Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Lessons from the potty and the violin: When to push and when to let go?

One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn as a parent is to back off. I mean, can you blame me? When kids are born, they’re so tiny and so helpless that we’re completely focused on doing everything for them. But that eventually dissipates as their own need for independence surpasses their desire to be babied.

However, it’s not black and white – there is no one specific formula on how they attain their autonomy and exert their individuality. Take potty training, for example.

I had the hardest time with Little Miss - Reward her! Coax her! Pressure her! Punish her! I was doing everything right, according to Google, but many days, even weeks of frustration told me I was doing everything wrong. What was prescribed to and worked for many kids didn’t work with mine.

And then I did my research and found this book. If you’ve been following my blog, you may remember my Hallelujah moment with this book, and how it saved us all. The basic premise of their recommendations was to back off. It was so hard to do because the “training” in potty training meant doing something, and yet the book suggested otherwise.

Then I realized that perhaps, the “training” part was meant for me. To train me to respect her limitations, to nurture her need to grow at her own pace, and to honor her desire to achieve a goal in her own way. And so I did.

Shortly after implementing what the book suggested – like letting her go back to her diaper if that’s what she wanted, making sure she initiates the need to use the bathroom and don’t make a fuss if she doesn’t – she mastered the potty. And that was that.

Underwear for Little Miss. Lesson learned for me.

Now, two years later, I am tested on how much of that lesson I’ve retained when Pickle started to show interest in the potty right after she turned two in May. Over the summer, there were many requests to use the potty when her big sister was also using it, so there would be moments where they were both “doing their business”. While holding hands. (Yup, it’s a mix of both Aww and Eew to me too.) Sometimes, they’d invite me to hold their free hand (lucky me), and we’d form a circle. I called that the Poop Seance – we’re exorcising the crap out of them!

Yes, I do have a way with words.

photo (44)You know what they say: A family that poops together…

But the most important thing we did was to not push the issue. We’d ask Pickle if she needed to go and respected her answer either way. Over the summer, when she would casually go, we’d offer praise but not reward. 

When we were in Florida, she used the restroom most of the time, much to our delight, but when we came back from vacation, she stopped going on the potty altogether. She’d also stopped sleeping like her usual rock star self, crying and fussing each time we tucked her in, and we chalked all of that to post-vacation stress. Children also suffer another bout of separation anxiety at around two, so there was that.

Pickle is back to her usual sleeping habits now (thank goodness) and two weekends ago, without our prompting, she decided to use the potty and hasn’t looked back since. Her diaper or pull-up would rarely be wet, although she still sleeps in them to prevent night-time accidents, but the most important thing was that her training was completely led by her.


photoShe’s read this book so many times on the potty, she actually learned the words!

Because we learned from our mistakes with Little Miss, Pickle has now graduated to underwear  – she picked Dora, the Explorer – at 2.5 months a few months sooner than her sister, and with a lot less frustration. In fact, there were barely any potty-related meltdowns or showdowns.

We didn’t have any urgency for her to be trained at any particular time so we didn’t feel the need to constantly remind her to use the bathroom, we didn’t employ any three-day-or-bust training tactics that drive both parents and kids insane, we didn’t worry about portable potties when we’re traveling, and we didn’t sweat the fact that she may be in diapers forever because really, we knew it would eventually happen. It isn’t a race, and it’s no reflection on her abilities or intelligence, so who cares really when she does it, as long as she does it. 

She responded really well to this approach, just like her sister did when we finally implemented it, and voila! It’s done.

photo (43) On the Dora seat that saw both of my girls’ behinds, though neither uses it now

It’s been three days with no diapers and no accidents. And barely any effort on our part. How amazing is that?

If only the back-off parenting method would work with violin lessons as well.

So this is the not-so-amazing part of my story.


When Little Miss turned five, we promised her violin lessons that she’s been asking for since she was two. Sure, it looks beautiful and serene in the picture. But what you don’t hear is the whining and complaining that accompanies every. single. practice. session. And it’s making me utterly stabby.

Let’s face it, the violin isn’t an easy instrument to master. And Little Miss only enjoys doing things that come easily to her. When “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” sounds like a chicken being choked by a goat, our nerves are even more easily frayed at practice with repeated reminders on proper form, technique, notes, etc. As the music parent – the one who has to sit through practice every day – I am ill equipped.

I’ve only had organ lessons for a year in my entire life at age 14, and my parents weren’t very involved so they didn’t care that I quit. But I do care about my girls’ music education – it’s something both My Guy and I are determined to provide for them because we both wish we had it ourselves, and we know that with it comes the reluctance and complaints and whining.

We get it. Kids don’t enjoy things as much when it’s perceived as work. And music lesson is work. For them and for me as it tests my patience, and I have to exercise control and moderate my temper with every fiber of my being. I thought potty training Little Miss Stubborn was hard, but that only lasted a few months. This is supposed to go on for years! (Kill me now.) 

After trying and quitting so many activities – soccer, ballet, gymnastics – we knew we had to put our foot down on something for Little Miss. Ideally, children should be encouraged to pursue a passion, not coerced into it, but I think there are times where parents do need to intervene and ignite that fire. Without the initial help, will they ever get there on their own? Did Yo-Yo Ma always eagerly pick up his cello to practice every day and begged for more when it ended?

So where and when do we draw that line? When is it okay to push? And when do we just back off?

Letting them lead worked wonders with potty training, but I’m not so sure it’s the same with music, when it’s always challenging in the beginning. Kids with a natural talent may acquire an appreciation for it quickly, but does that mean only those who’re gifted should be encouraged and the rest should just give up and find another calling?

All throughout my years in school, I was never an athlete. I never participated in team sports because I was easily winded and I could never keep up with my faster, more agile peers. That led me to believe, for years and years, that I am not an athlete. That I could never run.

Yet, here I am with a half-marathon in the bag seven months after I started running for the first time in my life. As it turns out, I only needed to train for it. I didn’t have to be the fastest; I only needed to complete the race, which I did. But I had to push through the more difficult sessions and get out there even when it was snowing/sleeting/raining/hailing. Now, not only do I run, I love running, and I would even call myself a runner, but it took hard work and discipline to get here.

Shouldn’t that apply to music lessons as well? I know, she’s only five, but we all have to start somewhere right? Here I am, at 38 and wishing my parents had forced me to continue so I can actually be of better help when sitting down with Little Miss at practice. I’m also thinking, when you turn 38 Little Miss, perhaps you’ll thank me then for enforcing these lessons.

But perhaps not. Perhaps she would recall these moments bitterly and wish I’d listened to her. That’s the thing – no matter what we decide now, it could go either way later. Parenting can be such a crapshoot sometimes.

And I’m rambling. (Can you feel my distress?)

Essentially, I am proud of Pickle in her Dora underwear, and I’m glad that, when it came to potty training, I was able to learn from my own mistakes. And now, it’s on to Parenting Challenge Number 5921: Music Lessons – to be or not to be.

I’ve been consulting a fellow mom whose kids are also taking lessons, and she has been so amazing in sharing her own journey. (Where would we be without the fellowship of parents with whom we can commiserate??!) I’m reading up on all the tips and tricks to help us all get through it, and just like I did when we first started training Little Miss, I am vacillating between doubting and trusting every decision.

Perhaps, again, my child with her own quirks and personality, will eventually show me the way, and something will stick someday. (One can hope?) And when it comes time for Pickle’s lessons – whether she chooses the piano, cello, drums or flute – maybe Little Miss would’ve taught me a thing or two by then to do the right thing for their music education. 

Or rather, to do the thing that’s right for them.

* * *

If you’ve experienced pushing and coaxing your child(ren) into something they eventually learned to love, please, please share your tips with me! I’ll take all the help I can get.