Playful, elegant, and not above the judicious use of the word “shit."

Try, try again

Leta has been taking piano lessons for over a year and half, and her relationship with this activity is complicated. If she ever starts dating a paraplegic in Russia who doesn’t speak English and can’t move to America because he has 14 foster kids I’ll say, “Remember piano lessons? You can handle this!”

She long ago surpassed my skill level and the only help I can give her during her daily practice sessions is to tell her to play through everything twice. Sometimes I’ll sit with her and nod if I think it sounded right, but some of you are probably like WAIT LETA DO NOT TRUST HER. Because Radiohead sounds right to me. In fact, this is my all time favorite Radiohead song:

Yes, I’m totally serious. Don’t look at me like that.

She’s got talent in spades, but she gets very frustrated when she has to learn a new song. I wrote about this when she turned eight, how the perfectionism she inherited from me can turn a wrong note into the destruction of her future. When she can’t play a new song right the first time, everything that has ever gone wrong in her life surfaces and that A flat she missed is now suddenly cancer. And it has spread into every organ. Oh, and now she’s on the floor. Yep, she’s lying on the floor. And she says she’s dying. Sure sounds like she’s dying.

Once she learns the song, however, she’s delighted to play it. Well, okay. Sort of. She’s delighted to play it once. That I make her play everything twice every day is something she will bring up again and again as evidence that I was the meanest mother who ever lived. And every time she does it I’ll ask her if I ever broke a lamp over her head like Great Granny Hamilton did to Grandpa Mike and then remind her that SOMEONE got to eat Fruity Pebbles for dinner every night AND IT WASN’T GRANDPA MIKE.

Here’s where some of you are totally going to disagree with me and possibly judge my parenting style. And that’s fine. That’s cool. We can still be friends. You can still come over for a glass of wine. I might spit in it first, but you won’t even notice.

Leta has more than once begged to quit piano. There have been a few songs that were so difficult for her to learn than she wanted to pick up the piano and throw it across the room. And I understand the distress she was experiencing. It’s a distress that she will encounter in various experiences throughout her life. Quitting gets rid of that momentary frustration, but it doesn’t help her learn how to work toward any sort of resolution. So she doesn’t get to quit.

Would the meanest mother who ever lived please stand up? Oh look. I’ve been standing here the whole time.

On Saturday Leta had Federation where she was required to play two memorized songs in front of three judges. In preparation for this her teacher gathered all her students for an informal recital at a friend’s home last Wednesday night. I’d been listening closely to Leta’s songs while she practiced them over the last few weeks and noticed she was a little wobbly in the middle of one of them, but when I asked her if she was ready for the recital she waved her hand and assured me she’d do fine. Like, whatever. It’s just piano. It’s not anything important like the “iCarly” series finale.

Unfortunately that wobbly piece reared its ugly head right there in that recital room in front of all of her peers and their parents. She lost her place about thirty seconds into the song, stopped, and then turned in embarrassment to her teacher to ask for direction. The silence at that moment was uncomfortable for everyone in the room but mostly for her.

Every other kid bumbled portions of their songs, too, and later before tucking her into bed I told her I wanted to have a talk.

“Are you mad about the recital?” she asked, worried that her mistake had somehow let me down.

“No, not at all,” I answered and then I rubbed her arm to assure her. “I’m not mad. But I want to ask you something. Do you think you were prepared?”

She shrugged.

“Leta, I don’t care what anyone in that room thought about how you played. In fact, I don’t care what score the judges give you on Saturday.”

“But why? That doesn’t make sense. Why do I have to play in front of judges if it doesn’t matter?”

“It matters that you prepare yourself. It matters that you learn how to prepare. It matters that you know how it feels to be prepared. And that means practicing and messing up and then practicing some more and messing up some more. The judges are there just to give you something to prepare for.”

“But I mess up a lot!”

“We all mess up, Leta,” I explained. “But you learn when you mess up. You get better when you mess up. Don’t be afraid of messing up. The reason your teacher held the recital tonight was so that all of you could look at yourselves and ask, ‘Am I ready? Am I prepared?’ So that all of you could identify what you need to work on.”

“I have so much to work on,” she said and then shook her head as if stranded at the bottom of a mountain.

“Would you like to be prepared for the judges on Saturday?”

“Yes,” she answered but it was more of a question.

“Okay,” I said. “Here’s what we’re going to do. Tomorrow when you get home from school you and I are going to spend as much time as it takes to get those two pieces down. I’m going to walk through the room while you play and I’m going to bang on the coffee table and I’m going to knock over vases. That way you can learn how to ignore everything else and think about the notes.”

“What if you break something?”

“You let me worry about that, okay? Let me help you with this. Because, Leta, you’re looking at one of the worst messer uppers in the world. I know how to learn from messing up.”

And that’s what we did. She sat down at the piano and played her songs while I made the hugest, dumbest, most obnoxious racket I could. I dropped giant books on the floor. I knocked over stools. I suddenly jumped right next to her face and yelled, “CHOCOLATE CHOCOLATE CHOCOLATE CHOCOLATE.”

And she ignored me. She’d miss a note and move on. She’d miss another note and move on. After an hour she could get through both songs without a single hiccup while I banged a pot and pan behind her head.

When we were finished and I high fived her for her hard work she asked, “Can I have some of that chocolate you were talking about?”

Cut to Saturday afternoon. She was dressed formally as is required by the rules of the program, but that didn’t stop her from running up and down a set of stairs to wiggle out her nerves. And, oh, was she nervous. She kept biting her lip and sneaking quick glances at the closed door to the performance room. I didn’t say much, I just rubbed her back here and there while we waited, my way of acknowledging her jitters and reminding her that I was already proud.

federation1

And then they called us in.

It was a tiny room with barely enough space to fit a piano let alone three judges, two parents, and one little sister high on adrenaline (“Marlo, if you are quiet during Leta’s performance we will go home and bake cookies in the oven. Or I could just shoot you.”) Leta stood next to the bench, presented them her sheet music and announced the names of her songs. And then she sat down to play.

I wasn’t nervous about her first song. She’s been able to play it with ease for several months, and she breezed right through it again. In the silent eternity before they signaled that she could begin her next piece, I closed my eyes, pulled a surprisingly cooperative Marlo deeper into my lap and held my breath.

Maybe it was my intuition as a mother, but I could tell after the first note that this was going to be the best she had ever played this song. There was a confidence in the dance between her two hands that I had not ever heard before, a fluidity in the notes that broke my heart with its beauty. When she hit the final, major-key note at the low end of treble clef I involuntarily started bawling. I didn’t want the judges to see or hear me so I hid my face in Marlo’s hair, a futile maneuver because she instantly perked up and screamed, “ARE WE GONNA BAKE COOKIESTH?!”

They told us the scores wouldn’t be revealed for a few days, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter one goddamn bit. Once we were out of the room and around the corner I knelt down so that Leta could see the light in my eyes and I hugged her as hard as I could without hurting her.

“You were so prepared,” I whispered in her ear. “I’m so proud of you. I’m so so so proud.”

federation2

She hugged me back, and when she pulled away her face was beaming. “I did awesome, didn’t I?”

Yes. Yes, she did. She nailed it. And to celebrate we baked the fuck out of those cookies.

  • santa barbara

    I wish my mom had been a little meaner. Dropping piano is one of those regrets that taps me in the back of the head every single time I see a live performance. And that’s a shitload of times. Outstanding parenting!

  • margherita

    wow best Mum of the year .. I’m going to paste this on FB and hope my daughter reads it and learns “being prepared” from you. You are becoming the Mum we all wish we had ….

  • Michele

    As a middle school band teacher I thank you wholeheartedly. I would love it if all my parents were as bad ass and as persistent as you!

  • Cristy

    I begged my mom every day for YEARS to quit piano but she wouldn’t let me. I’m so grateful to have had such a mean mom. You’re doing a great job!

  • andthenyoublink

    Growing up my brother and I played the piano every day. We had to clock the requisite one hour, whether we felt like it or not. I thought that I once I was done with all the piano exams, I would ditch this and play no more. The freedom of growing up! But then I continued playing. I played when I needed to calm my nerves, waiting for exam results, for dates, for job interviews. I played when I was alone for the first time, studying in a different country where nothing was familiar to me. I played when my parents died, when tears would not come, but grief was abundant. When life seems unsettled, when I am sad, or lonely, angry or afraid, I inevitably turn to the piano and play until I can breathe again. By making me stick with my practice all those years back, my mother gave me what would be my most constant companion in the later years of my life.

  • Mette

    The only parenting element of this post that I disagree with is the piano. Can’t stand them. Otherwise I think I’ll do my best to parent my children in a similar way when they get to this age.
    I used to dance and would put this kind of pressure on myself, but fortunately I loved dancing and could rehearse anywhere, even in my head with tiny toe taps and wrist flicks.
    Awesome job mom!!

  • I love this story. You know your daughter; I’d venture to guess you wouldn’t parent Marlo in exactly the same way.

    I was a perfectionist child as well, and it was to my detriment when my desire to be perfect made me give up, or just not even try to begin with. For a child like this it is invaluable to have a sensitive parent who knows when and how to help push her through it. I am so happy for you both that you had this triumphant moment.

  • Congratulations to you both! Being prepared is awesome. You nailed it!

  • Heidi

    I’m so proud of Leta right there with you. Watching that amazing child grow up has been a blessing to my life and to my daughter (1) who will be taught and raised with tips and tricks I’ve learned from reading you. Leta’s success is yours too. Nice job, Dooce.

  • LOVE this story. :::::high five::::: Leta!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Hey, you. Good job.

    Once my daughter started those struggles I said to myself, “No one I ever met said, ‘I’m glad I quit piano when I was a kid’.” Quite the opposite. Music is a great tool for expression, learning about practice and struggling, and regular accomplishments. I love that she loves it and I now know the difference between hating imperfection and hating the piano.

  • KJarstar

    way to go!

  • KobeandCo

    Thanks for that – I needed to read that. Your a great mom – doing the best you can in each moment. Bravo.

  • Jennifer Cafferty

    Simply awesome. Awesome for Leta for sticking with it and nailing it, and awesome to YOU as a mom.

  • dazthelibrarian

    I really, really wish my mom hadn’t let me quit piano. Leta will thank you 🙂 Also, this whole story sounds like a super awesome parenting moment, IMHO.

  • BongMom

    Can totally understand this. We go through the same with our 9 year old and her piano. She has been playing for almost 3 years now, is good but arrghh the practice, the practice. I think it is important that as parents we don’t let them quit, because they are too young to understand that just because something is hard work does not mean you quit, instead as you said “you prepare”.
    Very happy for Leta

  • LuluinLaLa

    This is so timely as I’ve been thinking lately about how I quit every single sport or activity I joined as a kid. I quit gymnastics at seven because I was scared of the competition. At eight, I signed up for skiing only to quit after the first day. Quit soccer after one year on junior varsity. Quit cheerleading after a random basketball game in my junior year because I was overwhelmed. I’m sure there were more. I don’t blame my mother for letting me quit, but I certainly wish I’d had SOMEONE who questioned my choices, made me try harder. My life turned out fine – I got into a good college, have been steadily employed for 15 years because I actually have an amazing work ethic – but I think my childhood might have been different if I’d been forced to see at least one activity through.

  • Lisa

    Good mom!

  • Apost8 but not a quitter

    Take it from me, a teacher, that UR DOIN IT RIGHT! The quitter instinct is strong in the upcoming generation. My current high school students have so much quit in them I don’t know how they even get dressed in the morning!
    Also, I begged my mom almost twice a week for a couple of years to quit dance – an activity I had begun at age 2. She never let me because I always begged in mid-season (yes, dance has seasons, weird) after I’d already enrolled for another year and had committed to the rest of my dance team that I was with them for another year. Her emphasis on not letting others down once you’d committed to them was my lesson learned from not being allowed to quit. It has served me well. And guess what? I’ve now been a dance teacher for 7 years! Not only did my mother not allow me to be a quitter, she also unwittingly turned my generic major (Exercise Science) into something much more attractive and marketable. 18 years of dance experience by age 20! When all the PE jobs were being cut in my district, I was able to transfer seamlessly into Dance and save my own bacon! Even if she quits piano the day she leaves your house, this life lesson will remain. GO LETA! And GO RESPONSIBLE PARENTING! 🙂

  • Apost8

    Afterthought: The band director at my school has a quote above his door that reads, “Don’t practice until you get it RIGHT. Practice until you CAN’T GET IT WRONG.” It seems to go along nicely with your preparedness message.

  • WasatchMama

    And my contacts are bothering me.

  • Kate

    Screw you all. I AM crying.

  • Barb Bristol

    I’ve got tears in my eyes… what a wonderful story about one of the most important lessons a parent can teach a child. Remember: sometimes “wrong is wonderful” – those are the best life lessons.

  • rebecca

    congrats, to Leta! she’s adorable.

  • Angela

    Heather, I took piano at the same age as Leta and when I was 11 or so, had a very similar ‘recital’ in which I was judged while playing my pieces from memory. I failed majorly. Even though I practiced and practiced and practiced, one part of one song dislodged in my brain and I forgot everything after it. I restarted. And restarted again. I finally had to jump over that part and just continue on but that moment, and that song, has stuck with me forever. Even now, at 37, when I sit at the piano, I make sure to play it through just once to give my 11-year old self the satisfaction of not messing up.

  • Courtney

    My mom let me quit everything, and in the twisted way things turn out, i was mad at her for it later. I would have been better off being mad that she made me stick with something, than having to sort out commitment, fear of failure, and preparedness issues as an adult. its not that I’m still mad at her, I’m just saying, hold Leta to it. She probably won’t thank you, but only because she won’t know how bad it can be when you don’t learn that stuff early. You’re doing a great job.

  • hales

    Parenting win. I don’t even know what to say, but I teared up when I read this. Good job, mama. You taught Leta one of the most difficult lessons in life, and she will always remember that sense of accomplishment.

  • Anne

    I had piano lessons from age 9 to 19 and there are always times when you get frustrated, but in the end it pays off like nothing you can imagine.

    Strangely, even though I went through phases when I didn’t practice I never considered quitting, but I wasn’t a perfectionist like Leta, I just got lazy sometimes. I remember my grandfather telling me a couple of times that if I wasn’t practicing, it didn’t make sense to keep on having lessons and that scared the sh*t out of me, since I didn’t want to quit. So, in a weird (and probably unintentional way) that could be a huge motivator.

    Anyhow, keep doing what you do. It’s obvious, Leta is talented, it’s obvious that she likes it and for me there’s nothing greater than being able to play an instrument, to just being able to sit down at a piano and play and tune out everything else. She will be thankful.

  • sdr

    It’s good that you don’t let her quit when things get rough. My mom let me quit piano (and other things) when I wanted because they got “too hard.” I still do that to this day as an adult. When things get too hard or too frustrating, I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and I just quit.

  • Deb

    Beautiful Leta–I got “choked up”, just reading your lovely story 🙂

  • Eu

    That’s really sweet, and it made me cry for the first time since I’ve started reading your blog. y’know, reading about Leta when she was a toddler and also Marlo’s shenanigans are super fun and make me laugh. but your writing on the Leta who’s growing up now? super complex, super interesting, and in some ways so much better!

  • Crystal

    This post made me cry like a baby. You’re a wonderful mother, and your girls are so lucky to have you.

  • Damnit! You made me sit here with tears in my eyes AT WORK! You sound like one of the bestest moms in the world, who just wants the very best for her daughters. Being a parent isn’t about letting your children do whatever they want, it’s about loving them as hard as you can and preparing them for life as best as you can. Because life can be hard, and your little ones will have it a bit easier if they know that it isn’t all lollipops and rainbows. Heather, you rock! And of course a big round of applause for Leta, it’s been amazing to “see” her grow up into such a cute little lady.

  • Annalisa

    From a stranger’s perspective, one who only knows you through this blog, this was some of your BEST parenting.

  • Jenn H.

    Oh god, this is why I love you and your family, Doociekins! (Ehh…not in a freaky, stalkery way, though.) Mean? Hardly! Everybody’s different, parents and children, so everybody’s parenting styles HAVE to be different. (This I say boldly, with a ton of baggage behind me, in the form of unwanted advice from bossy family members. Ahem.)

  • JJ

    This is a great story! When I was 8 I started piano lessons and my parents warned me that if I started I didn’t get to quit when it became hard. Sure, fine, whatever, because at 8 you just agree to get what you want. Well a few months after starting I broke my arm and I thought this was the prayer I’d been waiting for that was going to get me out of piano lessons. No dice, I had to keep going and play with the broken arm. Damnit. I had to practice every day, working up to 45 minutes a day by the time I had my last piano lesson when I graduated high school. 10 years of piano! Looking back I’m glad I stuck with it because it taught me discipline and how to prepare for recitals and festivals like Leta just went through. Plus it taught me that sometimes you just have to suck it up and put up with something even when it’s hard. Keeping her going with piano might make you the meanest mom right now, but it just might earn you a mom of the year down the road.

  • Adrienne R

    Agreed. And thanks for reminding the rest of us mean moms why we do why we do.

  • MIQ VERSE

    This is extremely awesome and I have to applaud you as a parent myself because this is my family’s philosophy as well. If you start something you have to finish because in my opinion it prepares your child for obstacles in the future!

  • Momofa13yearold

    Darn, I was going to have my daughter read this….until I saw the last line. Nice piece but I would have loved to have been able to share it with my daughter so she could learn from it as well.

  • Angie

    I’ve been reading your blog forever but have never commented. This most definitely made me tear up. As a fellow parent I would be hesitant to insist my child keep doing an activity that she showed dislike for over and over. However, I absolutely love the lesson that she learned and the sense of pride and accomplishment she received from working so hard. I will remember this story as my child gets older and gets involved in things that she may want to quit. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Frizz

    As an adult I’m realizing when things get hard, I give up. I wish I had had Leta’s lesson drilled into my head when I was her age. Making mistakes is part of the journey, it’s OK. Hard work and perseverance can take you to places you never thought possible! Leta’s a lucky girl!

  • Hmmmm

    Thank you so much! I have let my child quit too many things, and lately a series of things have come my way to make me re-evaluate this. OK, guitar lessons will continue.

  • I just burst out in tears. What a fantastic story. Thank you again for sharing, and thank you to Leta for letting you share.

  • Meegs

    Parenting WIN moment.

  • Averil

    I only wish my mum had done what you did with Leta. Maybe then wouldn’t have quit my piano lessons after a few years and today I would be able to play more than a bad rendition of chopsticks… Anyone who says you are a bad mother needs to shut the hell up and bugger off. You’re a great mum, anyone can attest to that.

  • Kristina

    Me TOO.

  • Violinnovator

    Brava, Leta! What song was this that provoked such a reaction?

  • Jodi

    Congrats Leta (and heather) for a recital well done!!!

  • kendahl

    You are such an amazing mother. I hope you know that. I would love to be like you one day.

  • Good god this is beautiful. TEARS! You brought tears to my eyes. I almost want kids now.