Developmental Differences and Why Your Kid Is Doing Fine

Parenting a young musician is as much of a commitment as being one. As the school year wraps up, many parents are evaluating if their child can, should, or wants to continue with strings. These questions may be further convoluted by doubt in a child’s abilities or motivation. Why won’t my kid practice? Why do other kids sound better? Should we throw in the towel? To shed light on such matters, it helps to look at where music education fits in to general childhood development. I’ll spoil the end before I get there; your kid is doing fine. We’ll get to those individual questions in future editions of this column.
The study of childhood development can be divided into many (read: infinite) sections. For our purposes, let’s say that those sections are motor development, emotional development, and cognitive development. Obviously this is an over-simplification, but it helps to demonstrate just how different kids can be in each domain and how almost no differences are career-ending barriers to music education. 
Motor development is adapting and improving so quickly for pre-pubescent kids that there are noticeable day-to-day differences. This means that while some kids may have the gross motor skills to dribble a basketball at five but not the fine motor skills to tie a knot until they’re ten, or vice versa. On the violin, this means that for some first-graders, wrapping the first finger around the neck to the D string takes all of their mental energy, and for some it is totally natural. This one motion is affected by many brain regions, all developing independently from other regions and other children, and is further affected by size, gender, and many other confounding factors. That’s just one motion, and there may be 10 years between two typically (or atypically!) developing children, and there’s a lot more than one motion to playing a stringed instrument.  Luckily, playing an instrument certainly improves motor skills, as it improves each of these developmental categories. 
Emotional developmental is even more broad and nebulous. I practice every day and take lessons onguitar weekly as an adult, and I often still feel the stress rise in my lower back, or the frustrated blood run to my head. I had tears over it recently. Playing an instrument involves regulating frustration while also experiencing joy, pride, and a million other feelings, and expecting an adult to do that is lofty, let alone a 13 year old whose hormones make them want to scream every fifteen minutes. Meltdowns, discouragement, and unease are all common with young musicians, and it’s up to the parent to decide if it’s more stress than it’s worth, but I can say that if my mother hadn’t wiped a few thousand tears, I wouldn’t be playing as an adult and conducting music wellness research. 
I used to teach music to non-neurotypical students, so I can say for a fact that our cognitive weaknesses are not barriers to music education. Every child will develop skills in attention, concept building, and creativity at different rates, and some never will, but they will adapt the more chances they are given. I know that my attention skills (the most important executive process for reading sheet music) are somewhat lesser than my peers, so I practice in five or ten minute intervals, with plenty of breaks, in what adds up to hours a day. I adapted. I didn’t read all of treble clef effectively for my first five, maybe six years of playing, and even then I get tripped up daily. 
I’ll reiterate the point; music education is for everyone, and everyone develops at different rates. This is not a radical idea, and every parent knows it inherently, but it’s easy to get caught up on a kid’s lack of sight-reading skills when Aunt Sally’s five year old can already play the piano (such stories are almost always exaggerated beyond belief, by the way). So take a deep breath, tell your child to practice for a few minutes, and reap the emotional rewards that occur when a child makes noticeable step forward. 
-Written by Phoenix Crockett, Family Wellness Coach at Vermont Center for Children, Youth, and Families