“Try not to become a man of success but rather to become a man of value.”
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.
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
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.
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!