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Perspective: Did Chopin's mother force her son to learn?

Byline: Sarah Evans

My son and I start every weekend and school holiday with good intentions. We agree beforehand that we won't do anything else until we have cracked the research for the space project, practised his handwriting, read an improving book together (so no the Red Alert 2 Handbook won't count) and tackled the new piano piece. Then we can both go about our other leisurely pursuits free from any pangs of conscience for the rest of the lovely, free day.

Very occasionally we actually manage such a regime but far more often we get to Sunday night or the last day of the holidays and it's time for mutual recriminations. 'You promised me you'd practise after you had watched Pokemon.' 'But you never made me, Mum.' Of course he is right. Likeeveryone else working full time and trying to make their home an acceptably hygienic place where basic needs are met - I'm not reaching for the stars here - I have an endless list of jobs to do in any 'free' time. To make a determined child engage in tasks he will use every strategy to avoid, requires a force and time I lack.

I often wonder whether Chopin's parents had to sit with him and make him practise the piano or whether Shakespeare's mother said, 'Now, you are going to do your handwriting or else.'

I imagine the answer is no. Chopin I see tottering up to the instrument at a tender age, eagerly devoting every moment to it, only interrupting his mother to beg her to listen to his new composition. I can't believe Shakespeare ever said to Mary Arden, 'I can't see the point in reading and writing. I'm off to kick a ball around with my friends.'

Now I have no illusion that my son is a future Chopin or Shakespeare. But what if they had in fact been like any other child and their mothers did have to sit on them to make them practise writing or the piano? What if we only have Hamlet and the Preludes because their mothers went through years and years of cajoling and coaxing? What if Shakespeare's mother had merely left it at 'Get on with it on your own while I write my own play, sort out the accounts, make a few gloves', and he never had? What if by not making my child do something he would really rather avoid, I am stopping him finding his true mission?

Perhaps the idea that natural talent will out of its own accord is wrong. Or, more prosaically, what if he fails to meet educational averages because I didn't force him to do his homework?

It must, I think over the morning battle, be easier if there were no choices. Shakespeare's mother didn't have to wrest him away from the Gameboy. Even if the natural world beckoned, it must have rained quite often and then perhaps writing a story or doing some sums wouldn't seem like quite such a torture.

How far do you force a child to do something you believe has intrinsic worth, in what the child regards as their own time? When I worked in a boarding school, lots of families came to us just because they couldn't bear the scenes over homework any longer.

Children's motivation to work on things they don't particularly want to work on varies enormously. In my experience, it bears little relation to innate ability. Neither can it be down to families. I know many families where one child will settle into work at home completely undirected (the bliss of it!) while a sibling will need constant chivvying and supervision.

It's not the quality of the teaching either. My son adores his school and counts the hours until his next piano lesson.

The attractiveness of the task is clearly a factor but then everything I can think of has boring parts to it. No superteacher in the world can make every

aspect of a subject the all-singing, all-dancing entertainment children seem to expect. At some stage, you have to learn the spellings, practise the multiplications or do the scales.

So should you stand over them if they don't rush to do their homework or practise the piano? Both my father and husband have gained and given immense pleasure from playing the piano as adults and both claim their mothers sat with them to make them practise for years on end. That would justify it. But what if you ruin family harmony and destroy those precious hours of holiday time just for your child to scrape a pass at Grade 1, age 13, never to touch the instrument again?

Sarah Evans is headmistress at King Edward VI High School for Girls, Edgbaston.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 19, 2002
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