If you haven’t seen the movie Whiplash, put it on your must-see list. It’s about the relationship between an extremely strict and ruthless college teacher and one of his talented music students. The poor kid is hammered down until breaking point, but ultimately becomes a better player and stronger person for it, despite the literal torture. I’m not condoning treating any human being the way depicted in this movie but it did come to mind when I had to make a parenting decision this week. How do you know when it’s time to break your kid’s balls?
My 6 year-old daughter has just started ‘playing’ the recorder in school music lessons. She has a sheet of music she needs to work on at home using the notes B, A and G. So we started with just learning these three notes… total disaster. As soon as we try to move from B to A she freaks out. Crying, arms flailing around, “I can’t do it!” and “it’s too hard!” on repeat like a broken record. My daughter has always been the dramatic theatrical type so this kind of reaction wasn’t totally unexpected. But how was I going to handle it? She had been walking around the house for the past week just blowing into this instrument, so she has had plenty of time to mess around and have fun with it, but at some point if she was going to learn how to play, she was going to have to put in the hard work. So I had a choice to make – Either we call it a day and start fresh tomorrow, or I open a can of Whiplash on her ass…
I stand up like I mean it, and in my best authoritative teacher voice I say:
“Stop. Now. You are going to pick up that recorder. You are going to hold it up like you mean it. You are going to know you can do it. And you are going to sit there for as long as it takes to play B, A and G. You are going to keep playing for ten minutes, and if I hear any crying, any whinging or moaning you will play for another ten minutes. You will get it wrong, and wrong again, but you will keep playing until it is right… Understood?”
She looks at me in horror and I silently waited for a reaction thinking this could go either way… I’ve either created my daughter’s first therapy session or this might, just might work. She says nothing (pretty much a first for her) and just picks up the instrument and starts to play. She gets it wrong and before she gets a chance to say anything I remind her “do it again.”. So she does.
I walk away, listening in while folding washing, and let her keep playing until I hear it – she hit it – B to A. I shout “that’s it. Do it again.” She plays solidly without a word for ten minutes. For a talkaholic 1st Grader that has the attention span of a demented frog that is impressive. I breathe a sigh of relief that Ball-Breaker Mom worked out, and go in for a high-five. She was so pumped she could do it, she ran around the house screaming “I did it, I can play the recorder!” and I felt pretty pumped too.
I’m not normally Ball-Breaker Mom but sometimes I wonder whether my softer approach is a conscious decision or whether I am guilty of taking the easy option. “Don’t worry Sweetie, we’ll try again tomorrow.” would have diffused the situation quickly and easily, but she would have felt defeated and we would have faced the same, possibly worse problem the following day. I believe she responded well because I gave her my undivided attention for that moment and I said it like I meant it because I cared. I wanted her to succeed, not because I particularly mind if she grows up being able to play the recorder, but because I want her to learn not to give up, and work hard, and that things aren’t always easy but they are worth fighting for.
There is obviously a line, but deciding when to cuddle and step back, and when to break their balls is all part of the fun of parenting. I would just suggest that occasionally your child needs to know you care enough about what they are doing to bust open a can of Whiplash. And watch the movie, it is awesome and will crush and fill your heart at the same time. Here’s the trailer…