’t think a glass of wine is a sign of anything but how hard it is to swallow the journey from a – z.

    everyone looks shiny when the kids get up on stage and play a flawless pieace. right there and then no one thinks of how many glasses of wine, or pills or anything everyone had to take.

    i love the pic. so so so cute!

  2. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    My usual freedom spiel notwithstanding, I think you’re doing the right thing to have some well-considered rules. There is some point that each parent has to find to draw some kind of line and maintain a parent-child boundary. Even if you only draw this line to create a boundary, it is still worthwhile.
    This rule in particular, as you say, has to do with learning something that will be much easier to see looking back. When they realize you were right and it really was worth it, that’s the payoff. It’s important to be pretty sure you’re right, but you are.
    Having a parent that is capable of providing some degree of guidance, structure, order, and structure is good for kids. It lets them feel that they have a parent. It demonstrates a type of caring. I contend kids have a developmental need for this. It’s all in the dose: everything that nourishes can poison if it is overdone.
    Doesn’t sound to me like you’re overdoing it at all!

  3. MoniqueWS
    MoniqueWS says:

    Warning: Parental crowing follows. :-)

    We tend toward the unschooling end of things but it may be more honest to say eclectic schooling. As a family we discussed this and re-visit it and have tweaked it a bit over time. We have decided learning to read (on their timeline), math, Scouting, physical activity, music are important and valued. They get to chose their physical activity and musical activity but they must do it. We also make commitments about length of time to try a thing and stick with it.

    Swimming is a physical activity all of my kids have chosen. In part because the eldest did and we spend a lot of time at the pool. The eldest chose swimming because we helped guide him there as he initially wanted to be a gymnast. We took him to gymnastics and supported that activity and also talked to him about sports that might be better suited to his impending body shape and size. (I am 5’10” and my husband is 6’5″ and both of us are pretty slender.) Let’s just say his center of gravity is likely to be WAY HIGH. :-) Bicycling and swimming are physical activities to last a lifetime for a tall and skinny person.

    Eldest started swimming on the local swim team. After a week trial we had to make a commitment to the team and financially. He was excited to do this! We made a 3 month commitment. About 2 weeks after the end of the trial he decided he didn’t like it after all. We talked again about the idea of commitment and integrity. Eldest was going to the pool for practice as usual and could chose to get into the water or not but we would be there during his practice time. Two days of showing up but not getting into the water and he decided to *dive in*! He loves it!

    We have been a swimming family for seven years!! This weekend our eldest had some of his most exciting competitive swims ever – dropping 52 seconds in a mile freestyle swim and 28 seconds in a 1000 freestyle swim. He earned medals in the state championship for his age group.

    Boundaries and rules and not bad things. They are tools. Tools are neither good nor bad. I think what is important how they are used. Are the cooperative and agreed upon together? Are they used to control and manipulate? Are the chosen because it is just what we have always done or did thought go into them?

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Persistence made me think of this quote by Napolean Hill – “Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success.”
    Another quote of his that I really like (before I knew it was his) – “What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” I think I first saw it on a tea bag.

  5. KateNonymous
    KateNonymous says:

    I wonder how the acoustics were in adjoining bathrooms!

    I have mixed feelings about this: “I’m thinking that teaching a kid to be diligent doing something they don’t want to do is stupid. We are each able to be diligent if we are enthralled with what we’re doing.”

    I don’t think kids should be forced to pursue things like specific instruments or sports that don’t interest them. But life is full of things that we have to do–and be diligent about–and it doesn’t matter whether we’re enthralled with them.

    For example, I’m not enthralled with paying the electric bill, but I have to be diligent about doing it if I want to have electricity in my house.

  6. kristen
    kristen says:

    I agree with Kate. I had to slog through an awful lot of boring science classes, and do well in them, in order to get to my chosen career – which I love. I did not love biochemistry, physics, organic chemistry, etc, etc. If I hadn’t been diligent, however, I would not now be a surgeon. Could I have figured that out at the age of 8? Nope. Did my parents teach it to me? Not that I can remember. I’m not sure what the right answer is for your kids but most people are happy they’ve stuck with a musical instrument once they’ve grown up.
    Enjoy the wine.
    I’m not sure how sugar relates to practicing your instrument, however, most children are addicted to sugar and cannot easily go a few days without it. The health effects go far beyond obesity. I consider obesity the “smoker’s cough” of sugar. It’s obvious that there is a problem if you’re hacking away every time you take a deep breath. But if you’re not coughing, does that mean you’re OK?

    • penelopetrunk
      penelopetrunk says:

      When it comes to doing stuff you don’t want to get to a goal you want. That seems really different than getting to a goal someone else wants.

      You took biochemistry because you knew you wanted to be a doctor. You probably would not have slogged through Roman Art History with the same vigor. Because you didn’t need to know Roman Art to get to a goal.

      The same is true with paying the electric bill. I mean, you don’t like paying it, but what you want your lights on. My kids understand, they don’t like wiping their butt, but they don’t like poop on their butt either.

      I think the issue is making kids do stuff that is not actually tied to a goal they hold personally.


      • karelys.
        karelys. says:


        just finished The Dip by Godin. Was surprised my dad taught me that when I was 12-ish.

        The man never went to school.

        Somehow along the way I thought that when the adults set me on a certain direction I had to follow it whether I liked it or not and then if I pushed through it I’d come out all shiny at the end.


        I wish I had understood the concept my dad taught me a lot deeper than I did. I could’ve quit so many things that were unpleasant and did not got me even close to where I wanted to be.

        When I was still in high school the college bubble hadn’t fully crashed yet so I thought my dad was nuts or jealous or insecure.

        agh! I wish I had been so much humble and listened!

        I’m all for putting myself through the pain of hardwork and sacrifice if it gets me to my goal but I’m good at getting rid of tasks (and even people) if they are just a pain with no reward.

      • Christina @Interest-Led Learning
        Christina @Interest-Led Learning says:

        I think you just hit on something important -doing well in their concert was an important thing for your boys. I think if you continued to make them practice and they hated performing and everything else about playing, than it wouldn’t be good at all. Some people need more outside support than others in accomplishing those big goals that they really want to achieve.

  7. kristen
    kristen says:

    After being “thrilled with themselves”, it’s still not a goal they hold personally?
    I would guess they’re just too young to be able to delay gratifaction for that long. It’s a lot of hours of practice leading up to a concert.
    I think the wine is the key. You know they will, evetually, be happy they persisted in practicing. So you have to find small ways to make them enjoy it. Enough wine to make you silly enough to have fun with them and not take it so seriously, while still getting the job done.
    I have a really hard time with that as I am very much a “type A”, cross it off the list person. I tend to just want to get it done and move on. I’d much rather be a “type B”, enjoy the moment person.
    It’s something I fear will eventually interfere with my relationship with my boys if we are homeschooling, so I’m working on it. Not a lot of progress made so far.

  8. Jani
    Jani says:

    Jack Rawlins, author of the writing textbook The Writer’s Way, had something indelible to say that I think applies to what you’re doing with un-schooling, (I’m quoting from the 4th edition):

    “Geniuses have something in common: a talent for working without rigidly defined goals. They’re willing to let the investigation work itself out and discover where they’ll end up when they’ve gotten there. Less creative minds want to know exactly where they’re going before they start. The genius wisely says, “How can I know I’m going to invent the laser or discover the theory of relativity when no one knows such a thing exists yet?” If we only do the tasks we can define ahead of time, we limit ourselves to discovering only what we already know.”

    “Sometimes school teaches you the reverse, by telling you that you need discipline and structure and by requiring you to use outlines, thesis statements, and other tools that force those skills. Those tools are nice, but if in mastering them you close doors, your writing will get more and more mechanically competent, but your best stuff will remain on the other side of those doors.”

    Link to the latest version of his book:

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    There’s something I forgot to mention in my earlier comment which I noticed in the photo. I’m pretty sure the size of the cello that I played when I was your son’s age was quite a big larger (too large to be more exact). So it made me wonder about cello sizes. Not like it’s going to help me now or anything but I found the following information – . Mmm … it makes me think I must have been using just what the school had available.

  10. britta alexander
    britta alexander says:

    My parents “made” me practice my violin at least an hour every day for more than a decade. My mother always insisted I would thank her someday. And that day did eventually come.

    But LONG before that, there was one particularly rocky summer when I insisted I didn’t want to do it anymore. And in her brilliance, my mother granted me that time to “quit” violin.

    At first, it was wonderful. Freeing. No violin! I quit!!

    But then, I missed it. I dreamed about it. I felt nightmarish knowing it was sitting in its coffin of a case under my bed.

    And worse, I felt like a quitter. I felt average–just another person who used to play an instrument.

    Maybe granting your son some time off might help. Or maybe he’ll never return to it, but will chose something else.

    As my violin teacher told me, “you will always be a violinist.” And I knew he meant that was true whether or not I was still playing.

  11. Mariana Mai
    Mariana Mai says:

    Thanks PT, I was eager to know the situation on the violin classes front. It kind of disturbs me that I am always agreeing with you! I am turning into a PT drone…

    • karelys.
      karelys. says:

      haha! I intentionally read her blogs with a bad attitude to make sure I am not agreeing just because I like her. Then it scares me that I agree. So then I go about the day trying to do my own thinking.

      When I told my husband I kind of wanted to homeschool I said “I did some research and I saw this TED video long ago…” just so he wouldn’t say “DID YOU READ THAT IN PT’s BLOG!?!?”

      I hate that. But now I think there is no shame having someone else corroborate the gut feeling you had for long.

      It was hard to convince my husband to even look into homeschooling because the school system was okay for us both. But her sister and my brothers…..ay!

  12. CRLife
    CRLife says:

    I grew up taking piano and dance classes.

    Practicing as a child builds your endurance to completing those tasks you don’t enjoy and find overwhelming. Practicing builds your natural ability to cope with things you don’t like, which contributes to success and happiness. It teaches you control that you can use for the rest of your life.

    They probably won’t need medication to cope as adults, because you trained them to practice, which helps them to persevere and cope through difficult times.

    It’s a good thing. It builds character. It shows them that with enough practice, they can handle and do anything and conquer any obstacle.

  13. Libby
    Libby says:

    I think your argument that people will doggedly pursue the things they are passionate about is fallacious. It depends on the person and it also does depend on their experience.

    There are always going to be points where kids get stuck or where things become rote or where it just stops being fun, but where it’s important to persist. But letting them quit or stop is not a good precedent. My parents did that (mostly because they were too busy to regulate me), and it didn’t do great things for me.

    As a child a lot of things came to me easily, which would have the result of me quitting on a lot of them just when they got hard or stopped being fun, even though I still loved them and still wanted the end result. I love music, but I don’t love practicing music, but I love the end result of having practiced. But it’s hard to see that the more practice you do, the better and more polished your music is, especially when it comes easily to you without a lot of practice. I missed a lot of opportunities by not seeing the value of persisting past the sticky points.

    I actually wish I’d been pushed more at a younger age to stick with things and not quit and understand what it meant to commit to things. I was largely self-regulated as a child and being able to quit anytime I wanted made me very lazy and poor at following through on things when they got difficult. Even the most interesting careers and lives are full of boring, menial tasks, and you can’t skip over them or quit when it stops being fun. It’s important develop that long view and that sense of commitment at a young age.

    It sucks having to develop it later in life.

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