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Imagine a group of musicians each playing a different song, in a different key at a different tempo. It would be chaos – and it would sound terrible.

Now imagine a family like that.

If you’ve ever played, sung, or performed musically with others, it should be pretty easy to understand that parenting is a lot like leading your own band.  

As parents, our job is to raise our children as if we were band leaders giving them music lessons, helping them to understand how to play their individual instruments (personalities) and teaching them to integrate our choice of tempo, key, and volume into their daily lives.

notes-on-music-staffWhen our children are very young, we start by teaching them specific behaviors – like saying “please” and “thank you.” How to sit still, and the importance of looking at people when speaking with them are the equivalent of teaching them to play scales on their instruments. The more often they practice those “scales”, the more comfortable they become with their position in the band.

In our family, the tempo is relaxed but firm. We expect our children to learn their basics and to practice them at every possible juncture. If we go to the market, we teach them to say hello to the checker. When they have class, we teach them to be on time. When they need to play well with other children, we teach them to share. These are the basic forms (scales and melodies) that they will play throughout their lives.

Music Jam RGWhile they’re learning what’s expected of them, we also make a point of playing our own instruments at the tempo we expect. We set an example in the house by remaining consistent and calm. If Mommy or Daddy is on the phone, it’s not the right time to interrupt. When it’s time for bed, well, it’s time for bed. If someone else in the band (a sibling) needs a little extra practice time, we expect our other children to understand – and if they don’t understand, we explain that perhaps they need to spend some time practicing on their own, in their room.

We also pay attention to the “key” in which our family is playing. I grew up in a home where loud arguing was a norm. At some point in my life I decided that I didn’t want my home to sound like that. So JoAnn, my wife, and I chose to omit the whole angry yelling thing. It doesn’t mean we agree about everything. We just agree not to raise our voices about it.

Music Jam AMGSome people think that imposing expectations or restrictions on their child will inhibit creativity, but just look at music to understand how necessary and liberating a controlled and structured environment can be. Everyday we are entertained by the conventionally confined, well-structured creativity that is the world of music.

Once the scales, tempo, and key have been determined, we have to demand a certain level of performance from our kids. We do this by letting them know when they’re out of time or off key, and by encouraging them to listen better and to stay in tune. At some point, the kids begin to see themselves as active participants in the band. They understand that when they are moving in our tempo and our key, things sound pretty good around the house. Most importantly, once they as players have proven that they know their basics, we – as band leaders and conductors – can allow them to improvise more and more. This is where their creativity and individuality comes in.

Music Jam 2 BlogLike any band, ours is made up of different instruments. Each of us has our own sound, our own range, and our own part in the songs that are being played. Some of us may like to play the melody, while others may prefer to harmonize or just “keep time.” By respecting these differences, we are able to arrange the music we play (as a family) into music that is comfortable and pleasing to all of us..

Ultimately, as parents it’s our job to create harmony, and to lead our children to play parts that fit well with everyone else. For our own sanity and comfort, it’s necessary to get everyone playing the same song, at the same tempo and in the same key.  Ignoring dissonance allows it to become a habit – and so we always seek to correct the sour notes.

Over the years we have all learned to listen better. We have learned to compliment each other’s solos, to choose similar themes, and to share the enjoyment of playing together. Like any good band, we respect the basics, we remember our scales, and we encourage each other to improve. We also roll our eyes every once in a while.

Be a rock star parent, teach your children to play and to listen. Before you know it, your home will be filled with harmony and you’ll always be looking forward to your next “jam” session.

Photo Credit: Marisa Quinn

Aaron3superman_83liteI’ve encountered a number of parents who, in their zeal to have “creative” children, resist discipline in their parenting process. They explain that they “want their child to be free to create” and to be “undiminished by structure” – which is fine if you and your family live in a vacuum.

Being the logical sort that I am, I am keenly aware of the structures and “systems” that surround our lives. I wake up, I get out of bed, I wash my face and hands, I floss (maybe), I brush my teeth (for sure), I dress, and I go to work. That is a “system”. Each event within that system has its own procedure.   Our lives are filled with systems most of which are “creative.”  In fact, one could argue that any system that allows variation is creative.

Driving is wonderful metaphor for understanding the creative process.  As drivers, we make a lot of creative choices; we choose our routes, we control our timeframe, and we achieve the goal (of getting to our destination). In the process, we could exclusively use DSC_0237our gas pedal all the time.  We could ignore all signage or other drivers and be unfettered by the limitations of the “system.”  That might work for the short term!   During that time, our “creativity” might be un-hindered by the oppression of structure, but the people around us would be pretty disturbed, and to some degree put at risk.

Creativity without a system is chaos, and I choose to avoid chaos.

“But my child is only two!” you might say. “They’re not driving!”  And I’d say, “The earlier your child learns the rules of the road, the sooner he or she will be a safe driver who can navigate the world and make smart “creative” decisions.

School-children-playing-violinAnother wonderful metaphor for proving the importance of discipline in creativity is music.

Anyone who listens to music is subject to the conventions of the musical system.  Almost every song we listen to is structured and thousands of them are derived from the same three chords. When musicians play in “ensemble” there is a need to keep their sound harmonious; which is achieved through “key” and “tempo”. Even jazz, the most “fluid” of the musical genres, has a structure.

When musicians are young, they learn to play their instruments. They play scales, they practice, they count, and they listen. Once they can play their parts they can learn to improvise. Sure, there are exceptions, but all professional musicians know the basics of the system.

ExcuseMakingThe last ingredient in this process is wonder.  Developing a child’s sense of wonder is as easy as wondering about things out loud when you’re with them.  “Where do you think clouds come from?”  “Do you ever wish our dog could talk?”  “What’s your favorite color?” “How does a lightbulb work?”

When they respond, do your best to engage.  Listen to their often very entertaining answers… and don’t criticize their theories (as my parents did).  Guide, but don’t humiliate.  Teach, but don’t preach.  Lead to conclusions – don’t land on them.  All of these steps will help your child learn the imaginative process and gain confidence as they explore the world around them.

So, how do you build your creative child?

  1. Teach them the basics.
  2. Show them how to operate within the system.
  3. Encourage them to wonder about things…and
  4. Allow them to improvise in harmony with the rest of your family.

CautionSignAnd the next time you find yourself falling for the “discipline stifles creativity” stuff – think about the value of teaching your children to run red lights.