The One Question Every Parent Should Quit Asking – by Scott Dannemiller

child playing a piano

“It’s like she’s not even practicing.”

Audrey’s piano teacher was standing in front of me, giving her honest assessment. Her eyes were kind, and her voice soft, but my parental guilt turned her statement into a question. One I couldn’t answer. So I just faked a diarrhea attack and ran to the restroom.

Once we got home, I was determined to show Miss Amanda that my daughter could be the next Liberace, only more bedazzled than the original. So we opened her music book and got to work.

We sat side-by-side at the piano for all of 10 minutes when Audrey began to fade. She wasn’t even looking at the notes. Her back slouched. Her fingers barely pressed the keys. I tried to be encouraging, but every half-hearted effort from her quickly depleted my well of schmoopieness.

“Sweetheart,” I said, in a tone that didn’t match the pet name. “Don’t you want to be good at this?”

She didn’t say anything. She just made a weird sound. Like a dolphin moaning. So I asked again.

“Honey. Don’t you want to be good at piano?”

“No.” She answered, with a look.

Has my 6-year-old mastered the art of spitefulness?

“Fine,” I said, calling her bluff. “I guess we just won’t practice anymore. And we’ll keep wasting Miss Amanda’s time going over the same things every week.”

I got up and walked to the kitchen where my son was busy not doing his homework.

“Jake! What are you doing?! Finish your homework! We have to leave for basketball practice in 10 minutes! Let’s go! You’re not even dressed!”

Not my best parenting moment. The entire evening went on like this, with me incessantly jabbing at the kids and them fighting me every step of the way. Piano. Basketball. Homework. Hygiene. Lather, rinse, repeat. A never-ending well of cajoling. I thought to myself,

They are both getting saddles for Christmas. That way, at least I’ll be comfortable when I’m riding their asses all the time.

I am not proud of it, but the simple truth is that I worry about my kids and their level of engagement. And maybe you do, too. As a dad, I frequently feel myself getting sucked into the vortex of expectations. All the other parents are talking about great opportunities they are providing for their kids. Special summer camps. Foreign language learning. Private tutors. Music lessons. Coaching clinics. And when I hear how other kids are participating in these activities, I can’t help but feel that my children will be left behind or left out if they don’t take part. I “awfulize” a future where other kids are having fun together, solving quadratic equations and getting six-figure jobs out of junior high while mine are both sitting in the corner eating Elmer’s Glue straight from the bottle.

And it’s all my fault.

So, in an effort to prepare our kids for the dog-eat-dog, competitive world before them, we fill their days with activity. Schedule them from dawn to dusk to maximize their potential. So they can learn. And grow.

But I fear that in our quest to help them, we may actually be hurting them.

“Free time” for kids has been steadily declining since the 1950s. In one particular study, from 1981 to 1997, kids experienced a 25 percent decrease in play time and a 55 percent decrease in time talking with others at home. In contrast, time spent on homework increased by 145 percent, and time spent shopping with parents increased by 168 percent.

But is that bad?

I think it is.

A research project by Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State, looked at psychological trends in youth during a similar period and noticed a sharp increase in anxiety and depression. Our kids are more stressed out than before. And that’s not the only change. Another Twenge study shows a surprising shift in motivation over the years, with kids in the 60s and 70s reporting being more motivated by intrinsic ideals (self-acceptance, affiliation and community) while kids today are more motivated by extrinsic ideals (money, image and fame).

And we’re the ones pushing them in that direction.

As parents, we focus 100 percent of our energy asking the wrong question:

“What might we miss if we don’t take advantage of these opportunities?”

And we need to stop.


Because the motivation behind this question is fear. And the fear is all mine.

I worry that that my kids will be made fun of if they don’t have socially acceptable “stuff.” I worry they won’t become elite athletes unless they specialize in a sport by age 10. I worry that they won’t get into college if they don’t do well in school.

But the fears are largely unfounded.

The “stuff” issue is easily overcome with common sense. No one in the history of the world has ever been able to buy a true friend. And in the athletic realm, kids who specialize in sports are no better off than those who don’t, and in some cases, the specialization is actually a detriment.

As for the academic worry, that may be the biggest unfounded fear of all. We buy into the hype that college is much more competitive today, so we push our kids to take advantage of every learning opportunity under the sun. The truth is, in the past 10 years, admissions counselors saw their average number of applications nearly double because of parents like us. We’re frantically submitting applications out of fear. Even so, colleges are still accepting two-thirds of all applicants on average. A number that has hardly decreased in a decade.

But we still believe the hype.

Bottom line: we parents need to chill out and change our questions. Here are two that can help us all gain some perspective and start finding more genuine joy in our lives.

Question #1: “What are we losing in our quest for success?”

If you are like me, most valuable parts of your childhood did not take place in a special classroom or perfect practice field. Sure, you had teachers and parents to encourage you to do your best and work toward a goal, but that was balanced by plenty of other worthwhile pursuits such as tearing apart a Stretch Armstrong doll to see what was inside, building bike ramps in the driveway, and racing leaf boats through a drainage ditch in a rainstorm.

But we’ve sacrificed these things in pursuit of an ideal, and we’ve turned our children into little mini-adults in the process. Tiny professionals who have no time for brain-building, soul-boosting play during the week, so they desperately cram it into a weekend schedule packed with structured sports and recitals.

It’s sad.

But the bigger issue is this:

Question #2: “What’s the ultimate goal?”

Encouraging a child’s potential is a good thing. And there is nothing wrong with extracurricular activities. They teach worthwhile skills and instill core values in a child. Values such as discipline, commitment, goal-setting, and persistence. And providing these opportunities is my job as a parent.

But there is a big difference between wanting what’s best for your kids, and wanting them to be the best.

Wanting what’s best for your kids is all about the child. It’s about helping them find something they are passionate about so they are intrinsically driven to reveal the strengths that God gave them, whether in art, music, sports, writing, academics, or community service.

Wanting them to be the best is all about me. My expectations. My fears. So I yell at them from the stands, correct them after lessons, and coax them into activities that suck the fun out of childhood. And in the process, I teach them that their worth is wrapped up in how they perform. I teach them that second place is losing. I teach them that judgment is more important than love and acceptance.

And it is so wrong.

Because being the best should NOT be the goal. If I asked you to name the last five winners of the Academy Award for best actor, could you do it? How about the last five World Series winning pitchers? Last five Nobel Prize winners in medicine? I’d venture to guess, based on absolutely no scientific evidence, that only 10 percent of you could do it. At the most. And these are examples of people who have achieved the pinnacle of their profession. Known the world over.

And we forget them.

But what if I were to ask you to list the five people who have meant the most to you in your life? The ones who taught you what it means to be a true friend. A person of integrity. I know without a doubt that 100 percent of us could do it in a heartbeat. And the list would be filled with people who never had a highway or high school named after them. People who never had their name carved on a ceremonial trophy.

But here’s the kicker.

The mere thought of their faces likely makes your heart swell. Might even bring a tear to your eye.

And this, my friends, is the goal. To be on the list for our kids. So that they might be on someone else’s list someday. And no amount of fear and anxious prodding will accomplish that for us. In this constantly correcting, constantly evaluating world, there has to be space for acceptance. Space for presence. Space where time isn’t measured in tenths of a second, but in turns taken on a colorful Candy Land board.

And only love can do that.

So my prayer today is that we have nothing but love to give. May we offer it daily.

Without condition.

Without worry.

Without regret.

Scott DannemillerScott Dannemiller is a writer, blogger, worship leader and former missionary with the Presbyterian Church (USA). He and his wife Gabby reside in Nashville, Tennessee with two very loud children.

Scott makes his living as the founder and president of LifeWork Associates, a leadership development consulting firm focused on bringing more trust and authenticity to corporate America. Most weeks, he can be found delivering a workshop or keynote speech somewhere in the United States.
Scott is currently authoring a book (Fall 2015 – Westminster John Knox Press) about the Year Without A Purchase – his family’s attempt to avoid buying any non-consumable “stuff” and focus on the important things in life. As a musician, Scott has performed and produced an album of original songs and stories called What Would You Do, based on the year he and his wife spent serving in Guatemala. These days he posts his regular writings on his blog, The Accidental Missionary. Follow Scott on Facebook or Twitter @sdannemiller.



  1. Scott is speaking for most of the parents today I guess. At least I see myself very well in that post. We want the best for our kids. We know the world outside and want them to be prepared. But in the end we only embed doubts and fear. Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Music lessons are a waste of money if the kid doesn’t practice. My daughter showed some talent but wouldn’t practice. I didn’t push it, we just quit. I actually started taking lessons again after many years (I took as a kid and did practice, was pretty good). I didn’t practice and again knew it was a waste. The teacher wasn’t happy but so be it. Good post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My wife and I discovered early on that the best we could do for our children was to expose them to every possible opportunity and wait for the light-bulb moment. Each of them, on their own, latched on to something that they felt excited about, and both are now amazing adults with incredibly different interests and successes.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The other half of methodtwomadness here…totally different experience. My daughter took piano with a teacher who went where the children wanted to go with their music…she wouldn’t practice at all, and then would spend months obsessively playing one part of one piece. Her teacher knew when she wasn’t practicing, but wasn’t looking for a child to show off to others with a performance. She was (and still is, we just went to a “recital” for current and former students and their families), rather, interested in exploring music with her students. For a long time it didn’t seem she was making any progress in the traditional sense, but now she plays beautifully. She hasn’t played much since she went to college, but this Christmas break is playing up a storm. And she loves music. So maybe it’s just the way we approach these things…which is why many children hate school I think.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Many moons ago when I coached kids in baseball, I noticed some of the kids were overbooked on activities. The kids did not enjoy the diluted experiences as they were unable to practice any of them. The parents were frazzled and stressed the kids out more. My suggestion echoes yours to allow some kid time and family time.

    When I was growing up, we kids would invent impromptu games and play. We have lost that and we need to look for ways to introduce that. Thanks for your thoughtful post. BTG

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Has anyone thought about sports and how children learn to love sports and want to go to all the practices? Well, if at home a father plays basketball with his daughter every week end, you can be sure that the daughter is going to love playing basketball. Why? Because playing the game means time with her father. There is love attached to the game. And she is doing something her father does. If, on the other hand, the father would tell his daughter, “Go practice basketball”, you can be sure she would never develop that love. Why? Because she has to spend time alone, away from the family, while the family members do other things. She is also doing something nobody else in the family seems to like or do. As a piano teacher, I read a lot about practicing. I have come to understand that the students who do well and who love piano are those whose parents practice WITH them, all the time until the child has the tools to practice by him or herself. That can take 5-10 years. It’s a huge commitment on the part of the parents, but then the child doesn’t feel like it’s being punished. Go practice sounds so close to “go to your room”, or “or go stand in the corner” since all of those mean you have to spend time alone while others are seemingly enjoying themselves. So often, we expect children to just have inner motivation and self-discipline and dedication. But remember that whatever quality we want to see in our children, we have to show them by action, not tell them in words alone. In families where they listen to a lot of music, go to concerts, play instruments, in families where parents practice with children, those are the ones whose children will continue with their lessons and learn to love their instrument.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for that insightful and thought-provoking comment. If you’d ever care to expand on this, we like to feature it as an article on Kindness Blog.

      Just a thought.

      Best, Mike.


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