Lessons from Suzuki: How to Ignite and Inspire a Child’s Interest

I have been reading Shinichi Suzuki’s book “Ability Development from Age Zero” in preparation for the day when I will start Hercules on the Suzuki Method. I know I’ve been waxing lyrical about the wisdom of Suzuki but truly this man really is all that. Everything he writes is common sense and yet so easily overlooked. As I read his book, I find that he shares lots of ideas that can be translated across to other areas of education and parenting.

There is one idea that Shinichi shares in his book that I particularly want to write about because it touches on an area I have been struggling with a lot lately. As I’ve said, his ideas are so simple and make so much sense that you will probably think – yeah, I know that. Well, so did I. But despite knowing, I confess that I have yet to even implement such a method with my children until I read about it.

Lately, I’ve been lamenting over my inability to inspire Aristotle. No matter what I suggest for him to try, he seems lackadaisical about it. Why do I keep suggesting things when he seems disinterested? Why not leave him alone? Because he complains of boredom. And that’s where my frustrations set in – he’s bored and he wants my suggestions but he doesn’t want to do anything I suggest unless it involves a screen of some sort – which I loathe. About the only thing that he still seems interested to do without prompting is read.

In his book, Suzuki writes about the importance of training and practice. Everything takes training and practice if you want to get good at it. Even naturally talented kids need to practice if they are ever going to excel. But how do you get the kids to be inspired enough to motivate themselves? I find that I’m always the one nagging Aristotle to practice all the things I feel are important – like Math. He loathes the subject which was ironically my favourite subject at school. I would have thought he’d take a little out of my book and like it, too, but it seems the more I want him to like Math, the less interested he is. I’ve tried so hard to make him see the importance of Math and how our everday lives revolve around it, but even demonstrating the practical aspects of Math in the subjects he likes has failed to ignite his curiosity.

And that’s the million dollar question: “how do you get your child interested in a subject and inspire him so that he wants to spend time practicing?”

Suzuki’s answer is simple – you do it first. And you do it a lot. And that’s the beauty of it – the answer is so simple that I almost want to smack my head for being so dense. Why is it that lots of children like to play pretend cooking – even the boys? Because they watch Mummy cooking everyday. When you want to inculcate good reading habits in your child, it is recommended that you be the example to your children by reading a lot yourself. Because when your children see that you enjoy reading, they will naturally want to read, too. Why do children gravitate towards computers, mobile devices, and the like – no matter how much we don’t want them to? Because we use them constantly, everyday.

Parenting books always warn us about the pitfalls of “do as I say and not as I do” which parents, myself included, are often guilty of doing despite knowing we shouldn’t. The best way to get your child to embrace an idea, a philosophy, or a practice is to first adopt it into your own life. Likewise, if you want your child to like something and want to do it, you should also be doing it.

I have noticed that the earliest hobbies children pick up are the ones that their parents are immersed in. I remember watching videos of toddlers rock climbing and thinking how nice it would be if I could have inspired Aristotle to get interested in climbing. The first time I brought Aristotle to an indoor wall, he balked. Aristotle had never seen me climb before because I stopped when I was pregnant with him and after he was born, I never got back to it. But those toddlers I saw in the videos – their parents were climbers and they were still rock climbing even as their babies were growing up. Their children had plenty of rock climbing exposure while they watched their parents climb. When they were old enough, they wanted to do it, too.

Now I realise the root of the problem I have been having with Aristotle’s wandering interests. Ever since he was born, I’ve let go of all my own personal interests. I stopped rock climbing, hiking and running, I no longer played the piano, and I stopped working. Aside from this blog and reading, I have no personal hobbies that I have maintained. As a role model to my children, I am a poor one.

So here’s my extrapolation of what Suzuki wrote in his book about getting young children interested in learning an instrument and committing themselves to practicing:

Decide what it is that you want to get your child interested in. Pick it up as a hobby and make sure you commit yourself to it. To illustrate, lets assume you want your child to learn the piano (since this is Suzuki’s example). If you already know how to play the piano, make sure you practice everyday so that your child can observe you dedicating yourself to it. If you don’t know how to play the piano then pick it up and be a student yourself.

It is important to let your child discover his own interest and desire to play the piano. Don’t ask him to play and don’t have any expectations of him. Let him come to you – because ultimately, you need him to be his own driving force. If you start asking and prompting, you’ll eventually be the one pushing, especially if he does not discover the interest himself. And that will be the spiral to your downfall because the more you push, the more he will resist.

I love how Suzuki describes this so I’m going to borrow his words. He calls it the “How Not to Develop Ability” method. When you nag and scold, your child will practice but he will not like it and the ability will not develop. Suzuki goes on to say how obedient children are – they might complain about having to practice but yet they will do it because they are told to do so. In contrast, adults who are nagged and scolded to practice will turn around and yell, “I will never touch the piano again!”

I have paraphrased what he wrote, but I recall that when I read what he wrote, I was struck by the truth of his words. We feel bitter about the “disobedience” of our children for being so “difficult” about doing the things we nag them to do – but the fact is that they do it regardless of their complaints. I’m probably going a little off tangent here but it does seem that we treat children differently from other adults. We tell them what to do and expect them to do it. To another adult, we would ask instead of tell – “could you please put your dishes in the sink?” as opposed to “put your dishes in the sink!” And despite being bossed around all day, they “obey” even if they grumble about it. At the end of the day “actions speak louder than words”.

But I’m digressing… if you want your child to like doing something, make sure you’re the one doing it first. You don’t have to be doing it indefinitely. You just need to keep doing it until your child’s personal interests in the subject or hobby takes off on its own.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

5 thoughts on “Lessons from Suzuki: How to Ignite and Inspire a Child’s Interest

  1. Someone also adviced me when I am complaining why my son is not picking up Mandarin…I have to learn it myself first! How true!

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  2. hi Shen-Li,
    Thanks for the sharing.
    i’m sure there are other parents here that have a child likes mine — she doesn’t allow me to do my own things! for example, i wanted her to love reading too, so i try to read in front of her. she grabs my book away; i play the piano, she will ask me to come down fr the seat, or disturbing me while i play. She only wants me to focus on her alone…. So, how to follow Suzuki’s way? :p

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    1. Hi Ng – my sons were both like this. More so when they were younger and especially so if they feel they haven’t had enough undivided attention from you. Here are a couple of things to consider:

      – have you been giving enough quality one-on-one time to your daughter? Remember that her opinion and your opinion will differ – greatly. I remember spending all morning playing with my son and he still went away telling his father that Mummy doesn’t spend any time with him because she’s too busy with housework!

      – the younger they are, the more demanding they will be of your time. A young child views herself as the center of the universe and all lives must revolve around hers. She’s not trying to be selfish, she just doesn’t understand yet.

      – are you firm enough when you express that this is something important to you that you MUST do. For instance, I noticed that when my sons were little, there were times when I had to do things and I couldn’t entertain them – like rush out to get the clothes in when it was starting to rain or when I have to cook dinner – and I tell them very firmly that I CANNOT entertain them NOW, and they accept it. But I found that when I’m on the computer or reading or doing something else not “important”, they will insist on interrupting because they know they can.

      I believe that once you find the balance, you will get acceptance. Even now, Hercules still interrupts me when I’m playing the piano but there are times when he leaves me to practice while he plays by himself nearby. Then again, Aristotle was not nearly so accommodating so it may just be that you have to wait until your daughter is older.

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  3. Hi Shen-Li,
    Thanks for your reply. They really help me to rethink what i’m doing. I think i haven’t spend enough time with her. Most of the time i’m busy with my household chores :p
    What you and your son usually do during one to one quality time together? playing together? reading together? sometimes i feel really tired playing with my gal, for example, she wanted me to be a kangaroo and hop like a kangaroo… where i find is really tiring… :p
    Thanks

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  4. Hi Ng,

    Quality one-to-one time will depend on your child’s interests. With Aristotle, reading books and playing with his trains were things he enjoyed doing. For Hercules, who is more active, he likes to play more rough and tumble games. Although, I must say that recently, he is starting to enjoy reading and playing jigsaw puzzles so we do that together. Hercules also still breastfeeds so sometimes we just cuddle and he nurses.

    I understand completely how you feel – when Aristotle was little, he used to want me to go into the jungle gym with him and climb through the tunnels and slide down the slides and it was exhausting – especially when the tunnels are so small and I have to crawl on my knees which hurt after a while. I think you just need to find mutual ground – something she likes that you don’t mind doing then you can make it your “Mummy and daughter” activity.

    I hope that helps…

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