#42 What "packs" does your child run in? Are they the right ones and how can you make them better?
Updated: May 16
By Christy | the Practicing Pro
Last time I talked about being involved in too many activities and how it will affect a student's success in playing an instrument. Today I want to talk about doing activities in groups and how that helps our children but also what to watch for if a child is struggling. Next week is the third in this series and we talk about the specific THINGS to look for that your child is stressed.
I have a few students I teach who are dancing, a member of a sports team, as well as playing music - and all at high levels. Often these student’s tendencies are to be physically stiff and tight when they play their instrument. Have you experienced this with some of your own students or your child?
Tightness, of course, is caused mainly by stress, and you know these kids doing multi-high level activities can sometimes have a lot of stress. Their world is made up of expectations. I had a daughter in high-level highland dance who was always competing and doing exams. I had another daughter in a college ballet program dancing hours and hours each day when she was just a young teen. Expectations that are put upon them by their peers, their coaches, their teachers, their parents, or even put on them by themselves can be very high!
In some sports, academics, and also in music, their own goals and the goals others have set for them can cause them to have a lot of stress and can start at a very young age. As a parent or a teacher, it is your job to watch for signs of too much.
I have noticed over many years working with children, that when they do an activity with the same group of kids either as a team or as a single competitor training in a group, they develop behaviors like if they were “running in a pack”. What do I mean by that?
The teams, groups, and communities that form around the activities your child is doing are like a pack. You know the incredible dog sleds that used to run in the far North (and still do). What these teams do together that could not be done alone is incredible! They help each other, motivate, take turns being the strongest, teach each other. It’s pretty amazing what they accomplish as a team together.
Children working together also experience these benefits. Developing their skills in a group the ones in the community become “their people” as they “run” with the group in a team. Often these people make up the child’s social world. Some children are in two or three packs, some are even in six or seven! No matter the number, multiple packs can bring a great deal of happiness, confidence, acceptance, and richness to a child's life BUT it can also add a lot of stress to a child when they are trying to run with multiple packs. They of course want to keep up with the others in their group and want to be a valued member inside of that pack’s community.
Some children feel pressure to be at the very front of their pack, as the best and fastest runner. Some are pressured to stay in the middle of their pack. Children that run in multiple packs will often be trying to just not “fall behind” in their pack and keeping up is their main focus.
Let’s look at three of the most common groups that I see:
There could be some activities that are very demanding on the students while they run in their pack.
For example, being in a strong Suzuki program can be a very demanding pack to run in. The volume of music to learn and perfect can be a lot if they are doing book concerts, maybe they are doing RCM exams, playing in an orchestra or two, a member of a quartet and a performance group. Wow! Then add to that the theory and music history classes needed to pass an RCM exam. It’s A Lot! When done all at one school with one group of students it does make it much easier. But it can also be a big pack to run in!
Higher level team sports can also be like this with daily or multiple practices each week, extra dance or stretch classes, extra fitness/strength classes, and competitions or game schedules on top. These groups can become strong packs and provide a wonderful childhood and growth for your child but again watch for them being overstressed.
Church teen groups can also be the same with many programs and activities on their schedule. My children grew up with a daily early morning study class before high school, Monday nights with a family activity, Sunday mornings at church, Wednesday nights youth group, and then a few times a month there were bigger activities, dances, service projects, etc... The expectations were high in this pack for their time and their energy that they all ran in.
The members of each of these communities, I used as examples, are constantly setting expectations and goals with and for your child. Because of this, there is growth but also pressure on children involved in each group to accomplish those goals..
Running in a pack can be both motivating and supportive. An ideal pack is one that when your child is doing well they then have the opportunity to help others that might need an extra hand. Watch for this aspect in a program and choose those programs. Then, alternatively, if your child is having a period in their life when they are struggling that's when the pack is there to help them along. It works both ways! In a pack or strong community is where so many wonderful life lessons can be learned. This is one of the most valuable ones, to help others and to grow together.
I had a wonderful group that did a lot together. One of the families was having personal home issues and was unhappy. They started being critical and unkind to others. It was very hard on everyone in the group. Finally after much discussion, and realizing that the problems were bigger than I could help with, a few other families also tried to help, but sadly, in the end, I had to ask the family to discontinue if the behavior didn’t change. It was so hard for me, but as the leader of the group, it was my job to protect everyone in my care and make a healthy community for all. The family did leave and after a few months with the unkindness gone, the pack returned to being a wonderful place again and the children and families thrived. Packs can be an unhealthy place to be in, so again, as a parent and as a teacher it's your job to watch and observe. Make sure you know if your child is in a good place that's building them up or if you need to take them out quickly. Remember things change too, so always keep watching.
As a teacher and as a parent, it's our job to really observe your child and your students and know what's going on in their lives. Keep tabs on them and their packs. Remember the student/family who made their group a negative one? Well on the flip side I have had so many special families over the years that have ADDED to the positivity and success of a pack!
Here are a few things families have done to “build their packs” in the past
You can get a big list of ideas in a PDF download in this week's Blog. Link in below / in Bio
Bringing surprise pizzas to a long late rehearsal
Teaching their kids to never leave without asking the teacher what they can do to help clean up
Making thankyou notes for the accompanist
A surprise gift left for the building cleaner
A financial donation for new costumes when they saw that was needed
Parents who get to know the other families and not just dropping off and picking up their kids
Offering to carpool, etc… (so many more ideas in the free download)
I have those families too! They make everything so wonderful! As a parent in a community or a teacher in a school THAT’S WHO YOU WANT TO BE! Never be the complacent one who “just comes” and never be the negative one who inspires unkindness or competition. Make your children's packs they run in better because you are in it.
When a child gets to the point where (like we went over in the last blog - #1 of 3 lessons in this series) their funnels are getting big, so their multiple packs are getting more demanding, and they're running harder and faster and longer now every day. As a parent, you need to notice when it's too much. Remember when they start out and they are a young beginner it's easier but as they advance in level more time and energy is required.
Your child will come to a point in their life on many occasions where they have a choice the packs they will stay with and the ones they will drop. They can either do less and drop something or strive to find different ways to balance their activities. But for some children, it’s not always as simple as “just stopping.”
When considering dropping an activity, we need to know who/ what is influencing their mindset Is it their family? Or is it coming from with in themselves? Here are three different types of children that are doing too many things:
If their family is the one that's encouraging them to do five things and keep up with their cousin, Sarah, who also does five things, then doing less might not be an option for your student. The pressure at home could be MORE stressful than the pressure to keep up. This is when a teacher can talk to the parents and present to them the signs of over stress that they are seeing. (see part 3 of this series)
If the pressure to continue is coming from themselves (the student), then they might not have the ability to quiet those voices in their head that say “if you quit, you have failed”, they might feel like “I couldn't do it all and I should have been able too”, or “my friend can do both, so I should be able to too”. If this is the case then they’re going to need a different kind of help before they drop anything.
There isn't pressure they just LOVE lots of things and need to learn to manage that personality, with your help.
It's really important that with these children, both the first kind and the second kind, that you are careful with them. They may not be able to stop something without emotional issues more than the stress from doing multiple activities. In these cases, it's best to seek out professional help and have a lot of communication. Before expecting them or asking them to drop things, make sure you understand “why” they're doing so many activities. Once you figure out “why” then you can talk about how they can leave one activity at a time and be ok with it. They might not be able to.
A teen is good at swimming - REALLY GOOD.
They are winning trophies and excelling at it and have a future in swimming as a job, or for a potential scholarship even to help them pay for school someday….so they can’t stop that! But you observe that they are swimming with the group but not socializing with the group at all. They mostly stay to themselves and work hard as an individual and for their coach.
In Music class, however, they also have a demanding schedule.
The music schedule often conflicts with the swimming schedule. Both the music director is frustrated with them missing music rehearsals for swim meets and the swim instructor gets angry with them when they miss swimming for music concerts. It's a balance that's not working now when it used to work so well.
As an observing parent, you see that they are not excelling in music as they do in swimming though. You also observe that when they go to orchestra they laugh and smile the whole time and you see their personality blooming and shining. Their orchestra goes to music festival and places 2nd, 3rd, or not at all and never gets first place. You don't see music as something they will pursue as a career.
Now if a parent doesn't observe their child they might miss how important the orchestra is and insist that the swimming, with all of their first-place trophies, comes first and take them out of orchestra class. See how this would be detrimental to the child and not the right choice? See how important it is to really know and observe your child?
What do you do in this situation?
In this second example, you help them to organize better instead of dropping an activity you know that they need. You know as a parent that they need them both. Every child is unique and needs different things. Meet with both the music director and the swim coach and see if you can communicate well with them and make a situation that will work for them. You also help your child to organize better and always be on time and prepared for both activities. They will need to be a superstar at staying organized. Like any skill, this is something you learn and practice to become better at.
The third example - the Natural Multi activity person
There are people in this world, (I'm one of them), that do a lot of things, and they do them either “ok” or really well! Some people love being busy and enjoy having their multiple activities define who they are.
I can use myself as an example for this.
I typically like to have my hand in three different pots, but sometimes I can do too many things! That’s when I have to step back and I have to look at what I'm doing and the time I am spending on each thing and when in my day. I might need to put a pause on one activity for a few days or months or even a year and come back to it at another time. I don't like to not be able to do something I want to - but, I have learned that I can put it on pause until another time and do the other more important things first. I can also track how I am using my time each day and really maximize it. A superstar of organizing. Get rid of distractions, make sure I am eating well and sleeping enough, I can ask for help. All of these skills you can teach your child if this is their personality and they will THRIVE! IF this is their personality, like me, and what they need.
As a parent, this is your job to figure this out.
And you know, these are often the students/ children that will go on to be event planners, or run companies, or like me run a big Suzuki school and a few other also big projects on the side that they also LOVE and can't imagine not doing.
So, having a child or student with a personality that wants to do multiple things, don't be in a rush to jump on them that is a bad thing to always be busy. Because it's not always a bad thing - sometimes it's an amazing thing! Look at a child who does musical theater with passion. They need to sing, dance, and act! That's a lot of things to be proficient in!
So then your job, for this third child, is to figure out how to help them to be more efficient with what they're doing in their time. This is one of the main parts we work on in the online course I teach “the Suzuki Practicing Academy”. I suggest bringing this as a goal to a course next time it runs (only twice a year) so watch for it, and figure out how to BEST teach your child to organize their practice time to accomplish the MOST progress in the least amount of time. Did you know that you can easily accomplish in a 30-minute practice that is focused and following the SPA program what you could do in an unorganized 60-minute practice? And your child will have more fun since the practice is built on how they learn the best and what motivates them to learn!
So if you want more effective, positive, and fun daily practices, this is the course for you, and I’ll see you there!
Next time we talk about the specific things to look for in your child as signs that they are stressed.
I would just like to end with a quick thought because it actually happened to me recently.
Be very careful with the words you use that label children.
Watch out for things like:
“Wow you play the violin so well and you play BOTH the violin and piano too...that’s amazing!”
“You do all of those things? Wow, you are a super kid!”
“She does so many things - she’s so smart”
“You do so much you are incredible!”
“You can practice violin - Zara plays violin piano and sings! - surely you can do JUST violin”
See how all of these things send the message that MORE is better. More is not better, more is just different. All children and all families are different. Observe and honor who your child is. Never make them feel bad if they need to do ONE thing to be successful and unstressed. If someone else does many things well it doesn't ever mean they are better or more amazing
REMEMBER As a parent - do your research and find wonderful communities and wonderful packs for your children to “run in”. Find ones they can stay in for years and years and grow and learn wonderful things in. Once you find them make them BETTER because you are in them. Teach your child how to make them better. This is GOLD!
INVITATION from Christy Hodder:
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Checklist for an Amazing Music Practice
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