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Child Happiness Part of Child Development? Rethinking the Chinese mother debate

I give Amy Chua a lot of credit for her recent piece in the WSJ. The self-proclaimed Superior Chinese Mother broke about 1,000 American taboos, not the least of which is stereotyping herself and others publicly, telling it like she really sees it (consequences be damned) and outing Western parents for what we often fundamentally are: lazy.

What Ms. Chua raises in her piece, really, is the real-life rendition of the joke my husband always tells our kids, which his New England WASP mother always told him: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice:” It will surely not be TV or video games that get you somewhere tangibly “successful,” this much we know, and Ms. Chua says it straight up.

But Ms. Chua is slightly misguided. It is not only the Chinese and other Asians who pressure their kids. WASPs and Jews do a great job too, if our household is any indication. The difference, of course, is in the delivery. While Asians are incredibly straightforward in their approach, political correctness be damned, the shame showered on kids from particularly “success”-driven Western parents is typically thinly veiled behind smiles and faint praise.

Certainly, that thin veil of BS covering over the more hard-core, ambitious American parents likely does cost us a mountain of money in healthcare as we later – as adults – try to uncover the mystery of why we feel like crap about ourselves. Asians know exactly, because their parents tell them: it’s because you’re fat, they might say, or, it’s because you didn’t ace that test or nail that interview. If we know, they reason, if we are told, we might actually have a better chance at the time of doing something about it.

I know a Japanese woman who decided to move back home to Japan after years on Long Island with her son only to find it was too late. They had, while in America, become too soft for the public shaming she and he received for being fat, for the bullying he suffered at school for not being like everyone else. I heard another story recently where kids in Singapore who are overweight have to literally run circles around the thin-enough kids as they sit happily eating their snacks. The owner of my favorite Korean deli, now gone mostly organic, once called a young girl out for buying too many snacks every day.

“You shouldn’t be eating all of this,” she told her kindly as she rang up her purchases. “You’re getting fat.”

Of course, Ms. Chua is dead on. Bullying and shaming and overbearing parenting is one way to do things, for sure. But what would such imports cost us as a country? What we Westerners still have, what my Japanese friends returned here for, is personal freedom. We are free to get fat, free to be lazy, free to play hour after hour of mind-numbing shoot-em-up games on consoles the Asians are working hard to create and sell to us while they eschew playing them.

We are at a serious crossroads in America, though, and parents are on the hot seat to decide the future and how much freedom that future holds for our kids. Do we institute public shaming to solve the obesity crisis? Do we hold parents to harder-and-faster rules government creates so that our society as a whole can get ahead? The freedoms we Westerners hold dear, sometimes at the expense of winning the race, is something I have been on “Fox & Friends” defending a number of times. Currently, it is still up to individual parents to determine whether or not to let kids stay home alone at a young age, even briefly, or to go to potentially sleep-depriving sleepovers (which Ms. Chua opposes), where they might be influenced by other families’ “bad” behaviors and lose precious brain cells needed for the school days ahead.

See, our productivity is slipping in America, and it has been noted. There are those who believe, like Ms. Chua, that productivity is everything. It is a concept communism is predicated on and, to a certain extent, capitalism. It is a concept I have had to begrudgingly hold some stock in since I stopped working full time and have had to cobble together a thousand different things to try to feel worthy. (My parenting, sadly, doesn’t do the trick.)

But, still, I fight against my own feelings that rote practice without passion is the right answer. For America to thrive, to get people to be somewhat satisfied (happy is a myth), they have to be passionate, and passion projects often don’t pay up front so obviously as Ms. Chua’s children’s accomplishments. Their dividends run deeper.

I offer up the example of music, as Ms. Chua does. I hired a cool music teacher for my children, the young, wild-haired Mr. Stephen Taylor, who danced himself sweaty teaching Music Together to my boys when they were babies. Now he often teaches my enthusiastic 7- and 9-year-old boys through composing stuff on his iPhone or iPad or on our iMac’s Garage Band. He lets them choose their own pop songs to learn on the piano (a recent fave is Green Day’s “Broken Dreams”) along with classics like Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and, often, they just practice beats and rhythms.

I never make the kids practice. I talk often with my Korean friend about our different approaches to our boys’ music education. She was classically trained and could play beautifully, if she was so inclined. But as an adult, she doesn’t play. She takes no pleasure in it, despite (or maybe because of) years of practice. I crumpled under restrictive rote teaching myself. I was finally allowed to give up piano in middle school after the McDonald’s Hash Browns my mother bribed me with in the drive-thru on the way to piano lessons no longer fought back my tears. I couldn’t hack the pressure to practice enough to compete confidently in those scary recitals alongside all those Asian kids taught by the new Juilliard-trained teacher Mom had found to try to tap my potential, the ones who practiced for hours every day and never watched any Scooby Doo.

Funny, though, I started playing piano by ear, with my eyes closed, a little more than a year ago. Turns out it is a solace to me, a great joy, to play how I feel like playing: no rules, no rote memorization. I compose (if one could call it that) my own melodies and revel in them. My kids will often scoot me off the bench to play scores of their own making or the ones they have asked to be taught by Stephen. They love music and play it of their own volition: just for fun, no pressure.

I have asked passionate music lovers, people in bands that help them bond with others and give them a great belief in themselves, and it turns out they really “discover” music around 15. They often teach themselves, and they may not even be able to read notes. But music for those kids becomes a language – a necessary, life-saving, passionate language.

So, while I think Ms. Chua is dead on with her parents-as-productivity-drivers and how to build a “successful” society model, I don’t want to live in her America. No offense, but I want kids to come to things on their own, without shame.

We need to learn to enjoy the journey, to teach our kids to find pleasure in their pursuits, to live freely and even, sometimes, lazily.

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