A Plastic Hunk of Anguish

Two little girls in front of a piano

Last night the girls had their first-ever piano recital. We enrolled them in lessons back in February, and every Thursday a lovely Hungarian woman comes to our house and works with each of the girls for half an hour. Both girls seem to really enjoy their lessons, but Hannah has been much more eager to practice, learn pieces, and even create her own compositions. Ayla has definitely phoned it in when it comes to rehearsing on more than one occasion, but she enjoys playing and loves that she’s learning the piano.

We selected pretty dresses, the girls practiced their pieces relentlessly, and the grandmother posse descended upon us. Thank god for those grandmas – I got so much packing done yesterday with my mom, and Daddy whipped up a Mexican feast for Hannah’s teacher and her daughter with his mum – they joined us for a whirlwind dinner. Yes, that’s right, hosting a dinner for Hannah’s teacher while packing up a household of six people, just before racing to a piano recital. We. Are. Nuts.

The girls both played and sang their songs beautifully. Ayla’s piece was ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life’ by Stevie Wonder. The piece was ballad tempo, I’m not sure whether this was on purpose, but it made for a stripped down simple and sweet version. My only note to her was to make sure she sang out, and she did. Her voice was clear and pure and beautiful. She was nervous, which is a rare thing indeed for our fiery girl, but I don’t think anyone could tell. Hannah did ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ by Waller (as in Fats), Brook and Razaf. I wanted to hear her voice a bit more clearly, but I think she was fighting against the lapel lav microphone that they used. Next time a wireless mic on a stand is the way to go. If there is a next time…

I was super proud of the girls, and very proud of so many of their classmates and school friends who are also students of this particular music school. There’s a boy in Hannu’s class who is famous for being both a serious hockey player and the best knitter in their classroom (another reason to love Waldorf!). He’s put her through her paces this year, bless his little heart, with some teasing. It’s by no means a bully situation, just kids being kids. We’ve encouraged her resilience, but I’ve also been pointing out that when people tease, they are usually making a protective wall around their very soft hearts – hearts that might be extra-soft. She was deeply moved to hear this boy practice his recital piece during the day at school, and I think shocked to realize he had chosen it himself. His piece was ‘Hey Jude’ by the Beatles. She kept marveling about him choosing such a sweet song, so I think it helped her see him in a deeper light. This boy played beautifully, and Noah was particularly delighted by this piece because it’s the song I sing him to sleep with. Not sure why, it just popped into my head in those early postpartum days.

My favorite performance of the night (besides my own kids’, of course) was by a boy in grade four at our school named Owen. Many of the children are fantastic at playing their pieces precisely as written, but Owen transcended this and really took the music and made it his. He injected his performance with real emotion and incredible musicality, and I just don’t think you can teach that. I wonder how long he’s been playing?

Yesterday when I wrote about why I love Waldorf education, I forgot to mention another important reason – the kids aren’t graded, there is no standardized testing and here are no report cards. The teachers give in-depth and deeply insightful feedback at two parent interviews each year, and the information distilled in those meetings trumps any report card I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, we were thrown a bit of a curve ball last night at the recital.

Not only did both girls receive a report card, and a certificate for completing their first level, Hannah won this huge muthah trophy for great achievement. Awesome, right? NOT AWESOME. Any of you who have siblings, particularly of the same gender, know that rivalry is a beast that must constantly be wrestled. H & A are no exception. Two human beings could never be more opposite than our girls, but they are constantly trying to outdo each other. It was challenging enough managing piano lessons through the year. Hannah really took to piano like it was in her soul, Ayla is “exemplary for her age and experience” (as per her report card) but piano is obviously not as second-nature for her. Any number of reasons could explain this, not the least of which is their two-and-a-half year age difference, but seven-year-olds aren’t really able to rationalize the way we are, right?

I watched Ayla watch Hannah win that trophy, and I know all three of us parents had the same reaction. It was not joy for our eldest daughter, who is such a talented, wonderful girl who deserves recognition. We all felt fear and sadness for our little one, who put on the bravest game face I’d ever seen when she realized all of the trophies had been doled out and her name wasn’t on any of them. I snuck up behind her and put my hand on her shoulder. She sidled over to Nana and her first whispered words were “I’m proud of my sister” which I know must have been hard to utter over the lump in her throat.

One garish, golden, plastic trophy shattered hundreds of hours of practice and one very beautifully delivered performance for that little girl.

Even Hannah couldn’t enjoy her victory. Once in the safety of the car, the floodgates opened. Ayla was heartbroken, and Hannah just felt bad. Hannah has felt badly all year about how her abilities affect those around her. Peer rivalry and jealousy have been a big deal for her this year. Her sister’s dismay affected her deeply. How do you celebrate your amazing-ness when it upsets everyone in your peer group? How do you teach your children that it’s okay to be awesome, even if it makes them a pariah? Hannah isn’t one to boast or gloat. In fact, I haven’t even met adults as thoughtful and caring as she is. How can she be confident in her abilities? Will she hide them under a bushel in exchange for greater peer acceptance like I did?

How do you convince a seven-year-old that there will be trophies some day, and even if there aren’t, learning to make beautiful music and sing and delight a crowd of people and fill your heart with song is the best kind of trophy? I was in the parenting mystery zone last night. The land of “what the hell do we do with this?”

I remember the seemingly endless shelves of trophies my little brother won for his athletic activities, and how that used to frustrate me, because I was not athletic. Not only did he have way more accolades, but our Nana (my third parent) would reward him with money each time he won something. Through this I learned that my interests weren’t as valued by her, and it made me resent the hell out of my brother.

We let Ayla know it was okay to feel bad about not getting a trophy, but we encouraged her to remember how great she felt about her performance. We talked about how age, time, and experience would help her develop her skills, and maybe she could get a piano trophy, or maybe there would be something else she was passionate about that she could win a trophy for.

My children are brilliant, and driven to their best by something that lives inside of them. We don’t exert that kind of parental pressure that makes kids snap under the weight of it all. We celebrate their passions and interests and encourage them to try new things. It is with their own steam that they turn out amazing-ness over and over again, like the freaky kids you see in Wes Andersen films. They can’t help it, they are just awesome and all we can do is stand back and let that be.

I hope that damned trophy didn’t set into motion a future of only being as awesome as you need to be to get a hunk of gold-painted plastic. I hope that this doesn’t extinguish passion for passion’s sake. I hope Hannah doesn’t feel like she needs to win a trophy for everything she does. I think it’s wonderful to recognize achievement, and that’s how the world works, but it also feels a little dangerous to set children apart from others like that. I’m not sure it’s motivating in the right ways.

How do you deal with sibling rivalry? How do you feel about trophies and awards? How do you keep your child’s passion alive even when it isn’t recognized or acknowledged with a huge reward when other children are given prizes?

Parents and former children, please discuss!

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6 Comments

  1. Su
    June 13, 2013 / 7:07 pm

    Beautiful piece. How do you write so poignantly when you have had so little time for reflection? Thanks for the Owen shout-out … This is his 4th year of lessons with Marianne. We, too, had some tears last night. Owen won 3 prizes at Kiwanis, got first-class honours on his RCM exam, and felt that he rocked his performance. He wondered aloud just what it takes to get an “achievement” award. I’m sure there was some sadness in the other Grade 1/Grade 3 family’s home last night, where only one sibling came home with hardware. As many anthroposophists would say, children excel in their passions not for external incentives (e.g. trophies), but rather because of their internal passion and commitment to learning. This will most certainly be the case with the one who brought such sunshine to last night’s recital.

    • Mama C
      June 14, 2013 / 11:33 am

      Thanks mama. How do you manage the tears when they come from sibling success?

  2. Rachelle
    June 14, 2013 / 8:01 am

    Great blog once again Catherine. If you ever find the answer to sibling rivalry, please let us all know. I think all parents with two or more children have had a taste of this. Not sure how your Grandma did it with 12 children. Probably was too busy to notice. lol

  3. Chacha
    June 14, 2013 / 11:06 pm

    You’re a real-life-news investigative journalist…. and insightful, and eloquent.

    what a bittersweet evening! must have been incredible to see them in it on stage, .

    i find the anthroposophist viewpoint Su mentions to be very re-assuring in the long run.

  4. Allison Gauthier
    August 8, 2013 / 12:02 am

    Very interesting blog. I find myself having different feelings than you on the issues raised by this particular post, so in the spirit of good old fashioned debate, and at your suggestion, I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring.

    To award or not to award….definitely tricky territory. I think that though it may be a blow to the ego, and a harsh lesson when one sibling is awarded when another isn’t, overall it’s an important growing experience. As we go through life most of us come to discover that things are almost never completely fair and learning to handle these seemingly unfair moments with grace and class is an admirable quality in a person. It’s sounds like your daughter who wasn’t awarded did just that, which is a testament to her ability to see the bigger picture. I challenge you to consider not blaming the award process for the emotional result of the evening. It’s not the “plastic hunk of anguish” to blame, it’s just a part of life and I passionately disagree that all the hours of practice were somehow diminished by the outcome of the awards in this case. Feelings of disappointment, rejection and dismay will haunt our hearts and pulverize our egos from time to time in a million different ways through our lives, it’s inevitable. I like the idea of teaching our children to grow from these experiences, to reflect and to become stronger.

    Keep up the good work with this blog!! It’s valuable for all of us parents and former kids to reflect on the processes of child rearing and share our stories. You document your experiences and view points with eloquence and it inspires thought. I look forward to your next post.

    • Mama C
      August 12, 2013 / 11:55 am

      Hi Allison!

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

      I totally agree that life doesn’t always work out fairly, and learning resilience is important, especially for children. I guess my fear is that adding a layer of competition to piano when the girls are just developing a love for it might sully the experience for them. Sometimes I think maybe I underestimate their ability to move through these moments, and maybe I’m a tad over-protective? I just know that when I saw those trophies, I had a real sense of disappointment in the entire recital experience.

      I was probably projecting to some degree, and both of the girls seem to still love piano, so all’s well that ends well.

      Thanks for reading!