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Could You Be Setting Up Your Child to Fail?

It could happen.

You start with a goal, make a plan, and put it into action. You tell your child to follow it step by step and one day all their little dreams will come true.

Simple, right?

Well…not always.

Goals are like dreams with a plan: a step-by-step method that gets us where we are now to where we want to be.

But if you set the wrong goal, they can fast track you to a place of failure, defeat, and disappointment you can’t come back from. These goals? They set your child up to fail.

I know because it happened to me.

The Competition That Killed Me

It was a cold February afternoon, and I was miserable. Attending the Southeast Regional MTNA Competition, I was representing my state with pride…and nausea.

As a just-turned-13 year old musician, I was on the path to achieving the goal my Mom had set me up for: to win this competition. It dominated my life that year. All of those sunny summer months the year before I had spent full afternoons practicing, closed up in my room. Most days I practiced for hours at a time.

I wanted to achieve this goal and make her proud. And it all came down to this moment: these 10 minutes behind a door with a panel of teachers, 3 of them in a perfect line, scribbling comments on pieces of paper. Judging my every note and my every move. I had to win.

Oh, and that nausea I mentioned before wasn’t just nerves. Right before the weekend of my competition, I got sick – really sick. Obviously, I went straight to the doctor. After all that practicing, rehearsing, and memorizing I wasn’t about to start backing out now. I refused to give up –  I had a goal to achieve.

During the next few days I could feel my antibiotics dampening my symptoms, but my head was still spinning. Sure I could play these pieces in my sleep, but I couldn’t help but wonder…would it be enough to win the competition?

Waiting for the judges to call me, I stood patiently in my red plaid dress. The hallways were cold and my fingers were like ice. I went through the music notes in my head over and over again, worried I’d forget them on stage if I didn’t catch each one on my fingerboard beforehand.

But minutes before I was called into the room, I rushed to the bathroom…to vomit.

I remember looking in the mirror right after that messy episode and saying to myself, “In 10 minutes, this will all be over. You can do this. Go out there and play with everything you’ve got.”

And that’s exactly what I did.

How I pulled through that one, I have no idea. I was really proud of myself for a few minutes and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Finally! It was over and I might have even won! But that feeling didn’t last long.

I heard the last contestant playing while I was packing up my violin in the hallway. He was good – really good. His pieces were more technical. Every note he played was perfect. His fingers danced swiftly on the fingerboard and his bow flew like the wind.

I buried my face in my hands, knowing the outcome of the day. “I’m done,” I said to myself. I was good, but he was better.

I had failed.

On the way back home, my Mom tried to console me. “You were sick!” she exclaimed, “It was a big deal that you participated at all!”

But it was no use. I didn’t simply feel I had failed myself – I had failed her.

Goals Are Designed To Make Us Feel Better

Looking back on this, I’m flabbergasted that I considered this a failure.

This goal was based on one day’s results: a ten minute time slot, a lineup of contestants I couldn’t control, and three judges’ opinions based on a single moment in time.

But goals aren’t meant to make us feel worse – they’re designed to make us feel better than how we feel now.

This goal didn’t do that. At the end, I felt like I failed.

Never mind…

  • how much I improved musically
  • how much I’d learned about time managment
  • how my work ethic and love of music became stronger than ever

Despite all of that, I still felt this heavy sense of failure that followed me everywhere I went. The weeks and months that followed afterward made me feel sick to my stomach whenever I glanced over at my instrument in the corner of my room. And my music stand taunted me with pieces I hadn’t practiced.

There I was, barely 13 years old, and I wanted to give up. I wanted to quit.

I thought that maybe if I stopped playing music, the feeling of failure would go away.

I remember thinking…

“What’s the use practicing when I could fail again?”

It took me some time to realize that it wasn’t goal setting that was bad – it was the goal itself. It was just that: a bad goal.

The truth is, anything can happen on a given day. Sure we have control over a lot, but some days, no matter what you do, the outcome is a total toss up.

But learning how to succeed and steer ourselves toward the right goal is even more important than the success itself.

Which means one of the most important steps to success is learning how to aim at the right target.

What Good Goals Look Like (psssst….they’re not really “goals” at all)

The more goals I see kids set, the more I realize that the way kids feel about their success matters even more than what they accomplished. And when they feel successful, it makes them want to accomplish more.

But when you make a goal that you don’t achieve, a little part of you dies. It doesn’t matter if you’re 8 or 80. Feelings of failure and loss don’t discriminate based on age. There’s a tiny voice inside you that whispers “I can’t” and gets a little louder every year because once again, you’ve failed – in something…somewhere…in some part of your life.

So consider this…

The best goals take the form of a habit: the kind of habit that takes into account where you are right now in your progress. It starts with where your child is, at this very moment, and goes one small step further – nothing more, nothing less.

Here’s an example of a good goal (a habit) and the feelings that come with it: Practice everyday for 10 minutes.

When you make this kind of goal, based on a habit, you’re stirring up 4 fantastic feelings in your child. They’re about to…

1. fit in a practice assignment

2. feel confident when they go back to their teacher

3. build their stamina for longer practice sessions later

4. get in the habit of picking up their instrument everyday

Good feelings come out of this good habit. And that’s what pushes us to challenge ourselves and make even more progress.

By the way, if your child can’t do 10 minutes of practicing everyday yet, you can scale it back to 5 minutes a day or even 1 minute (yep – I said it – one minute. It’s better than not practicing at all!) For all of you who live with little Mozarts at home, start at 30 minutes, 1 hour, or more and see how practice goes.

And what about those bad goals?

Curious to know what kinds of feelings come out of those bad goals (if my story didn’t convince you already)?

Here’s a look at a bad goal I’ve seen plenty of kids and their parents make before. This one’s an outcome-based goal: Finish Music Book 2 by next month.

When you make this kind of goal, based on an outcome, you’re stirring up 4 not-so-fantastic feelings in your child. They could…

1. get sick and not make the goal deadline

2. get upset because it wasn’t a good goal from the start

3. get frustrated because it’s taking longer to master the skills to finish music book 2

4. not be practicing enough to complete all the songs in the book


I don’t know about you, but honestly? Those bad goal feelings are depressing me just looking at them.

It sounds nice when you think about it – really ambitious. Finish Book 2 by next month!

But a bad goal can set us up to fail before we’ve barely begun. And that failure can lead us filling our heads with all kinds of ideas and assumptions about ourselves if we don’t reach that particular outcome goal. Even when we work our butts off!

Not only that, it’s easy to personalize your failure and start to think, “I’m not talented/smart/good enough to achieve what I want.” And let’s be honest: even the most motivated go-getters have their breaking point.

It reminds me of my own experience with failure in music I confessed to you earlier. You see, no matter how much I improved that year I entered the competition, the way I felt about my failure held me hostage. I could only feel failure. And that was a major problem. It was an outcome-based goal – win the competition. Anything less was failure.

Right now, your child’s making an association with success and achievement with everything they do. You want to make it the most positive experience you can.

Good feelings + Progress they can see (and hear) = Positive Experience.

And think about it like this:

Practicing everyday for a set amount of time will get your child closer to finishing music book 2.
But making the goal to finish music book 2, and failing to finish it by the goal deadline won’t necessarily make your child want to keep practicing everyday.

It’s interesting how that works, huh?

Make A Habit This Week

It takes some time and a little bit of tweaking, but you can help your child make a habit that sticks. Here’s what to do!

1. Brainstorm: Sit down with your child and talk about what they think they can do. What habit do they think they can achieve? How long do they think they can practice every single day?

  • Is it practicing 5 minutes each day?
  • Is it practicing 20 minutes each day?
  • Is it practicing 45 minutes each day?

You might be surprised what they have to say. Kids are pretty ambitious once they know what they want to do – they just need some help dealing with the ups and downs that come along with achieving it.

Making this habit gives your child a specific daily task to focus on. That way, after the day’s over and done with, they can say, “I did this today” or “I didn’t do this today.”

2. Make it actionable: When will they practice?

  • As soon as they come home from school?
  • After they finish their homework?
  • Right after breakfast in the mornings?

Help make it easy for them. Keep music in one place and put their instrument where they can see it. When they know where their stuff is, it’s easier to start practicing – even when it’s difficult to start. Especially when it’s difficult to start.

3. Reflect and Revise: Here’s where a lot of us drop the ball. We go to that place in our minds where we assume the reason we didn’t succeed must be because we’re not determined enough. Somehow, it’s a personal failure. But don’t fall into that nasty trap – it doesn’t help anyone!

At the end of week, have a quick talk about the habit with your child. How’s it working out? Are they keeping up with the habit? If yes, awesome! High five for you!

If not, tweak your plan of action. It’s your habit and you can do what you want to!  Maybe you’re practicing at the wrong time, or maybe they’re not sure how to practice.

Either change the circumstances or change the habit

Don’t let those nasty roadblocks you’re stumbling on blur your focus of the big picture.

If you and your child set out this week to practice 30 minutes a day and you ended up practicing 5 minutes one day and 45 minutes another day, plan on practicing 10 minutes each day next week. Consistent practicing is better than sporadic practicing.

Whatever you do, start where you are and make your practice session into a manageable block of time you can do each day without a ton of stress: scale back practice time, change the time they practice, or practice something entirely different.

Have you child do whatever they need to do to feel successful. Instead of feeling disappointed with last week’s results, feel excited. You know more about what works and what doesn’t – this is great! This next week will be better than last week. And the week after that will be even better.

And hey –

If you’re still not sure the habit you’re setting up for your child is a good one, ask their teacher what they think.

They can tell you if it’s a realistic habit for them because they know your child’s learning style and what’s ahead in their music schedule. And you know your child’s personality and how they deal with assignments at home.

And kids? Well, they have a way of telling it like it is, don’t they? 🙂

Together, you can all make a habit that works.

How do you make good goals and habits for yourself? Do you have some tried and true ways to help instill good habits in your kids or your music students? I’d love for you to tell me in the comments below!

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue Hunt January 28, 2014 at 10:34 am

This blog spoke right to my heart. As a mother, I was guilty of setting unrealistic goals. In those days we were told that goals were good things.

As a teacher, I have come to realise, like you, that this is not always the case and that making a good practice habit is much better for the self-esteem.

I have come up with a tool to help with children’s practice sessions, the 100 Day Practice Journal. Check it out at my website.


Elizabeth Kane January 29, 2014 at 10:28 pm

Sue – thanks so much for your comment. I think it’s fascinating how habits are really changing the way we see goals. I do believe that after all the goal making and planning I’ve done, habits have been the most satisfying for me. But that’s after a good deal of trial and error – good experiences *and* bad! Will definitely check out your practice journal.


Sue Hunt January 31, 2014 at 8:33 am

Thank you Elizabeth,
I always enjoy reading your blogs. There is always something in them which makes me sit up and reevaluate my thoughts.


Elizabeth Kane February 3, 2014 at 11:52 pm

Thanks so much, Sue. That means a lot coming from you!


Laurel January 28, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Beautiful blog! Great perspective shift for this parent, and timing was excellent, of course. Thank you! Also gives me much insight into the goals I made for myself (and thought my parents made for me) as a child.


Elizabeth Kane January 29, 2014 at 10:35 pm

Thanks, Laurel. I’m glad you liked it! And it’s true – habits are just as important to us as they are to kids.


Tammy January 28, 2014 at 7:44 pm

Thank you for this post. You make a lot of sense. I keep trying to remember why we are on this musical journey and it’s easy to be sidetracked for example when I see other kids progressing faster than my child etc. I have to remember my goal of giving her the opportunity to make music part of her life forever, not to be the fastest kid to finish book 1 or anything like that. Than you so much!


Elizabeth Kane January 29, 2014 at 10:40 pm

“I have to remember my goal of giving her the opportunity to make music part of her life forever” – *Absolutely*, Tammy! It can feel frustrating sometimes, but it’s oh so worth it.

And book 1 (I’m assuming you mean Suzuki) can take a while for most kids. All of those basic fundamental skills are pretty hard to master at first, but it does get easier later on. And I’m not just saying that – it truly does.


Peggy February 1, 2014 at 12:33 am

Many students were really excited when they got a trophy (or a stuffed bear playing the violin) after they reached their goal of practicing for 100 days. One student, probably about age 8, made that goal but then instead of making her excited to play more she decided to take more “vacation time”. I suspect it felt more like a marathon for her with a “finish line” rather that 100 days that made her a stronger player. Practice really is a tricky subject.


Elizabeth Kane February 3, 2014 at 11:51 pm

It is a tricky subject. It’s so interesting that some kids see the marathon practicing goal and really enjoy it, while the opposite happens for others. They get so overwhelmed by the magnitude of practice days that they practically go into paralysis! I think it’s in the way some of us are marathoners in learning/skill building and others are sprinters. It’s easier for sprinter-type kids to think in very short bursts of practice days. Ironically, if we encourage them to not think too long about the long-term (the marathon), these short sprints add to the length of a marathon without even knowing it.


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