"The most wasted of all days is one without laughter." ~e e cummings

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Tiger Mother: Lessons Learned

Well, as predicted, there were, in fact, lessons to be learned in Amy Chua's memoir, Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother. Here are mine:

Lessons Learned:
It's not effective, in any culture, to resort to bribery as a disciplinary tactic. It doesn't work. Short term, maybe, but you're setting yourself up for a lifetime of bribery or a lifetime of battles of wills. You'll probably do it at some point, anyway, but don't kid yourself for a second that it's going to work.

Teachers should be given more respect. When a child performs poorly on a test, too often the [American] parent questions the teaching style, the testing procedures, the school curriculum, or any of a number of other excuses. In cultures where members of the teaching profession are treated with greater respect, this never happens. Instead, children are expected (or forced...) to work harder next time. By questioning the teacher's credentials, parents are sending their children a very clear message that Your Failure Is Probably Someone Else's Fault. This message does no one any good. Let's pay our teachers a little more respect, people (and more money would be nice, too).

There is a place in education for rote memorization and skill-drilling. When we know something well enough that it becomes automatic, we clear a pathway in our brain for higher-level thinking skills. Think of a 15-year old First Time Driver. He is so focused on the mechanics of driving that he can do little more than manuever the car through an empty parking lot. With practice and direct instruction, the mechanics of driving become automatized so that the 16-year old Solo Driver can handle roads, intersections, highways, and parallel parking. And then, following years of practice and skill-building, the 40-year old Experienced Driver can handle rush hour traffic on 495 in white-out blizzard conditions while talking on his cell phone and programming his Garmin. Not that he should be, but he probably could be. I'm just saying. ANYway, it is useful and good to practice skills to the point of automatization. Once children have moved beyond conceptual concepts of mathematics in the early-elementary years, there should be time in a child's school day/week dedicated to skill-building; and yes, even timed tests are effective to this end. Once the arithmetic (or the word decoding) becomes automatic, higher level thinking skills will be primed for higher level math (or literature dissection).  You wouldn't hand a 16-year old the keys to a car if his only prior "driving" experience was Playing With Cars and Trucks, would you?

And for those of you who think that this crazy Tiger Mother has absolutely nothing to offer Western parents: You didn't actually read Amy Chua's book, did you? This book, for all of it's hype and for all of the debate and hate mail that it's publication (and articles in magazines everywhere) have provoked, IS JUST A MEMOIR. It's a story. It's not a parenting manual or a How To Raise The Best Kids In The World handbook. It's one mother's honest-to-a-fault account of her own experiences as a mother. What worked, and what didn't work. And if you read the book, you'll find that the arc of her story ends with a mortifyingly humbling experience that called her to question everything she thought she knew about the Chinese parenting method. Does she regret her decisions or actions? No. But does she learn some very valuable lessons from her very fiery and strong-willed and Not-Suited-For-A-Chinese-Mother second daughter, Lulu? Yes. Absolutely. And the bottom line is this: You can try to choose a parenting method that works for you....but chances are, you'll end up fighting you're whole parenthood. Instead, look at your child: each, individual child. Be the parent that he or she needs you to be.

And a Final Word:

Get ready for this one, because I'm about to say that... In a global sense, Amy Chua is on to something here.  Now, don't get me wrong: I do not agree with her methods or tactics. And I don't even agree with the battles she chooses to fight. But we all DO want our kids to succeed.

As Americans...as a country, we have grown accustomed to being The Biggest, The Wealthiest, The Strongest, The Most Successful...The Best. But times, as they are wont to do, they are achangin'. China as a World Power is becoming Bigger, Faster, Smarter, Better and the ground between us that they are making up is rapidly becoming short. And, the argument could be made, that it's happening because Chinese Mothers don't allow their children to be second best. These hyper-parented kids are turning into Actual, Real Life, Smart and Successful Adults. It could be argued that it's WORKING. If all we really want for our kids is for them to be happy, then we, as a country, should be okay with this--Our country's rank can slip, just so long as our children are content. But we're not. We're looking to hold onto our Number 1 Country Spot with reform in everything from Education (to get our kids smart enough to compete with those Smart Kids from Shanghai) to Immigration (to figure out how to hold onto those smarties who come to study in our Universities instead of letting them return to their home countries to compete against us in the fields of technology, medicine, and economics). This isn't a bad thing...every country should be striving to be the strongest and the wealthiest and the most successful...it's healthy competition. And that sentiment is what's trickling down into the suburbs across America.

In America, we are Up in Arms about this book. We say that Chua (as a representative of the Chinese culture, which, in itself, is debatable) is a cold and harsh Mother who demanded too much of her children and ruined their lives. We say that all WE want is for our kids to be happy. But is that *really* true? We are, after all, the same people who send 4-year olds to math tutors. The same people who subject our preschoolers to Entrance Exams to ensure that they, our THREE YEAR OLDS, are studying with people of similar intellectual aptitude. The same people who start sending our kids to SAT prep courses in middle school. The same people who "red shirt" our kindergartners in hopes that the extra year will them a competitive edge once they get to high school sports. (Yes, I know that this isn't really All Americans, just like Chua doesn't represent All Chinese.)  Is it our kids we're really trying to make happy....or ourselves? Do we not see our children's successes as a reflection of our own good parenting/judgement/guidance? Are we not just as guilty as she is at pushing our kids, pressuring our kids, demanding of our kids....just by using
slightly "softer" means to an end? ("Softer" in the sense that most Americans do NOT enforce 5-6 hours of music practice a day, nor do most drive two-hours (each way) every Saturday to let their child study under a world-class music tutor. We are though, as a generalization, still over-scheduling our kids to exhaustion.)

So who are we, really? And what do we want? And how are we going to get what we want? And at what point are we going to stop comparing ourselves and our children and our accomplishments and our test scores and our credentials and our salaries and our GDP?

And IS there such a thing as Just Being Happy? (Without comparing who is happier?)

I, of course, can't answer these questions. I do know, though, that I want balance for my kids. I want them to be happy AND successful AND, at the end of the day (or the end of their adolescence) still like me. In fact, I want them to find happiness through their successes. I want them to have that internal drive towards success so that I can support them without hounding them to study, practice, or work harder. And I want them to see the value in a range of "successes." Strive to be a lawyer, or a musician (concert pianist or reggae guitar player, it doesn't matter). Become a teacher or a police officer or a stay-at-home parent. Travel. Write. Create beautiful things. Work in a field that matters to you, become great in what you do because you find joy in it, and you could change the world by doing just about anything.

Anyway, thanks for the Brain Food, Amy Chua. You've given me plenty to think about.

But I'm still right about the playtime.
And the praise.

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