I began piano lessons when I was in 3rd grade. My teacher was a lovely, gentle, southern lady who played the organ at the Methodist church. Mrs. Payte was an older, soft-spoken woman with beautifully kept gray hair, black lace-up orthopedic shoes, and a gleaming black Steinway grand piano in her living room. I rode my bike to her house for lessons every Thursday afternoon right after school and in the summer from 3rd grade through 9th grade. She always had ice water and a lemon drop candy for me when I got there. I loved Mrs. Payte, I liked piano lessons – and I hated practicing! So for all of those years of money spent on lessons and despite Mrs. Payte’s patience and vast musical knowledge, I didn’t progress very far. I quit taking lessons in my sophomore year of high school and while I retain much of the music theory that she taught me, I am not a pianist.
Practice is vital to perfecting a skill. Most of us know that learning to read, learning to play a musical instrument, mastering a new language or becoming better at a sport takes a great deal of practice. But what about other skills of life? Can practice help us get better at things like making decisions?
I recently witnessed a parent trying to put a coat on a young child. The child was protesting that he did not want to wear the coat. The parent insisted, telling the child that he would be cold without it. A brief disagreement ensued, but it ended when the child simply did as he was told. While this was a great example of an obedient child, I couldn’t help but think what a great opportunity had been missed to let the child practice decision making.
The child was dressed in clothes appropriate for a normal spring day, and it was one of those freakishly chilly days for springtime in Texas, but it wasn’t dangerously cold. The parent informed the child that he would be cold without the coat but cold, like hunger or tiredness, isn’t something that we can feel for another person. The parent merely assumed that the child would be cold. What is the worst thing that would have happened if the parent had let the child make the decision to go without the coat? Certainly we all know by now that being cold, in and of itself, doesn’t make one sick, so while the child might have felt cold when they got outside, he wouldn’t have gotten frostbite or died from exposure. If the child was cold once outside he would have learned a very simple lesson about making a wrong decision and the importance of listening to the advice of trusted adults. If the child, indeed, had not been cold he would have learned a simple lesson about making a right decision, and the pride in being allowed to do so.
The decisions that our children will have to make as they get older will rarely be so simple. Decisions about what group to belong to, whether to experiment with drugs, alcohol or sex, what kind of person to date, what kind of person they want to be are much bigger decisions with much greater consequences. But if they never practice making simple decisions with simple consequences, how will they be able to make the big decisions? I’ve heard many athletes and coaches say that the key to improving in athletics is the number of hours spent with the ball. The constant repetition of the skill is how the skill gets stronger. It is important to give our children opportunities to constantly repeat the skills we want them to learn whether it’s learning to read, learning to ride a bike, learning to play a sport or musical instrument — or learning to make decisions.