Monday, January 10, 2011

When Does Encouragement Become Pushing Too Hard?

"Try not to become a man of success but rather to become a man of value."
~Albert Einstein

I spent my 1970's childhood partly in Europe, but mostly in Brooklyn, being raised by bohemian, intellectual parents. My parents had a great love of art, music and literature, thus all three were a large part of my growing up. I became very interested in these things, perhaps because I am an only child and spent more time with my parents than children my own age, or perhaps because it was a way to connect with my dad, or perhaps just because that is what my particular soul needed. Whatever the reason I liked these things, it was not because my parents pushed me. In fact, when they did push, I pushed back. Hard.

Amy Chua's book comes out tomorrow
Many of you may have seen the article that came out this weekend in the Wall Street Journal by Yale Law Professor, Amy Chua, entitled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. It's caused quite an uproar. With all the bashing of "Helicopter Parents" that has been going in the last year or so, this article isn't happy to just bash, it pulverizes. Chua basically takes the stand that parents who place their children's spirits above academic success are wimps and ultimately don't really care about their kids: 
First, I've noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children's self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches. Chinese parents aren't. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently. 
There is some level of being tongue in cheek, but Chua's overall presentation is that having children who are "the best" in every area should be a parent's ultimate goal. By way of explanation, she says that Chinese parents presume that their children are able to do everything set in front of them and if they fail it must be because they must not have tried hard enough. While I like the idea of believing in our children's innate abilities, and I agree that praising a child who hasn't done their best at something is counter-productive, Chua's description of this "Chinese way" of parenting seems to take it a little too far.  

After a painful description of an enforced piano lesson with her 7-year old daughter, in which Chua, after using other coercive and (to me) abusive methods, calls her daughter who is struggling with a difficult piece, "lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic", this article ends by saying, 
Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away 
My children "playing" piano
just for fun
One of the first things I thought after finishing this article is that what Chua misses is that by focusing solely on some unknown "future" she is preparing her children for, she, and they, are actually missing out on life. I totally agree with her goals, but her methods leave me wondering.

Because I was so curious to hear their take on this, I sent the article to two friends who are Asian (Lisa, a Chinese woman who came to the US with her parents when she was 3, and Dan, raised in Taiwan until he was 12 then sent to boarding school in the US). As an American woman raised in the US to parents who would never think of pushing me the way Ms. Chua describes, I have a very difficult time relating to this article except to feel turned off. What I got from the conversations with my friends was very interesting. Lisa, who is now a professor of psychology, said that while she believes the parental attitude described in this article is very accurate, what Ms. Chua fails to point out is that it leaves no room for individuation and that, while it may work to some extent, with children who are very capable, it almost can't help but have negative consequences. 

I also really liked Dan's thoughts when he said to me "What I do is always ask do you think you can do better? Did you try your best? I have no problem expressing disappointment when I know they can do better. What I do struggle with is how do I as a parent connect the results with the effort? Is effort without the right result good? If effort is all that matters, how do you get that instinct to excel and be the best you can be? Or is result without the right effort good? There's no easy answer"

Children are inherently wired to want to please their parents. They don't need to be forced or coerced in that department. I do believe, however, that children often need to be encouraged beyond their comfort zone, but what possible reason could there be for demanding participation in something that makes their child feel bad about themselves, even if they become a star performer? Back to the piano playing 7-year old. After all of the coercion, her daughter finally figures the complex piece out: 
Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.Lulu realized it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming. "Mommy, look—it's easy!" After that, she wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn't leave the piano.
Me and my father, circa 1971
Ms. Chua goes on to say how she and her daughter cuddled afterwards, laughing, painting a picture that her daughter was just being stubborn and was now so delighted that she could play this piece. Obviously I don't know this family, but it strikes me that Lulu may have been more thrilled to be in her mother's good graces again and thrilled to at last do something that would earn her mother's approval each time she performed as expected. To me, that's not a good reason to become an expert at anything. As an adult, I now wish my father had found a way to push past my refusal to take piano lessons; but he gave up because I fought so hard against it. Now, looking back, I believe I gave up in a confusing blend of wanting him to be proud of me for being a great piano player, but feeling as though I could never be as good as he was and simply doubting myself. However, had my father employed any of the tactics described in Amy Chua's article it would have been extremely detrimental not only to my self esteem, but to the relationship I had with my dad. Yes, in part this is because I was not growing up in a family or culture where that type of discipline was the norm, but also because of who I am and how I learn. Amy Chua might want to take a look at Howard Gardener's theories of Multiple Intelligences

Ultimately, like my friend Dan, I want my children to develop their instinct to want to excel in any area they choose. I also want them to push themselves beyond what they think they can achieve. But they need to want to do this for themselves. I believe that by saying that there are only certain areas that are acceptable to excel in is where we run into trouble. Who is to say that someone who is a fantastic teacher, house painter or plumber shouldn't be as esteemed as someone who is a world renowned concert pianist or cardiac surgeon? If we were all to be mathematicians or scientists or doctors, the world would be a lot more boring and a lot less joyful. For me, as a mother, there is a place in the world for all of us, and all of us have a purpose. Perhaps it is solely a "Western" idea, but I want my children to be individuals and discover what makes them passionate in life. Perhaps I just define success so much differently from Ms. Chua. I will push my children to be kind 1,000 times harder than I would push them to score well on a math test. As Albert Einstein said, to be a person of value is truly a success to strive for.

There is so much more to say on this topic. I am sure I have only scratched the surface. What do you think? How do you encourage your children? Do you relate to Amy Chua's methods and think they might work in some respect? Please take a minute to leave a comment. I'd love to know!

Thanks for reading!
The Twin Coach

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17 Great Comments Made By Clicking Here!:

Anonymous said...

Saying one way is better than the other is just an easy out. There is no best way. Every child is unique so there really is no one miracle approach that works for all. Some will need the sternness of Amy Chua (without the name calling I hope) while others will need the nurture more typical of Western parents. Not only that, each child may require us to be stern at times while nurturing at others depending on circumstance. Our job as parents is simply do our best to help our children become who they want to be, not who we want them to be. As long as we're all working towards that goal, who are we to point fingers?

I've seen tons of mom bloggers bash Amy Chua for her approach since the article came out. But none of us really know whether her daughters are happy or not. Without knowing that, are we in a position to make any judgement?

Keilah said...

Interesting. And I agree with the first paragraph above. Each child is different and will respond differently to praise and discipline. One of my favorite books is "The Five Love Languages of Children" by Gary Chapmand and Ross Campbell, which helps you learn how your children interpret love so you can understand them and how best to raise them.
That Chua would call her child lazy and pathetic over a piano piece sounds very harsh and damaging. But perhaps she knew her daughter's skills, and [gently] pushing her to succeed was the correct method for this child. Like already mentioned, how can we judge without knowing more and knowing the child?

Anonymous said...

I understand that Amy Chua ultimately believes that she is doing the best for her children by pushing them to achieve their potential, but I feel uneasy about any mother who would withhold water and bathroom privileges from a child, while verbally abusing them, as part of a teaching method.

Also, check out these interesting articles about the "drill-and-kill" technique of teaching and the decline of creativity and imaginative thinking in children...

The Toad said...

Keep in mind that Amy Chua is very interested in selling her book, and that the roll out for this book has been fairly extensive. Of course she's going to be extreme; middle of the road books without a clear message don't sell too well since there's little controversy attached to them.

Her approach will work, as long as the child remains under her roof. But once the child is on her own (say, in college) all bets are off. What concerned me most about her approach was not the insistence on practice and fortitude, or even the name calling (hard to know if this was emphasized for the sake of the book sales). Rather, it was her rules, like no sleepovers, no school plays, not caring about sports. It seems so limiting socially, so confining.

Christina Simon said...

While this mom's parenting style is very different from my own, I respect her right to parent the way she thinks is best for her kids. To me her tactics seem extreme. But, maybe to her it's comfortable and what she knows best. Interesting topic!

Medifast Coupons said...

At the end of the day, our children are individuals, and parenting them must also be individual. What works for one may not work for all. How does the child feel? How does the parent feel?
Great post today, I have read and re-read trying to comment without offending.

The Twin Coach said...

This article has stirred up more discussion about parenting styles than any I have seen in a long time and I love it! I saw this comment made somewhere today which I wanted to share:

"What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction."

I think it's a very good point and one I will take to heart because I do think parents often worry too much about a child's self-esteem to push them beyond their comfort zone. There is a middle ground between simply letting your child quit when the going gets tough, and pushing hard because YOU think it's the right thing to do, but not connecting with your child to see if you are correct. All good food for thought. As are all of your comments. Thank you all for joining in the conversation!

Anonymous said...

Yes, all children are different but they all deserve respect. Imagine if you treated an equal, let's say your spouse like that? I don't think they would stick around very long. Verbal abuse like calling your child garbage isn't just abusive, it's disrespectful and I don't care what kind of child you have, it's not acceptable. Why are we taking advice from this woman who claims that Chinese children are such a "success"? By whose standards? The Chinese literally leave their baby girls on the street like pieces of garbage and this is who we're supposed to take our advice from? And yes, there is too much emphasis on self-esteem in this country but there is much to be said for the importance of socialization and emotional intelligence. When these children are later in the work force, their success will also be effected by their ability to get along with their colleagues, boss and to work as a team. Their personal success will be in their ability to make friends and have a healthy relationship with a spouse and I don't see how eliminating any non-academic extracurriculars, playdates, sleep-overs or sports will further that end. We the parents are the strongest influence and greatest model for our children, if we model the behavior of trying things we're not sure we're good at, or scared of doing, they will see that and do the same. By the same token, if we treat them with respect, they will learn to treat others, and someday their children, with respect too. On a personal note, my son is hesitant to try new things but we talk him through it and show him how, research it with him, and yes, nudge him sometimes too. But if we push too hard, he pushes back much harder and then will not even entertain the notion and I don't think it does him any good to use force. Yes, maybe he would get satisfaction out of it eventually, but the process of getting him to do it would be at what expense? Our bond and and his knowledge that my love for him is contingent on him performing a task? He's not my monkey. And it depends on what you want for your child too. I am not trying to create an astro-physicist, I am trying to create a kind, respectful, adventurous, confident, social, smart, independent, funny ... human being!

Anonymous said...

Let me just add that I want my child to do and accomplish things for himself and not to please me. I am not always going to be there, (like when he's in college), and if he relies on me to push him (past the point of being respectful) then how will he do once he leaves the nest? And I want him to find his own interests and talents, ones that I might never have thought about, or know anything about. I will help guide him, but eventually he will need to self-define. And a lot of that defining is already there from birth and can't be forced, or coerced out of him. As Gina pointed out already, plumbers, bartenders, doctors, cooks, all have a very meaningful job to do in order for our society to function. And as a society, we would do well to respect those positions. Chua's article further feeds into parents fears for their children to be "successful". Less Americans are having multiple children so the one or two children they have they want to go to Harvard and get great jobs in a despairing economy. And as a final note, Chua may think her job is to make her child successful and that her child's success and failures are her own, and though she is technically well-intentioned, this has narcissistic undertones. Our children are not an extension of ourselves or our egos and their success/failures needs to be just that. She assumes that all children are capable and that we Americans think that children have different abilities and who is to say who is right in that argument but there is more than just music lessons, math drills, science, experiments and vocab tests to childhood, which seem to be the areas that the "Chinese mothers" concentrate on. And in regards to her daughter and the piano piece, why did she have to get it right that evening? Children not only have different strengths and different ways of learning but they also have different ways of processing information. Who is to say that if she hadn't let her child get a good night sleep to process the lesson, she might not have had that aha moment without having to go without a dollhouse, dinner and bathroom breaks.

Will said...

It looks like the WSJ strung together the most controversial sections of her book to generate buzz. Anybody who read the WSJ article over the weekend should definitely read this piece to get the real picture of who Amy Chua is as a parent and what the book is about.

Steven Brogden said...

I wonder if the title was meant to be provocative to sell books. The subtext notes that what we believe is this author’s message is what the book will actually relate; however, by saying this was “supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better,” “but instead, it’s about…how I was humbled by a thirteen year old.” I wonder if the book would be more aptly titled “A Tiger Mother In America” or something more descriptive. But, because she’s not getting my $14.27, I’ll just be an internet troll talking about something I haven’t read. That said, I feel that Chinese parents lack a “bigger picture” understanding of growing up in America.

Full disclosure: I am Taiwan-born, came at age 5. My parents divorced at age 9, my stepdad is American. Mom was very western in that she wanted to escape the eastern rat race that you would expect if ALL parents raised their kids this way. I did grow up in very Chinese (and East- and South-Asian dense) Houston, where several of my friends were subjected to this type of parenting, so I’ve seen this first-hand. Even though my parents were more lax and “just wanted me to do well,” I imposed much higher standards on myself. When I say “Chinese parents,” I mean only the type adhering to the author’s notions per the article (so really could be of any ethnicity).

The notion of measuring success is at the crux of eastern parenting, and it’s all about quantifiable standards: A’s on report cards, winning piano or violin competitions, SAT scores, which colleges you were admitted into, etc. Attaining success by these standards requires lots of time studying and memorizing and cramming and could potentially take all the fun out of it. Most of the requisite activities like studying, practicing piano, etc. are done on a singular basis. Combine that with the lack of encouragement or support of more group activities (play dates, sleepovers, team sports), and the kids may risk limiting development of social skills and inner confidence (especially if the parent is reprimanding them in some of the horrific (?) ways as the author describes). I know this because it happened to me (not the reprimanding part). In a pure meritocracy, the eastern measures of success would be appropriate; but as I’ve witnessed in high school, college and the corporate world (investment banking and finance), pure skill is not enough, and the ability to project confidence and be confident in your interactions is something I find more beneficial than that extra 200 points on the SAT (though of course Harvard University may have a different opinion on that). The emotional intelligence is not something that most Chinese parents recognize, but is in fact very real. And too much of a focus on such strict parenting could result in kids going bonkers when they get to college and have all the freedom they did not have for their first 18 years. Another potential risk is that children could who have grown up and internalized every mean or cruel action performed by the parents for the children's own sake and benefit and “future” are somehow not fully adjusted, which could cause problems in their relationships with others (friends, boyfriends, themselves, even and especially their own parents, upon whom the children may place tremendous blame). I know this as well because I have seen it (I may be generalizing to say that every Chinese girl I know has today or had in the past some deep-rooted issue with her Mom, but it really feels to me that this is the rule and not the exception).

But in the end, it’s difficult to argue with parents who want the best for their kids, it’s just that “the best” is in the eye of the beholder. One of the things I realize from Gina’s blog is that we have to find our own way as parents (even though I’m going to copy a whole bunch of stuff she does!). As a new parent, of course I know everything (!), but based on the combined influences in my life up to this point, I can only hope that I become a “good” parent, which one day I hope my kids will tell me.

Anonymous said...

I have a good friend who is Chinese American. When her mom is around her, she becomes a different person. Her mom picks her apart in a way that I have never seen before. It would appear that her mom is not happy with the daughter she has, although my friend has is very successful in her chosen field (the arts). My friend and her mom are not very close.

Anonymous said...

I was in a parenting group this week and this book was the topic of discussion. Two women in the group, one Korean-American and one S. Asian said they were both raised in a similar way. They both rebelled, starting in high school, but were able to keep up a facade to their parents that they were perfect. They are both successful. It was hard to know if they resented their parents or not. I think they feel grateful, but they did seem like they felt they missed the playdates, etc.

Christina Simon said...

Interestingly, there are some similarities I see between Amy Chua's parenting style and that of some African American families, especially those with boys. In the African American community, it is felt you have to work harder, be better educated than the white population to achieve success. This is especially true for African American boys/men. So, some black families are hard on the boys. Look at President Obama, he's got it all. And he's achieved the ultimate success. President of The United States. I just love saying it...makes me very proud. However, I think his mom was a smart hippie chick...hmmm.

Anonymous said...

This kind of sounds like a Chinese version of "keeping up with the Joneses" Western moms have it too, but it's focused on the moms AND the kids. The moms have to look perfect and lots of emphasis is put on how the mom looks and what she has: the car, the house, the jewelry, etc.

Dorothy Chin said...

Gina, I loved this article! I've read so many attacks in the last couple of days on Chua; you were respectful and made great points. I loved the pictures of you and your Dad... There has been good empirical research on the "authoritarian" style of parenting (exemplified by Chua) by Ruth Chao at USC, and Chao has found the while this approach works terribly for children of mainstream Western cultures, it has better outcomes in Asian children, primarily because Asian kids, consistent with their culture, Interpret such harshness differently than other kids. They view it as caring and concern, rather than attempts to break their spirits. Of course this is group research, so it is a generality. There was another comment here about the similarity with African American families, and this has been shown in research also -- that African American parents may use more authoritarian approaches, and to less detrimental effects than for other groups.

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