Musically Dis-Inclined

Dear Parentworks, 

No one in my family has even been very good at math and I know many of the high tech jobs of the future will require a solid background in this field. I want to ensure my children have all the advantages we can provide. I read that if children take music lessons when they're young they will be better at math. We've been having our children take piano lessons since they were three. My problem is my seven year old. For the last year or so he hardly ever practiced his lessons even though we and his music teacher remind him all the time. Now he's struggling in math and I'm at my wits end. If he starts falling behind at this age he might never catch up. How can we make him see how important it is to work hard now for his future?

- The Music Mom

Dear Music,

As early as 1989, experiments involving musicians whose performance of mental rehearsals of music indicated that music and other creative skills, such as mathematics, may involve extremely precise brain neurons firing patterns (Leslie Brothers and Gordon Shaw in Models of Brain Function).  In the last decades many parents have been eager to utilize this "Mozart Effect", as it's come to be known, to enroll their young children in music programs in the hopes of guaranteeing future mathematical success. Children at this age benefit from being exposed to a variety of experiences which can not only serve to make them well rounded individuals but help them discover what they are good at and what they enjoy.

The two incidents you describe as seemingly related - decreased interest in practicing music and difficulty in math may actually be unrelated to one another in a "scientific" way but possibly connected from an emotional stand point. So let's begin with a few clarifying points: While given opportunities to play an instrument at an early age can be an enriching experience for many children, it in no way is an absolute, sure fire guarantee that a child will excel in math, science or even chess. Next, if a child truly enjoys playing an instrument, is given opportunities to choose an instrument that interests them and takes most of the initiative to practice then playing for it's own sake can be a wonderful experience. Your child might need a change of instrument to stay engaged, but if he has given music a good go and is simply not interested or is ready to move on to new experiences, then you might consider opening this topic up for discussion to explore how to proceed for the future. Continuing to ignore a child's sincere wishes and needs can undo attempts and self esteem building in other areas.

As far a his math performance goes, he may just not have natural ability (regardless of musical opportunities) and if allowed to struggle can again, negatively impact his self esteem. Instead of looking to music to solve his math difficulties, I suggest you meet with his teacher to determine which strategies will directly improve his math performance. He might better spend his evenings practicing math review that practicing music. It is possible he might need a tutor. Giving your son direct and immediate solutions to his math struggles will do much more to strengthen his math confidence which will be a greater aid to his future math success. There is only so much we can do with the nature/nurture approach to life. Some skills are just not in our nature and must be nurtured directly and even then you son might never be a math scholar. It is valuable for you to help your son in the areas that he needs strengthening. It is equally important that you allow him opportunities to excel at those things in which he can feel good about and enjoy of his own choosing as well. Balancing his needs with your own is an ongoing challenge to parents.