“I’m giving you a gift you’ll thank me for later!” I shouted.
“I never asked you for that gift!” Ellie screamed back. “I hate that gift!”
My 10-year-old daughter and I were arguing about her flute lessons again. Things had gotten so bad, her teacher had written me an email with the subject line “Ellie happiness :).”
“I am still confused about Ellie,” she wrote. “I’ve been trying different strategies and feel that I’m missing the boat.” She suggested that we meet with her colleague Michele, someone who had insight into learning styles and might be able to “diagnose” Ellie.
“So, we’re having therapy for flute now?” my husband, Ken, asked me. “Please let her quit, would you?”
I understood his plea. After nearly three years of study, Ellie still told me she wanted to quit almost every day and, in an uncharacteristic display of parental toughness, I always told her no. I had decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that I would not let her quit—not never, of course, but just not yet. But her increasingly negative attitude was weakening my resolve.
I’ve let Ellie quit things before: lacrosse, gymnastics, and piano, to name a few. I have no particular allegiance to the flute and yet I feel strongly that she should stick this one out. She’s come so far, I tell her, that quitting would be a mistake. But after every argument, I wonder why I bother. If we are constantly told as parents to “pick our battles,” why have I chosen this particular woodwind one?
The answer probably lies, as many do, in my own childhood. I grew up dancing ballet. Although I wasn’t particularly gifted, I felt good about my identity as a dancer. At the end of fifth grade, I was invited to go en pointe. My newly long legs were skinny and weak and one day, as the other girls practiced their bourrées across the floor, I was singled out to practice against the wall, holding onto the barre for support. I was mortified. Soon after, I told my mother I wanted to quit, and she let me.
For years, I regretted that choice. Although I settled into other activities, the dancer I used to be haunted me. I wondered why no one—my mother or my teachers—worked harder to make sure I continued. It may not have worked, but knowing that people were rooting for me to succeed might have made a difference.
And so I’m determined—perhaps pathologically—not to let Ellie make this mistake. I fear that if I let her quit, she will learn to back away when things get hard. I fear she will forget the many lessons she has learned by playing flute, in particular that any difficult task can be accomplished by being broken down into a series of small, manageable steps, something she articulated herself after mastering a tricky minuet.
But when I told her that we were meeting with Michele for 30 minutes of chatting and games—no flute playing—she flat out refused to go. In retrospect, I realized that springing a meeting with a new person on her at almost the last minute was a tactical error. I learned early on to tread lightly with Ellie, not to enroll her in an activity or accept an invitation without checking with her first. And when I did, her first response was almost always “no.” After some time, she might warm up to the idea, but she could not be pushed.
Over email, Michele “diagnosed” Ellie as “low-risk.” “Ellie would rather act out and behave badly than try to do something she’s not sure she can do successfully,” she wrote. “The root of Ellie’s resistance is fear. She would rather not try something than try it and fail.”
There it was: the main reason I’ve been resisting Ellie’s many pleas to quit. I always suspected that her negativity had little to do with the instrument but was connected to something in her character—something I don’t want to give in to yet. Looking back, my choice to quit ballet wasn’t about no longer wanting to dance, but my need to be the best at anything I was doing. Being relegated to the barre was too much for my fragile ego to bear. Perhaps that set me up for a lifetime of shying away from things when they got too hard, the risks for failure too great, or perhaps I am reading too much into a child’s desire to quit and transition into a new activity.
And so we continue to struggle, my daughter and I, over this instrument. My hope has always been that if we push through one gnarly point of transition, we will emerge onto a plateau of calm, at least until the next tangle arises, which it undoubtedly will. And maybe then I’ll let her quit. Or maybe not.
Because I mean it when I tell Ellie I am giving her a gift, the gift not only of playing a musical instrument, but also of understanding her and giving her what I think she might need at a particular point, even if it is not what she wants.