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Hell Is Other Parents (Halloween Edition!)

Karen Rile

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Published: October 31, 2013 at 10:29 AM [UTC]


"L'enfer, c'est les autres.”— Jean Paul Sartre

When my daughters were young I drove them downtown for a day of choir, orchestra, and chamber music every Saturday morning. And every Saturday evening I came home with a monster of a migraine. I called it my Music Prep Headache.

My headache wasn’t caused by the squeaky, off-key sound of young voices and miniature instruments. Truly, I enjoy listening to children making music. I love hanging out in the back of the recital hall pretending to grade papers while watching the conductors teach ensemble skills and musicality to the next generation. I love listening to all kids, not just my own—I love kids in general.

But their parents, that’s another story. The air in the parents’ lounge was toxic enough to give anyone a migraine.

A Monsters' Gallery: 

The Spin Doctor. “My little Esmerelda hardly opens her violin case all week. And now she’s been accepted to the Menuhin Competition. What a bother! I just wish for once she would fail at something, anything, to teach her a lesson about hard work, but it all just comes so easily for her. Having so much abundant natural talent is practically a disability.”


Mr. My-Kid-Is-A-Machine. “My boy won’t stop practicing. Every moment it’s scales, Kreutzer, Bach. I can’t imagine why a 9-year-old feels the need to memorize the Paganini Concerto in a single week, but there’s no stopping Fauntleroy, he’s so motivated!”


Mrs. No Biggie. “I have no idea where my Punchinella gets it from. National figure skating champion? Seven APs and only in 6th grade? (Did I mention she skipped 4th and 5th grade?) Concertmaster (again!), how many years in a row? And she’s playing on From The Top next week. But she’s just a typical little girl at heart, playing with her American Girl Dolls and going to sleepovers every weekend!”


The Political Conspiracy Detector. “Niccolini gave a perfect audition with a much harder piece than Punchinella, and look at him, stuck in the back of the seconds. That’s because I didn’t make a huge donation to the music prep like some parents. That’s the only way to be concertmaster around here. Forget this amateur show—next year I’m taking him to a better pre-college program—in New York!”


The Prattler. “Why on earth is that horrible little Punchinella concertmaster of the orchestra again? The child cannot even play in tune. Just look at those bags under Esmerelda’s eyes. Her mother’s pushing her hard—probably anorexic, too. Just wait’ll she’s a teenager. That Faunterloy can’t play his way out of a paper bag. He needs a better teacher. And Niccolini? His father is clearly deluded. Oh, have I mentioned? Hubby and I are shopping for a step-up teacher for Junior.”

One afternoon, while searching for some water to choke down my extraength Naproxin, I ran into the director of the program, crouching behind the soft drink machine. She put her finger to her lips and pointed. The posse of prattlers and spin doctors whom I had managed to avoid while observing my daughter’s orchestra practice was coming towards us down the hallway. I understood: the director needed to escape quickly before they clawed her to shreds with requests and complaints. I created a distraction by muttering under my breath and banging on the drink machine as if to dislodge a stuck bottle while she slipped back into her office, clicking the door shut firmly behind her. I turned around to face them. And they pounced:

“How old’s your daughter?”
“Who’s her teacher?”
“What piece is she playing?”
“What competitions did she win?”
“How’d she get that seat?”

Maybe they just couldn’t help themselves. Maybe their own mothers had behaved this way when they were little and that’s all they knew. Would the cycle then continue forever, ad nauseum and beyond? Niccolini, who had the trapped look of someone who’d rather be pretty much anywhere else in the world but an orchestra rehearsal, poor kid—would he grow up to be the kind of person who blamed all his shortcomings on others? The thought of Punchinella, honestly a very sweet little girl, in spite of her parents, growing up to become a replica of her mom intensified my headache. I looked down at the pill bottle in my hand. According to the label, no more Naproxin for at least four hours.

A kindly veteran mom took me out for coffee (caffeine is good for headaches!) and listened patiently as I unloaded about the tension in the parents’ lounge. “Let it all roll off,” she said wisely, “like water on a duck’s back.” Some parents, she told me, hated the competitive atmosphere so much that they avoided the music school completely, sending their kids in carpools or with babysitters. She mentioned the name of one of the most accomplished whiz-kid violinists at the program. “Her mom hasn’t set foot inside this place for years.” Other parents zoned out with the help of earbuds and paperwork, or waited outside the building in the cold. But they missed the joy of watching kids make music. They missed the advice and camaraderie of the non-toxic parents. And they missed out on a window into the fleeting childhood of their own children. Many years ago she'd made the choice to stay.

And I did, too.

Coming Next week: Heaven is Other Parents

From Christina C.
Posted on October 31, 2013 at 4:44 PM
Ha! Sorry for your headache... but what a great post!
From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 31, 2013 at 6:52 PM
The scariest thing for me is that sometimes the supportive, heavenly parents can -- I don't know, get bit by a vampire? -- and suddenly turn in to zombie tiger parents from hell! (And I'm not talking about the parents of my students, just in general about being a parent and mixing among other parents!)
From Jeff Nelson
Posted on October 31, 2013 at 7:17 PM
I read a great quote from a film making book I read once. It went something like: "Parents answer to no one. They don't have to. They're parents".

So while it's in our best interests to put up firm boundaries to keep all the tiger moms and dads in check so we can go about our jobs, it's a good thing to remember: While this may be our career, it's their child. Simple as that.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on October 31, 2013 at 8:36 PM
I don't teach, mainly because I've never felt teaching was my calling; but if I did, the big turn-off for me would be, not the students, but -- you guessed it -- some of the stage-moms and stage-dads. Thanks to input from other members, I'm sure I'd know where to draw the line and set the barriers. Some parents are, indeed, a nightmare, while others are indispensable.
From Yan Gilchenok
Posted on November 1, 2013 at 2:08 AM
It has been our experience that there are many, MANY more "heavenly" parents than "hellish" ones. And yet people talk about and expect the negative experiences with parents. Why put so much time and effort into something that is truly not the norm?

From Karen Rile
Posted on November 1, 2013 at 2:25 PM
Hi Yan,

Thanks for taking time to comment. The column was written for some Halloween fun, not to be taken at face value. :)


From Josh Reyna
Posted on November 1, 2013 at 4:08 PM
I always enjoy reading your blog posts! And I look forward to the next one too. I super enjoy your writing. :) Thanks for sharing!
From Sean Gillia
Posted on November 1, 2013 at 4:29 PM
Hilarious. A fun walk down (a really scary) memory lane for many parents. Love the photos, too. Actually, I always love the photos you choose -- in your last blog, I think, the photo of the three little kids -- their varying expressions -- was priceless. The weird intensity of the person in the woman's mask was the one that got me this time.
From Karen Rile
Posted on November 1, 2013 at 6:17 PM
Thank you, Sean! The photo you are referring to is my husband in a mask he found in our attic while fetching Halloween decorations. The rest are my neighbors and/or their outdoor decorations. I should thank them all for being good sports.
From Mabel MacMillan
Posted on November 3, 2013 at 6:25 PM
This was so well-written, I really enjoyed reading it. I do so hope that no one can ever characterize me as one of those parents! Yikes!

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