As parents, we often fall into the trap of thinking that we have to reward our children for everything they do. Of course, encouraging and praise is essential, but it’s even more important to know how and when to reward them. When it comes to children practising and playing their musical instrument regularly, it can be tricky getting them to keep up and stay motivated. We have all heard “I don’t want to practice” and “I’m bored of this piece” before. The key is when you know how to reward children in a constructive way.

So how do we incentivise, reward, and praise children in the most effective way, to ensure they stick at it?

The catch-22 of rewarding children

The idea that we should offer rewards and punishments for children is somewhat outdated. Several schools of thought and child developmental psychology state that rewards and punishments can teach children to behave or not behave in specific ways to get a reward or avoid a penalty. Therefore, you are not rewarding them for acting a certain way or achieving something genuinely; you are rewarding them for managing to work in a way that means they haven’t broken the “rules” that have been set. This is not optimal, especially when it comes to music practice.

Look at it this way. If you tell your child you’ll give them a treat for every hour they practice, they may use the time in a non-constructive manner to get the pleasure. This could include not applying themselves, not taking practice seriously, or skiving off, but telling you that they have indeed practised. It does little to motivate them to practise. Similarly, if you tell them they will be grounded if they don’t practice five times a week, they may behave similarly to avoid that punishment.

At the end of the week, they may have “practised” for five days, but they may not have achieved anything or made any progress.

How to incentivise your child

I believe there are ways you can reward your child, although I prefer to use the term ‘incentivise’ instead.

When we talk about incentivising, we use a positive and proactive term to motivate or encourage someone to do something, rather than just asking them to do something and giving them a treat if they complete it (no matter how well), I like to set challenges and goals to keep them interested. When they reach and surpass these goals, they are provided with a constructive reward that further incentivise them.

Here are the ways I like to incentivise my students:

  • Get them to aim for consistency.

Rather than getting them to practice every day and rewarding them for that, you could ask them to practice for a certain number of hours a month or practice for a certain number of consecutive days. Consistency is vital with practising. By targeting them on hours, you allow flexibility into their lives. If, for example, one day they are under the weather, they can make it up at other times.

  • Set milestones

Practice is only productive if it’s progressive. In other words, your child can practise all day, every day, but unless they improve, it’s pointless. A great way to measure their progress and keep them evolving in their practice is to set milestones. For example, you could ask them to master a certain number of passages in a certain amount of time. Of course, this should be done in consultation with their teacher, who can ensure the milestones set are realistic and achievable!

  • Turn tasks into challenges

Endless tasks can become boring for minds that get bored quickly, so why not make them fun? By turning jobs into challenges, you add an element of competition and excitement into the learning process. It also makes practising and playing seem less like a chore and more like something fun that they will enjoy doing!

  • Reward them for not giving up

Mastering an instrument is challenging. It takes time, dedication, and commitment. As a parent, you will likely hear “I want to quit” many times. It’s important to know when to keep encouraging them to continue and accept that maybe it’s not the proper vocation for them. Generally, I recommend keeping consistently motivating and supporting them during these phases of wanting to quit. I would then reward them after they have passed through the phase, saying, “remember a month ago you wanted to quit? Look at how well you are doing now!” and perhaps considering a reward. I would try to avoid promising them a reward just for not quitting.

  • Give surprise treats and rewards

This ties into the above point. Sometimes, the best way to reward your child is by not letting them know a reward is coming. You can pick random achievements such as not missing any practices for two weeks, doing more hours than you asked, mastering a piece in record time, or going the extra mile for an exam and reward them for it. If they ddon’tknow when rewards are coming, they will aim for consistently better behaviour. They are also less likely to act the way they think you want them to work, to get a reward.

  • Praise them for overcoming difficulties

Learning an instrument is hard, but it is immensely satisfying. Verbally praising your child when they have completed a challenging task or overcome a difficulty is a great way to keep them motivated. 

But not all ways of praising are effective, so be cautious which kinds you use.

How to praise

The language we use when we teach, guide, and praise our children can significantly impact the way we shape their behaviour. It can also affect how they feel about themselves and how they interact with others in later life.

Look at this example. After an orchestral performance that your child has taken part in, it can be tempting to tell them, “well done, I am so so so proud of you” Of course, you are proud, and you should say to them that, but it doesn’t have to be the focus of your praise.

Instead, try letting them lead and ask: “How do you feel? Did you give your all?”  Once they have told you how they think they did, then you can give your opinion. For example: “ You should be so proud of yourself. You played well, you were confident, brave, and all the hard work you put in practising paid off.”

Here are some other tips on how to praise your child constructively:
  • Give specific praise such as “I loved your legato in x particular section” or “I liked your attention to detail and all the things you brought out in that phrase/piece/section.” Rather than just saying “well done” and “good job”, if you can pick out specific things they did well, the praise becomes more constructive.
  • Don’t just praise them for the outcome. If they have been practising a tough piece for three months, you should be praising them for their effort through their journey, not just at the end. “Wow, you are so dedicated to your practice, I just know you will get there soon if you keep at it!” is more effective than “yes, you did it!”.
  • Ask questions. Another great way to praise a child is by getting them to analyse what they did well and what helped them succeed. For example, if they do well in an exam, you can praise and reward them using the guidelines above, but you can also ask, “what bits do you think you did well at?”, “what would you do differently next time?” and “what did you learn that will help you with your next exam?”.
  • Ask them if they meant to play the piece in a certain way or with a particular twist. By asking them, you can open up the conversation over something they have done differently, showing them you are listening. This is a great way to boost confidence and help them explore their creativity, and analyse the performance they have given.

Don’t be scared of praising or rewarding your child, but by adopting some of these techniques, you can encourage them in a way that will help them succeed not just in music but in everything they apply themselves to in the future.

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