In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King shares a story about his son, Owen, who, when he was around seven years old, was so inspired by Clarence Clemons, sax player in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, that he asked for his own saxophone and lessons. King and his wife were thrilled. Maybe their son would be a prodigy! But King figured out pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to happen because Owen, he said, only practiced when he had to and never played just for fun during his free time. King didn’t see the point in making his son, who was less than enthusiastic, stick with it. “What this suggested to me was that when it came to the sax and my son, there was never going to be any real play-time; it was all going to be a rehearsal. That’s no good. If there’s no joy in it, it’s just no good. It’s best to go on to some other area, where the deposits of talent may be richer and the fun quotient higher.”
King tells this story to encourage writers to read and read and read. His point is that people who want to become writers should think of reading not as a chore, but as a joyful activity that they should want to do all the time if they’re serious about writing. Duly noted. But this story has always resonated more for me as a parent trying to navigate the endless stream of opportunities available to our kids.
As parents, we’re always introducing our children to new things (or their schools are, bless them—”Hello, recorder unit!”) and then watching to see what sticks. Sometimes it’s a bit of a dance as we try to figure out the difference between a lack of real passion vs. hitting a plateau that they just need to push through to get to the next level. I think of Michelle Obama, who made Malia and Sasha play two sports: one they chose and one she selected because, as she put it, “I want them to understand what it feels like to do something you don’t like and to improve.” I took piano lessons for years and I wasn’t great about practicing what I was supposed to for my lessons, but I played all the time. The lessons were still valuable because they provided structure and accountability. And I did learn a lot. But I doubt my parents would’ve continued to pay for lessons if I never played when I didn’t have to or if I complained about having to practice or take lessons.
I’m glad Lily learned to play the flute and had the experience of creating music with a group and performing in front of audiences. She was only in band for three years, but she learned a lot and there are plenty of studies that say that studying music is great for our brains. And there’s always the possibility that she’ll dust off her flute someday and start up again on her own. Or not. Meanwhile, she plays volleyball every chance she gets, whether it’s for school or club, special camps, or pick-up games with friends. She never gets tired of volleyball. It’s always a joy for her—and for me, too, as I watch her working hard and thriving at something she loves.