What the Mandolin Taught Me

The treasure of lifelong learning and how it can make you a better parent.

Over this year’s spring break I was reminded of a valuable lesson; one I’ve been making friends with again lately and which is creating the right kind of waves in my little family. My mother was in town and we were discussing the fact that we need to sing together more. She made a comment in passing that I ought to learn to play the mandolin as we share a love of singing bluegrass. My immediate reaction to this suggestion was the familiar chorus of doubts in my mind: ‘I’m not a musician!’ and ‘It’s not like I could actually accompany us…’ plus the ever-present avoidance of being new at something for all the vulnerability that entails. These are usually obstacles which I allow to stop me from taking on something new that genuinely intimidates me, and playing a string instrument has long been intimidating. I’ve been leaning into this particular discomfort lately however, so within an hour of the mandolin suggestion I had posted on social media and quickly secured one to borrow. A few days later I brought home this loaner instrument and started looking up videos online for absolute beginners. Without realizing it, a handful of hours had passed and my numb fingertips were able to take me through one basic bluegrass song.

After a few days I had two solid songs under my belt and was experimenting with scales and changing key. This was wonderful for its own reasons, for me, but I quickly began to see positive effects in my children too. They would emerge from their bedrooms to come play percussion, to sing along with the chorus of the songs, and eventually my son picked up the guitar. Seeing me taking on this new skill gave him the confidence to put himself out there and try. While my mother was in town we had more than one occasion where we were all jamming together, making fantastic music in our living room. Since then, I have been noticing a tangible increase in my children’s comfort with the vulnerability of trying something new and their tenacity at practicing that thing. The difference was almost immediate and it was because of my example.

There is a growing body of research that encourages us to be lifelong learners for benefits such as improved self-esteem and life satisfaction, and possibly even improvements in our mental health as we age. As I watch the metamorphosis in my household, I realize the benefits to my children are also worth adding to that list.

If you take up a brand new skill, your children will inevitably learn that it’s okay to be new at something and it’s okay to make mistakes.

There are so many people who struggle with being a beginner (I am definitely one of them). It seems there’s a cultural shift away from appreciating everything that comes with building a skill from the ground up and taking the time to create a solid foundation. Instant gratification can be seductive. We seem to work hard at hiding our flaws (our humanness) and it’s easy for children to glean that it’s not acceptable for these things to be visible. We ask our kids to take risks all the time, or not to feel bad if they have yet to master a new skill, but actions speak louder than words and our actions as parents are the loudest of all.

You will model vulnerability, which is how people connect to a strong sense of love and belonging.

Western culture has become adept at training us to be guarded, shameful and afraid of our vulnerability. Author, educator and speaker Brené Brown describes shame as the fear of disconnection. She has said that in order for connection to happen we have to allow ourselves to be seen. That’s not something we’re taught to feel comfortable with. We would much rather show off our talents. I recently heard a violin teacher quoted as saying “If your family thinks your home practice sounds good, you’re not doing it right”. When learning a new skill, if we can work on that skill openly and make our mistakes and ask our questions with grace and without shame or negative self talk, we model vulnerability. Something as powerful as vulnerability will reach its arms out to touch areas of your life and your children’s lives that seem quite disconnected from whatever new skill you’re working on. Vulnerability and compassion are close friends as well and they are critical building blocks for healthy family relationships.

Bringing tangible learning into the home can shift the paradigm your children hold about education.

In most forms of public education, learning is very much a standardized group event. It’s still a novel idea when we hear about curricula that feature student-led, experience-based, or individual learning. Home- and distance learning are still largely fringe choices. When you learn new skills you demonstrate an autonomy that can inspire your children to think differently about what learning a skill means. We are curious by nature but sometimes we need our environments to get shaken up so that we tap into that innate curiosity again. The broader your children’s view of what learning means and who it belongs to, the more widely they will cast the net of their own curiosity out into the world.

Last but not least, you will be more available for quality connection.

Whether the new skills or knowledge you pursue have you learning at home or away, you will benefit from the boost in self-esteem, general life satisfaction, mental focus and more that comes from this practice. In my case, picking up the mandolin and learning to play a few songs so far has sprouted a more coherent musical culture in our home where the quality time is spent together, instruments in hand. Other pursuits may bring you into communities of interesting people who share your passions, or into nature, but hopefully always into your own heart. When we invest in ourselves as people, our children get the best versions of us that we can possibly offer.

Check out your community center or library for classes, watch out for those moments when your heart skips a beat and quiet your mind when it tries to cast doubt. Dust off your curiosity and your passion and see where it takes you, and do this over and over because there’s a whole world out there to explore. It’s a treasure that shares itself with everyone you love as long as you take it.

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