Q: My 12-year-old daughter has an outstanding talent for piano. I'm not saying that just because she's my daughter. I am able to judge my children's potentials quite accurately. I believe that she herself knows that she has the ability to create an outstanding career in this field. And yet she refuses to display her gift in any public way. The only times she is prepared to play is in the informal setting of our nuclear family. No words of positive reinforcement will persuade her to develop her skill.

On the one hand I cannot and don't believe in forcing my kids to do things that are not part of their mandatory education, yet I fear that if I cannot convince her to maximize herself, she will regret not having "seized the day" when it is already too late. How can I help her?

Not a Chinese Mother

Dr. Michael Tobin Responds:

You are asking an excellent question. The way in which you describe your dilemma tells me that you are a thoughtful and concerned parent. Our job as parents is to encourage our children to develop their natural talents and gifts without imposing our will and desire on them. A responsible parent tries to see the strengths and shortcomings of her child without projecting her own needs on to that child.

A parent is always faced with the challenge of asking himself is this what's best for my child or am I needing my child to be such and such so that I will feel better, more respected, more valued, etc. Often a parent who is focused on his needs at the expense of his child's will use love and affection as the currency to get his child to adapt. She'll show love when he fulfills her needs and withhold it when he doesn't. A parent whose primary frame of reference is what he or she needs is a parent who is "asking" her child to be either a highly adapted, "good little boy or girl” or a rebellious kid with little respect for authority.

Since I believe you are a parent who wants to do what's best for her child, then I would suggest you do the following:

1. Try to discover why she doesn't want to develop her talent as a pianist. In order to do that successfully, you've got to keep yourself out of it. You need to ask questions to your daughter about what she likes or doesn't like about playing and why she isn't interested in learning how to play more professionally. Perhaps you'll discover that she's afraid of failing, or that she's too nervous about playing publicly, or that she's not all that crazy about the piano, and what she really wants is to learn how to play the trombone. Maybe you'll discover that with all the attention she gets from the family she’s afraid to disappoint all of you if it turns out that she's not as talented as you think. In other words, to quote the title of the book by Faber and Maizlish, you need to "listen so that your child will talk and talk so your child will listen."

2. From your letter I don’t know whether she has already received lessons and doesn’t want additional formal lessons or she never took any lessons and is self-taught. Let’s assume that she received lessons and doesn’t want to continue. If so, have you explored with her why she doesn’t wish to continue? Is it possible that she has difficulty with her teacher or that the demands on her to practice interfere with other interests and activities? By asking the right questions and by communicating an attitude of acceptance and curiosity you can help your daughter to discover her reasons for not wanting to perform on a more professional level.

3. You should let her know that you believe in her ability and that she has your support if she wants to pursue lessons or classes in another area where she has interest and potential. Trust in her ability to recognize what she wants out of life.

It is true that some of the greatest performing artists were pushed by their parents to strive for perfection. It is also true that many of those same artists were and are extremely unhappy, sad people with a feeling that their talent belongs to the parent who pushed them rather than from their own intrinsic sense of who they are and how they wish to express themselves.

I am certain that you will be able to help your daughter to discover what she really wants, and by doing so you will be teaching her valuable skills for a successful and happy life: deeply knowing who you are, identifying what’s a true expression of who you are, and having the courage to pursue your dreams.

Rabbi Yaacov Haber Responds:

As parents we must be very careful not to miss an opportunity to help our children grow. Your concern about your daughter maximizing her potential is admirable.

At the same time, we must always remember that parenting must always be child-centered. Our decisions and efforts must revolve around what's right for the child - and not what would be right for me and you if we were the child. We should not project our likes and dislikes on our children, nor should we ‘push’ what we would personally consider a great accomplishment. It’s all about the child.

You speak of your daughter’s musical gift and you say that because she will only perform in the informal setting of the family, her talent may never be maximized. I would like you to reconsider the premise of your question.

Musical talent (as well as every other artistic talent) is a gift from God. Music is a way for the soul to express that which may not be able to be expressed with the spoken or written word.

The Hebrew word for music is "shir," a word which at its root also refers to an "overflow." Music can be an expression of thoughts and emotions which the heart, and even the soul, just can't contain. Indeed, the masters of Kabbala warn us not to always bare our soul in public or share an inspiring feeling for fear that by removing it’s intimacy it may become diluted and less real.

Music is a profound expression of one’s soul.

The gift of musical expression is profound, whether your daughter performs publicly or not. Her reluctance to perform publicly may not stem from performance anxiety, but rather from a sense of privacy with the intimate emotions of her soul, which of course she is entitled to have, whether or not she is able to even understand her inner motivations at such a young age.

Your daughter was blessed with the ability to express her heart and her soul. She probably has a big heart and a wonderful soul.

Her beautiful family performances may be exactly that - something she loves sharing with the family. To her it may be like a family trip, a bonding dinner conversation or like singing with her siblings.

Her lack of desire to go public with her music should not be considered a limitation of her talent. It may mean that it is just too deep, personal and even profound for her to share. She should be encouraged to use her talent to express herself, and who know where that may take her - maybe Carnegie Hall.