Thursday, October 28, 2010

Darwin Takes Piano Lessons

When my daughter, Ashley, was a girl, I bought her a Yamaha upright piano. And I mean upright. That sucker was six feet tall. So great were my hopes for her musical future that I shopped for a baby grand, even though there was no way to fit one in our living room (or any room; I might have put it in the kitchen if it hadn’t been for that damned center island). Her mother still has that piano, holding onto it for our baby girl, who certainly is no longer a baby. Ashley plays it beautifully, at least once a year.

Many years later, when Chris and Nick, Meg’s and my sons, were old enough to tickle the ivories, I cajoled my mother into letting us borrow her piano for them. Mom had been a gifted pianist as a girl, but gave it up when concert stage fright got the better of her. I practically had to dynamite that old piano out of her house (to get it away from her, that is). We had it tuned by the best tuner in town and “Für Elise” brightened my evenings once again.

Hunting for food
Chris and Nick found other interests, though. Ashley is still my only child who plays (although they all got their shot at Carnegie Hall). Even she doesn’t play often. She’s an actor and film editor now. Those are her passions.

Every father wants his son or daughter to play the piano. Every father dreams his child will have some glorious talent that will bring him joy for a lifetime and comfort to the old folks as they sit on the back porch and watch the sun go down.

And in today’s hyperkinetic world, it’s not just one talent we wish for them. We want them to be the best at everything. We nurture secret, immodest hopes that they will be among the golden ones. We inhabit our dreams of their glory: pacing the sidelines of soccer games, kicking in sympathetic synchronicity as they try to drive the ball between brutish defenders; praying for strikes in little-league games in which they have walked a million batters; tossing flowers on the stages of their ballet performances; closing our eyes in transcendent bliss as they sing in hushed cathedrals.

Why do we care so much about how well our children do? In school. At sports. Socially. Why do we feel their triumphs and failures so deeply? Is it because we love them? Because we want to be proud of them? Because we are desperate to take another shot at realizing, through them, our own frustrated dreams?

Evolution is at the root of it, of course. The young who were well trained to hunt for their food and hide from their enemies were the ones who survived. Their genes were the ones that proliferated. And so here we are today, the survivors of a long line of adept tutors, evolved into virtual child-training machines.

We’re hardwired for the task, following ancient programming. The question is this: are we now simply the finest evolutionary expression of the training gene, or have we somehow gone beyond our original mission, like the robot Nomad in an early Star Trek episode that had been programmed to search out new life forms but, after a collision with another satellite, decided its mission was to stamp out imperfection wherever found (which meant you-know-who)?

Ballet lessons. Cello. Art. Baseball camp. Tutors for everything imaginable. Sometimes it seems we are trying to stamp out imperfection in our own children. In the process, many of us have embraced the job of training our children as our primary life mission. This leaves children over-managed, and parents exhausted.

And what are we training them for? To be little training machines themselves? Will their period of productivity, the time when they actually use the training we sacrifice to give them, be only those few short years of young adulthood before they have children of their own? With the obligatory time spent rebelling against having been forced to accept too much training, how many years will they have before they too are buffeted in the straights of dating and courtship and wash up on our modern Circe’s island, where nature will once again cast its Darwinian spell through that bewitching tiny face that beams with the innocence and helplessness that demands “train me”?

Hiding from our enemies
Life today is more complicated than learning to hunt and to hide from our enemies (at least I think it is). Playing a mean jazz piano works with the opposite sex. As does having the athleticism of Olympic swimmer. Perhaps the training that is necessary to survive has merely evolved as the world has changed; and the frantic pace of that change lately has made us ever more desperate to help our children be good at everything, because you never know what the next great survival skill may be.

But a young fox whose mom or dad accompanies him on every hunting expedition may never learn to do it himself. And if training becomes the end itself, when does the actual living take place?

By and large, my children have come to their passions accidentally. I say accidentally because they were almost never things I signed them up for. As a child, Nick loved Legos; Meg and I loved anything that kept him happily occupied, so we bought him enough to fill a bathtub. He sat in his room and built the fabulous contraptions of his imagination. When he got to the sixth grade, still playing with Legos, a friend invited him to join him in a robotics competition, and suddenly the things he got to build came out of his bedroom and trundled up ramps to put out fires or thwart other robots from making goals. He’s studying computer science in college now, with a particular interest in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Chris got a checkers game when he was three, then Connect Four (kind of 3-D checkers), then a little wooden chess set, a bookshelf full of chess trophies, and a lifelong love of the game. I think Cord still has his first camera, the one he used as a photographer on the college newspaper, the one that set him on the path to taking way too many, albeit excellent, photographs of his own children.

Maybe I’m just lazy, but I don’t think we need to devote or lives to training our children. At some point, earlier than we might like to admit, they want (and need) to train themselves. There is a lot of social and scientific debate about all this now, about how kids learn, about the extent to which a child’s developing brain needs unstructured play; and I can see in my own experience that children (mine, anyway) like to do what they like to do. Sometimes it’s things I suggest, more often it is something I never would have guessed.

And why should they be limited by my imagination? I’m an old fogey, by comparison. The race is to the swift and the bold, and for the most part that means the young. They are the ones who see over the horizon. It is their future they are seeing, after all.


  1. Hey! I'm pretty sure I'm "the enemy" under that tree! But seriously, this is a lovely post.

  2. Wonderful piece! Always amazed at how little influence I truly have over my son (since he did indeed come from me). He is his own self.