Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Making Music with Our Kids

When I was about eight years old, I started taking piano lessons with Mrs. Van Den Bosch.

I don't remember too much about how she looked. I do remember that she made me sit up very straight, curve my fingers like an egg was resting beneath them, and gave me gold stars if I did well.

Mrs. V was psychic. She knew when I did not practice. Like other students, I sometimes thought that the piano playing I did at the lesson itself would suffice. She could tell, and my chart had shameful glaring empty spots where those cherished gold stars should have been.

The funny thing about my piano lessons was that my dad was an excellent piano teacher. He just couldn't teach us kids. We would whine, refuse to cooperate, or get hurt feelings when he tried to correct us.

The same thing has happened with my daughter. For the past four or five years I tried to teach her piano. I'd get out my beginner book and eagerly show her Middle C. She would be bored and frustrated. I'd get upset and give up.

One of my facebook friends is experiencing the same problem. A music major in college, she has been unable to teach her own son to play. Should she pay someone else to teach him what she knows how to do very well herself? I think this is a common problem. Sometimes there are too many family dynamics involved to administrate the discipline needed to learn a new skill.

While I almost gave up on teaching piano to my daughter, at age 12, in the midst of long summer days, she has decided to learn. The songs in the piano primer are beneath her at this age: "Little Indian Chief" and "Drip Drop Rain" don't hold the same excitement as other tunes on her IPod, but she is loving it and learning quickly!

I am a firm believer that learning music is good for kids. It teaches discipline. It balances structure with creativity. It gives them a talent to take pride in. It helps them appreciate other great musicians.

We'll see where this goes. But for now, I'm morphing into the Mrs. Van Den Bosch of my childhood.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Rite of Passage: Girls and Teen Magazines

There is a scene in the movie Aquamarine where two teen-age best friends are trying to teach a mermaid how to interact with boys.

“Here is our Bible,” they proclaim, laying a stack of magazines on her lap.

“Yes,” says the other girl, in a hushed reverent tone. “Seventeen magazine.”

The girls explain that this glossy packet of paper will tell the other-worldly creature everything she needs to know about how to dress, how to do her make-up and (most importantly) how to get a boy.

The top teen magazines now are Cosmo Girl, Seventeen, and Teen Vogue. A recent online issue of Seventeen teases with the following provocative topics:

• How Should You Do Your Makeup for School?

• Is Your Summer Love Just a Fling?

• How Should You Update Your Fashion Look for Fall?

• What Will You Be Known for in High School?

I have heard many critics of these magazines, myself included, say that the publications put too much of an emphasis on things like outward appearances and boys. I agree. Yet, a quick scan of women’s magazines yields a very similar result. Perhaps the magazines merely reflect what we worry about or like to read about: decorating, relationships, losing weight, or dressing fashionably.

We can read about serious topics, yes, but when we flip through a magazine we may just want frivolous topics that aren’t too demanding. We want to be inspired. We want ideas. We want to see what how the latest style or haircut could transform us. It is fantasy. Escapism.

More troubling to me about teen magazines is the way the editors choose to insert more grown up topics in amidst girlish concerns. They make it seem like all teens are worrying about sex or how to please their boyfriends. Frankly, a great portion of their readership may not be ready for those topics. I remember the age 16 coming and going without a boyfriend in sight.

Even so, most girls like to read above what would be recommended for their age level. So the readers of Seventeen are probably more like 13. Thirteen year olds do not have the same issues as 17-year-olds, and they may not be ready for those topics. Do the editors know their actual reading audience?

The middle-school years are really caught in the middle. These young women are too old for Disney and American Girl and probably still a bit too young for Teen Vogue and Seventeen. They are getting braces and pimples and just starting to think that boys might not be so dorky.

Last Christmas, I picked up a copy of Seventeen to possibly purchase for my daughter. I am thankful I stopped to read the table of contents. Just between an interview with Miley Cyrus and a quiz on best friends, was a fairly frank article on sex. Parts of the magazine would have been fine for her. Other parts, certainly not.

Are teen magazines harmful or a right of passage for young girls? Both, I’d say. They can introduce topics before girls are ready. They can give a limited point of view.

But they can also help girls wade through the confusing culture of girlfriends and fashion and self awareness. They can help them begin to see themselves as a young woman.

** I must note also that there are alternative choices out there for young girls, but they are harder to find, usually more expensive, and less accessible. Brio, a former favorite, is in transition between publishers.