Thursday 18 October 2018

Dear David Coleman: My daughter is tone-deaf but loves singing. Should I tell her? I'm worried she'll be teased

Image: Getty
Image: Getty

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My eight-year-old daughter likes to write her own pop songs and wants to join the school choir. However, it's obvious to me, as a musician, that she is tone-deaf. How do I break this to her gently? Or do I just go ahead and let her join the choir and quickly be identified as the drone in the group? I do like to encourage her in the things she is interested in but I feel it would be disingenuous of me to encourage her in this. I don't want her to end up hurt, either, with her peers pointing out to her that she can't sing.

David replies: There are so many stories, from adults, who never had the confidence to sing throughout their lives because they were told, often with just a single comment, that they couldn't sing as a child. If you tell your daughter she is tone-deaf, I think you will destroy what could be a wonderful and fulfilling aspect of her life.

I know you seem to think she will be told by her peers that she can't sing, but I am not sure this is even the case. Even if they do, which do you think would have the more long-term impact for your daughter, being told by her mother she can't sing, or being told by her peers she can't sing?

As you point out, she loves to sing, to the point that she writes her own songs, aged just eight. What will happen to this after you've told her she can't sing? I could imagine she may never sing again, at home or anywhere else.

I'm intrigued by your assertion that, as a musician, you can confidently determine, or diagnose her, as tone-deaf. Maybe your expectations for your daughter are unusually high.

It is funny how we seem to see singing as a skill that needs to be intrinsically present and fully developed from the outset, unlike other skills that we are happy to accept may be woefully underdeveloped and require lots of practice.

For example, if your daughter started gymnastics, you wouldn't expect her to be supple at first. You wouldn't even expect her to be able to tumble, never mind the more complex moves. However, you'd happily bring her to a gymnastics class if she seemed interested and engaged by it.

If she played tennis and regularly served into the net, would you tell her she can't play tennis, or would you suggest more practice, or that she go for tennis lessons?

Our skill at the activity will only increase when we are taught, coached and practice. The same is true with singing. True tone-deafness affects a very small proportion of the population. But even if a child struggles with pitch, or holding a note, it doesn't mean that will always be the case.

If your daughter can't "hold a tune" at the moment, then it does mean she'll possibly have to work harder than a child who seems to naturally be able to do this without instruction. So rather than putting your daughter off singing (potentially for life!) maybe you could offer to support her in learning to sing better.

I don't see why it would be disingenuous of you to encourage your daughter to continue to love singing. It might be disingenuous to tell her she is great, if it is the case that she has lots to learn. However, you can certainly acknowledge that this is something that she seems to love and that you'd like to help her with.

If you are a musician then maybe you can coach her yourself? Although, from your query, your current attitude towards her singing ability suggests that you might find it hard to approach this in a positive way. You might be better off letting someone else work with her.

If she wants to join the choir then I think you should let her join the choir. I am sure the teacher who runs the choir deals with children of lots of mixed ability. Hopefully the teacher is someone who loves singing and loves children and sees that their job is just to encourage all the children that want to sing to sing as well as possible.

Maybe you need to recalibrate your expectations for your daughter, rather than cut off a potentially rewarding pastime that could be joy for her throughout her life.

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