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Due to a successful piano lesson, Amy Choate-Nielsen reflects on what it's like to worry about how to help her children be happy in life.

This week, my daughter sat at the piano next to her piano teacher and plunked out a melody in almost-perfect time. It was her first duet.

When it was over, her teacher praised her performance and my daughter acknowledged she missed a note or two, but then she proudly said, “I’m good at playing the piano.” My beating heart almost fell out of my chest and onto the floor.

I was shocked.

It was as though that moment had just twisted itself into a tiny, electric ball that represented nine years of parenting, and it flashed before my eyes with a twinkle before it exploded into a shower of glitter and confusion.

You see, there is little more in life that occupies my mind than my children’s happiness. My ultimate goal in life is to raise my children to be independent, self-reliant and happy. And most of the time, I’m not sure how I’m doing.

Most of the time, the things I think will make my children happy — like learning how to manage their time or read or say, play the piano — just make them mad. Earlier that same day, I had had a typical fight with my daughter over practicing the piano. She wanted to watch TV instead. But, in my view, TV doesn’t make you happy.

Learning a skill, building self-confidence, being a part of something, that can make you happy. Right? When I was in high school, I was on the swim and track teams, I belonged to the school’s chamber choir, the environmental club, the school newspaper and a peer mentor group. When I felt left out or disconnected from my friends, which was often enough, I had one group or the other to spend time with, and people with common interests.

So, that’s how I made it through some tough years, even after high school was over. Now I realize it wasn’t enough to make it through for me, I’ve got to do it again and again and again for each of my kids because I feel what they feel. When their feelings are hurt, mine are hurt. When they feel left out, I feel left out. I’m powerless to prevent all of that pain, but I’m driven to equip them with whatever lessons I’ve learned.

And I’ve learned that I’m not alone in my desire to help my kids be involved. According to a 2015 study from the Pew Research Center about social and demographic trends of the American family today, 73 percent of families with a child age 6 to 17 said their child participated in sports the year before the survey was taken. Among families with a higher income, 84 percent of parents said their children participated in sports, and 62 percent said their child took music, dance or art lessons. Families with lower incomes said their children participated in those activities about 20 percent less than the higher income families.

In my experience, the race to get kids involved begins at about age 3.

Seriously. Dance, soccer, tumbling, T-ball — it all starts then. Preschool speculation starts at age 2. If you miss the deadline for signing up for any of the above, you’re dead in the water. It stresses me out. I worry, trying to plan a decade ahead, when life doesn’t always work that way. Somewhere there is a line between preparing for life’s opportunities and going with the flow, but it eludes me.

When my grandmother Fleeta told her children she wanted them to learn how to swim and play the piano, it was a matter of practicality. For one thing, if they knew how to swim, they’d have a better chance of not drowning if they fell in the water, and for another, if they knew how to play the piano, they could fill in at church if the pianist never showed up. Brilliant.

3 comments on this story

I’m following in her footsteps, but half of the time I wonder, why am I doing this? The time, the money, the battle over practicing, is that really going to make my child happy? I’m the one that is supposed to have the long-term perspective. I bet the answer is yes, and so I forge on.

Then, in that moment, after days and hours and months of saying she is no good at piano, my daughter had a breakthrough. She sat down and she played that song, she bounced her wrists when her fingers struck the keys just like they were supposed to, and she didn’t stop and crumple when she played a wrong note. She beamed. She giggled. She felt good about herself.

And that, battle notwithstanding and glitter galore, is better in my book than TV any day.