Friday, July 10, 2009

The Worth of a Chocolate Biscuit

I confess to using bribery. When Tom needed to be toilet trained I kept a big, glass, screw top jar of Smarties on the window sill in the bathroom. Now I've decided to teach him piano and again bribery is coming into play. Tom plays a very simple piece of music, only six bars or so, five times and his reward for completing this task is a very luscious looking chocolate marshmallow biscuit.

At first I tried setting a timer for fifteen minutes but nine hundred seconds is a very, very long time for a boy with ants in his pants. He wriggles on the piano stool, he makes faces in the black lacquer finish, his attention wanders like a hyperactive puppy. I try to keep a lighthearted, upbeat tone. I arrange his little sticky fingers on the keys and tell him there's a mouse living under his hand requiring him to keep his wrist arched. I make finding Middle C into a game. But it is hard work and by the fifth minute and the fiftieth demonstration my voice is rising and I can feel my nose lengthening and sharpening and turning crooked, blistering with warts, my skin turning green, like an evil old witch, and I wonder if its all worth it.

At least I'm not cracking a ruler over his knuckles like my grandmother got I reason, but I do remember the temper and aggravation of my own piano teacher and how hard the piano stool was at fifteen, let alone four years old.

Feeling dispirited I confess to a preschool Mum about the difficulties I am having and in turn she tells me about a music class where children can sit in a group and learn the basics of piano. I think about this a lot. It sounds appealing but the reality is more driving and more expense. I can teach him myself surely, I think. After all, I can read music, made quite a few grades in theory many years ago and have an intermediate ability to play. Being a parent is not easy at times and this, quite possibly is one of those occasions. I resolve to try harder to teach him and chastise myself on wanting to throw in the towel at the first sign of difficulty.

I buy a little book for beginners full of pretty illustrations of crocodiles and pirates and we sit down to learn Row Row Row Your Boat. I struggle not to completely lose my temper within minutes but I stick to my commitment to practice every day. It is incredibly challenging, some days like torture and there are ugly arguments where I use every tactic I can muster - guilt, coercion and bribery. But we stick at it, and after a couple of weeks he has earned a sticker on 'Row Row Row Your Boat' for left hand only. Then another sticker for a right-handed piece. A couple of months later he can play 'We Three Kings', a longer piece using two hands separately and we talk of mastering the next piece with two hands together which we both agree is very exciting.

But its not only Tom I've been wrestling with. My subconscious has been prattling on with every question imaginable: Am I being too hard on him? Should children just be left to be children? Will he grow up to hate the piano, and me? If he had a natural ability or passion for it would he eventually grow to make music without my interference? etc. etc. I continually cross examine my motives. I worry over the idea that I'm forcing him to play the piano because it is an ability I wish I had. I think long and hard about this, but finally assuage my guilt that there's a reasonable chance he'll pursue a creative career and being able to play the piano will hold him in good stead in a tricky and competitive industry. And this is all before I question the use of bribery.

Why are people so opposed to using bribery I wonder? My best friends' children are given lollies and biscuits and ice blocks all the time. The supermarket isles are filled with enormous shiny bags of chips, rows of chocolate bars and multicoloured bags of lollies. Most of the time I don't even walk down that isle of the supermarket but occasionally I bring home one or two special treats. Surely this is why they are called 'special' though, because you only get them once in a while. So why not use them to reward good behavior or as an incentive? Doesn't that make them all the more special?

We've all looked at a spoilt teenager and thought how much good it would do them to get a job. Well, I reason, my four year old doesn't know the value of money, but he sure as hell knows the value of a plump marshmallow biscuit. I think longer and harder and look at the role bribery plays in my own life. I promise myself a cup of tea after I've got the morning chores done, or look forward to a well earned holiday. Surely that's how the world works.

I don't like the way society has grown to be materialistic. Television is rife with unhappy people who've put themselves into debt with shopping addictions, or gorged themselves to obesity. In my opinion these sad examples are testament to a diseased society where money has become God. So in a very basic way, maybe this is why some people and education systems have a problem with bribery. They feel children should learn to do things without reward or punishment, to do things purely for the love of it instead. But I know there is no way Tom is going to sit still, let alone focus, longer than five minutes at the piano without some form of manipulation by me.

But there is another reason I'm making him sit and practice every day. As a parent my duty is to teach my children the things in life I deem important. I want Tom to learn the value of patience and the reward of working at something and sticking with it. I want him to learn diligence and respect and I want him to always be aware of the incredible good fortune of his life. Motherhood is all about balance and treading a fine line and on a bad day I worry I've well and truly crossed it. Every mother in the world wants the best for their child but there's no magic formula or guarantee we're on the right track. None of us have a clue whether our child will grow up to thank us or curse us. Only time will tell.

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