Monday, October 7, 2013

Parenting a musically talented child: Understanding your own reactions so you can encourage your child

Part One: Awareness

Most parents delight when their child performs in a recital or school concert. Yet they usually recognize that these musical efforts are an enriching activity and not a future career path. What happens, though, when parents realize that their child is musically gifted? How do they react to this, support their child’s growth as a musician, and make the best choices for their child and family?

Although parents may suspect that their child has talent, it usually takes outside confirmation to validate their perceptions. Often it comes from a music teacher or instructor, and is reinforced as the family witnesses how their child surpasses other children and grasps music in a manner well beyond the child’s years. When parents eventually realize that their child is musically gifted, they may be flooded with a range of feelings. How well they manage their feelings and reactions, and how these reactions are conveyed to their child can influence their child’s attitudes toward music. 

Developing an awareness of these emotions is a critical first step toward gaining a handle on them. Without understanding what they are feeling, parents may end up responding in counterproductive ways. The first step is recognizing the typical reactions most parents experience. These may include:

Excitement – Parents are often thrilled when they realize that their child is musically talented. They may take pride in their child’s abilities, and perhaps even feel in awe of his or her talents. If the child is their biological offspring, reactions may range from immodest pride (“I guess he’s got my musical skills”) to bewilderment (“how did I end up with such a talented child?”). Parents who are also musicians may feel a special bond with their child, as they can fully appreciate the child’s experience.  

Uncertainty – Along with excitement, parents often feel uncertainty. Many wonder how to best support their child’s abilities. And if they are not musicians themselves, entering an unfamiliar world of new terminology and expectations can be particularly daunting. They may question whether they can find the best resources for training, how to assess their child’s teacher or music class, and if they will be able to afford the costs of lessons, ensembles, camps and other opportunities. They may wonder what role they should play in their child’s daily routine and how much to push their child. Should they be a taskmaster and insist on regular practice, or allow their child to develop at his or her own pace? Have they done enough to foster their child’s musical growth and development? Even if they follow advice from teachers and other musicians, nagging doubts may remain.

Fears - After the initial excitement fades, many parents worry about what lies ahead. Music study takes tremendous discipline and dedication, and the commitment often eliminates time for other extra-curricular or social opportunities. Parents may feel conflict over limiting their child's extra-curricular choices to make time for dedicated practice. Some parents also worry that their child will be ostracized because of appearing different, and will be unpopular, especially if he or she performs traditional classical music or musical theatre. If their child performs jazz, rock or alternative forms of music, parents may worry about negative peer influences their child may eventually encounter. Long-range concerns include college planning, realistic career choices and whether a music career can sustain a viable income.

Emotional turmoil – Parents also weather the emotional ups and downs of their child’s successes and failures. Pride and excitement following a solid performance, anxiety prior to an audition, or frustration when their child lags behind with practicing all come with the territory. Parents may be surprised to discover their own competitive feelings toward children who surpass their child at auditions, or feel guilt due to ambivalence about their child’s involvement with music. Some may resent the cost of lessons and instruments, and the time spent traveling to rehearsals or competitions. Many feel saddened and angry if their talented child fails to live up to his or her potential or gives up music completely.

Raising a musically talented child can be invigorating, frustrating, intense, infuriating, worrisome, joyful, and deeply fulfilling. Parents' increased awareness of their own feelings will improve their ability to support their child by reducing the tendency to respond in a counterproductive manner. (More about this in Part Two.) Once parents are aware of their reactions, thoughts and feelings, they can take steps to minimize any negative effects on themselves and their children.

Part two will focus on what parents can do to address their reactions. But the first step is awareness. Are there any reactions that you would like to share?


  1. It always bothered me that I felt competitive toward other kids who performed with my daughter's band. It is helpful to hear how normal those feelings are. Thanks.

  2. Anonymous,

    Thanks for sharing a common reaction most parents feel but are reluctant to say out loud.

  3. I was a guitar shredder in the 80's. I spent years studying the guitar. My 12 year old son has already surpassed me in less than a year. I can't believe how lucky I am but I'm struggling with jealousy as well as the right path for him to take.

  4. My child is such hard work at the moment and we are struggling to find a way forward.
    Musically she impresses teachers, specialists, musicians and all her teachers.
    Academically, she is not putting in any effort at all and is getting into trouble this last term.
    She is at a specialist music school.
    I'm worried what it does to their mental health tbh. They are told how good they are all the time and she thinks she doesn't have to conform, she is special somehow, put on this earth for music. She has had this since being about 7 when she first started singing and having added several other instruments since.
    She is really disorganised and the school are now helping her with strategies to overcome this, but she refuses to meet them half way.
    She is just 12 and at the moment as much as I love her she is making our life unbearable with worry.

    1. I hope that you can seek out some help from the school and/or a counselor to sort out what she is experiencing. Good luck.

  5. My child just entered high school. After a couple of years of homeschooling during which he spent virtually every free waking moment composing or listening to music he's stoPped. He sure school doesn't give him the mental or emotional to create. He hates school (not new) but he is letting go of one thing that was so important to him. He's becoming very depressed and I'm at a loss as to how too help him.