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Friday, January 21, 2011

Under Pressure: Pushing Kids to the Limit

Yesterday we received an intriguing article in the mail from my father-in-law: author Amy Chua writes how Chinese mothers are "superior" in their efforts to parent children who excel at everything they do and far surpass their Western counterparts.

There were no shortage of responses, including Hanna Rosin's article "Mother Inferior." While I normally don't agree with Rosin (like her ideas on breastfeeding that I mentioned in my previous post) I think she was spot-on here. The children of "Chinese mothers" also chimed in, sort of exchanging battle scars about their childhoods and being raised under the thumb of a parent who relentlessly sought perfection.

Some of my FaceBook friends know that recently I've been trying to survive a spate of outbursts from my 4-year-old daughter, that exploded into a public full-on fit with screaming, yelling, and generally mopping the floor with herself the other day. Looking back on that episode after reading Chua's article, I figured we could go one of several ways: public humiliation (for both of us) in the form of a spanking right then and there, or resign ourselves to the relative peace of the ladies room; or coddling gently, prodding and giving in to Princess's endless list of wants in order to get her through the day. Since we were in the mixed company of parents who I know spank and others who coddle, I wondered silently to myself what they were thinking: Because I'm such a strict disciplinarian, my kid would never do this in public, or Because I'm my child's friend, she would never do this in public. In many ways, I think Chua's article about American parents is somewhat right, in that our society tends to place a lot of emphasis on "Everybody wins!" rather than teaching children how to cope with loss, losing, and generally just not getting their way. Not every outburst and tantrum has to end with a congratulatory ice cream sundae with cherry on top "because you were sitting still for three whole minutes!" Can we not achieve a happy medium here somewhere?

Since I'm not Chinese, I can't really relate to the cultural differences she refers to. I suppose that some of my own shortcoming as a person - take, for instance, my inability sometimes to finish tasks - could have been prevented if my mother stood over me and forced me to finish, regardless of my feelings about it. As a result, I try to instill in my son more discipline overall than I have. I do some graphic design work on a weekly basis, and yet every time procrastinate almost until the last minute. Therefore, when my son comes home, homework comes first before television and fun. I don't remember my mom taking a similar stance with me (which doesn't mean she didn't), but it seems that when we're adults, we indulge ourselves in ways that we often weren't able to as children.

Chua rattles off a list of things her children were not allowed to do, some of which, in the eyes of probably all Western parents, are extreme: no sleepovers, no television, no playdates. Her children were required to play a musical instrument, and it was to be either piano or violin. (Is there absolutely no merit whatsoever in knowing how to play the oboe or the flute?) It sounds as though they were not able to make any decisions regarding their own lives, and thus establish their autonomy. To me, it sounds like a living nightmare: forced to be creative because someone wants you to, not because you want to be. You may be able to create beautiful music, but more along the lines of a finely-tuned robot; not someone who has a clear passion for doing so.

Rosin makes this point in her rebuttal: she knows people who were drilled ad nauseam in music, and thank their parents for instilling that drive and determination in them. But they hate music as a result. Can't play it. Can't enjoy it. At least not without it dredging up a lifetime of unhappy memories at the same time. Rosin mentions Andre Agassi and his autobiography "Open," where he says, "I hate tennis...hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have." Where's the joy in that? If you're an expert at something, but hate every minute of it, what's the point?

In her article, Chua states, "Nothing is fun until you're good at it." By who's standards, I want to know. Because my definition of "good" might not be the same as yours, and it sounds like from her standpoint, nothing is fun, ever.

Chua categorizes Western parents as if they're all sloths who don't care much for their kids' success, and sort of take a willy-nilly approach to ensuring a future for their children. I don't know if she's attended a high school football game, where angry parents take to the field when their children fail to live up to the standards of perfection some of these parents have. Much yelling, swearing, hat-throwing and general bad behavior takes place at a number of these events, leaving the student athletes no doubt embarrassed and ashamed. We've all heard tear-jerker stories of American parents who will relocate their entire family or drive 500 miles a day so that their child can practice ice skating at a rink three states away, all while working four jobs and yet trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in their child's life.

Chua obviously has not heard of Western parents who so overschedule their children in music lessons, sports, and other extracurricular activities that they have little time to do anything else, including enjoy their childhoods. Every minute is spent planning, performing and shuttling between one event and the other. I've noticed now that most sports teams practice at 6 p.m., right smack in the middle of dinner time. When does family time take precedence? When do we have down time to just do nothing and relax?

There's also the typical model of the American workaholic, who spends much of his or her time on the road, working, earning a living for the family but not really spending much time with them. I know several families like this, and while it's great that dad makes a very good living, he isn't even home to see his family enjoy it or put it to use.

When I graduated from college and entered the workforce, I took a number of jobs and eventually got good at them - but never really enjoyed what I was doing. So much of that was typical of the American mindset: that you should get a job at 18, get married and work at that job the rest of your adult life to earn a living for your family, regardless of whether you liked it or not. When I got married and could afford to do so, I wanted to be picky about the job I chose. I wanted to do something I loved, not something that merely made me a living to get by. My mom later told me how much she learned from that example - that being happy is more important than living the typical boring daily grind, and that life's true passions are what should drive us.

Do Chua's daughters have a passion for music? Probably not. Will they be concert pianists and performing in front of thousands in ten years? Probably not. Chances are, the way it's being driven down their throats they'd probably prefer to burn a piano than play one. So will their experiences matter in the end? Who knows.

And speaking of the Olympics: while Chua maintains that academics are key in the Chinese parents' model, and athletics take precedence in the American parents' one, I can't help but recall during the last Olympics (or two) stories of Chinese parents living in remote, isolated villages, who sent their children away for years, sometimes the duration of their childhoods, to train. And then train some more. To the point where their team and coaches were their new family. Where's the love in that? While "loving" your child enough to work them nearly to death or send them away to the Big City to learn is one thing, you essentially do it at the expense of any hope of a parent/child relationship.

Or how about the Chinese gymnast who was the best in her sport - but underaged? The team cheated and won the medal, of which they were finally stripped years later when it was revealed what they had done. At what length will you go to be the best?

(Perhaps this drive for perfection at any cost can explain China's long history of human rights violations against their own people. And not surprisingly, as I read the response article from the Chinese daughter, an article titled "Can the US teach China how to be a better global player?" shows up in the sidebar.)

Something sparked in me when I read the opening list of demands Chua made of her children when it came to academics and socializing. I immediately thought, How can these kids be happy, fulfilled or even close to normal?

It turns out, they often aren't. A quick Google search reveals that Asian-American women aged 15 to 24 are the most likely out of all ethnic groups to commit suicide, and it's not any wonder why after reading Chua's article (which doesn't mention this at all - perhaps her book does?). Apparently older Asian women are often prone to suicide and depression as well. There's no telling now how Chua's daughters will feel about their upbringing, or if they'll follow the same steps their mother took in raising their own children. But one thing's for sure, as Rosin points out: all the strict rules in the world won't make your child perfect. She also wonders, is success more important than happiness? Would you rather be wealthy and successful and miserable, as many people are? Or would you rather be mediocre, by someone else's definition, yet happy?

It's no secret, though, that many American teenagers lack severely when it comes to academics. In my opinion, it's a blend of apathy on the part of students and parents, exasperated teachers who are struggling to fill in the gaps, and lackadaisical teachers who think every kid learns at the same pace and try to force them into that box. Tenured teachers, both good and bad, tend to be more protected by the system and in some cases, it can just enable mediocre teachers who are burned out to stay for the wrong reasons.

While I do think some parents could improve in that department, I don't think Chua's solution is any where near the right answer.

In parenting, it's a mixed battle for many of us. Not every battle is won, and some are carried out rather badly on both our parts. I don't think any parent has ever walked away from such a fight without regretting a particular decision at some point. And I can't help but feel sorry for Chua's daughter during the horrible tongue-lashing she received from her mother over practicing the piano. The dishrag dad piped up briefly on his daughter's behalf, and then subsequently backed down when mom boasted her eventual success at getting her daughter to perform the piece properly - only after she received the equivalent of a verbal baseball bat over the head to do so.

You have to wonder, then, what kind of wife she makes when she engages in verbal warfare with her children? Does she ever stop to think how she would feel if her husband spoke to her like that? Sometimes when things get truly heated, I have to remember the age-old rule: Don't say to your kids what you wouldn't want them to say to you. Sometimes it comes back to bite you in the ass, and in a big way.

What happens, if parents like Chua wind up with a kid who just doesn't "get it," and never will, for whatever reason? Is there any room for failure there? While there is the stereotype that Chinese children have higher aptitude than their Western peers, I wonder - because Chua doesn't address it - what happens to those who don't? (Given China's track record on population control and forced abortions of females, I'm not sure I want to know.)

In her article, Rosin says that Chua admits in her book that she is "not good at enjoying life." No kidding. And you're raising kids that won't know how to enjoy it, either. Ever heard the expression "Stop and smell the roses"? It's hard to enjoy the innate beauty of something when you're forcing it to perform at your every whim and command.

In the end, Chua writes, "By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future." Who's version of the future, I wonder - theirs or yours?

More reading:
Thoughts from the Daughter of A Chinese Mother, by Julianne Hing
The Tiger Cub Roars: Amy Chua's daughter speaks out