More on the Interested Child Mindset: On Doing Things Badly and the Cult of Expertise

We live in an age that venerates expertise and success, when children specialize in a single sport by puberty and when family cars accumulate miles transporting kids to and from lessons and tutorials, workshops and competitions. Ten thousand repetitions and probably as many tears are rites of passage for children bred to ambition by ambitious families, and mediocrity is viewed as failure.

We occasionally worry that The Interested Child may in some way contribute to this exhausting program of accomplishing. This regimen frames too many American childhoods and adolescences, starting far too early and ending too often with a hollow emotional thud! barely audible beneath the applause as college acceptances roll in or similar external rewards pile up. I’m not sure what values this promotes in the end, but I have my suspicions.

My grandfather, a reflective educator whose own library was filled with how-to books on subjects that interested him through his life but on which he was no expert, used to cite G. K. Chesterton’s contrarian take on the adulation of expertise: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” (We referred to this adage in a post a few months back.) I have tried to take these words to heart in my own life and parenting, and we are pleased to remind our readers here of their profound wisdom.

My interpretation of Chesterton’s maxim: If someone truly enjoys doing something, then let the pleasure of doing it take precedence over doing it perfectly or even particularly well. Enjoy the doing as an end in itself. It’s okay to let go of the mantra that failure is only a step on the road to success; enjoying something that we don’t do all that well is just fine—contrary to cultural messages that a thing is worth doing only if it yields an impressive line item on a c.v. or a profit.

I can think of only one area where Americans seem to allow themselves wide latitude in performance: golf. Duffers may strive for years to be better, but shooting par remains a distant goal for all but near-professionals. Most golfers are surprisingly philosophical about being average, or a bit worse, but for most golfers (at least the ones I have known) the camaraderie and perhaps the scenery seem to be adequate recompense for “a good walk spoiled” around 18 holes.

Our task is gently to urge our children to try new things and then support them in engaging more deeply with the ones they seem to like. But we must not, in our parental exuberance and our own embrace of the Cult of the Expert, push them where our hearts and hopes, and not theirs, are leading. If they enjoy something, take something away from an experience, then that might be as far as it goes. We can dangle carrots to entice and encourage, but we must not resort to even the most metaphorical of coercive sticks in our quest to help kids learn to identify, follow, and build upon their own interests.

I’ll offer myself as an example here. I have played the guitar for going on fifty years, but I’m not very good and unlikely to get much better. I own a nice instrument and early on I really did practice for the requisite hours to achieve “expertise,” but about thirty years ago I hit a plateau, and now I mostly play when no one else is home. But my limitations as a musician don’t limit the pleasure I take in making music.

We like to think of The Interested Child as a mindset, not a checklist or a roadmap—as a compendium of ideas that might intrigue, not an enumeration of imperatives.

#75. Learn to play a new musical instrument—fun matters more than virtuosity

IDEA #75. Learn to play a new musical instrument. You don’t have to be great—you just have to have some fun doing it.

There are so many musical instruments from which to choose: obscure, ethnically specific, loud, soft, heavenly, harsh. Why not give one a try, even if you regard yourself as a complete musical incompetent?

It seems that there is almost nothing so central to what makes us human as our ability to make and enjoy music. The simple kazoo or any sort of drum can satisfy this inner need, but so can bagpipes, a didgeridoo, a gamelan, an Appalachian dulcimer, or a bassoon. Music lessons are everywhere these days, from the Internet (try YouTube!) to a surprising number of expert teachers in nearly every community. One can choose one’s instrument for reasons of cost, portability, family heritage, cool sound, or any other reason.

Although virtuosity may lurk just beneath a heretofore unmusical skin, the development of musical skill might well be described in the words of G. K. Chesterton, who maintained that “A thing worth doing is worth doing badly.” In other words, if the activity brings pleasure and satisfaction, it does not matter whether the young musician will ever be ready for Carnegie Hall—the pleasure is in the doing, and half the of that in the struggle to make something that sounds even half-good on a difficult instrument.

Of course, if the mastery of the instrument also involves learning to read some form of musical notation (and along with the familiar Western scale there are many others from other cultural traditions or that respond specifically to the needs of a complex instrument or musical genre) the benefit is multiplied many times. To sight read is to be literate in a whole new language, a language as beautiful and important as one’s native tongue.

The musical urge may be a passing fancy or a lifelong passion; it does not much matter. But for the time in which the child of any age from 3 to 93 gives him or herself over to learning the instrument, the lessons of concentration, mind-body coordination, perseverance, and musical understanding will lay behavioral and neural foundations of lasting value.

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