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Beyond Chinese Mothering: The science and practice of child success

Like Yale Law School professor Amy Chua, whose recent article in the Wall Street Journal,Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” outlined a severe parenting approach to getting your children to succeed, I have two kids and exceptionally high expectations for how they will turn out. But counter to Chua’s strategy, here are some things I regularly encourage my kids to do:

  • attend sleepovers

  • have lots of playdates

  • audition for school plays

  • watch plenty of great TV and play interesting computer games

  • sometimes sacrifice school work for other experiences

  • play any instrument they want to play

Here’s one thing I may discourage them from doing after reading Chua’s Wall Street Journal piece:

  • attend Yale Law School

Do I consider Chua an awful parent? How could I? Chua’s article is an excerpt from her new memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but apparently The Wall Street Journal only took the most controversial material to make Chua sound as pyrotechnic as possible. Ken Kesey used to say, “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.” WSJ is following that model. But that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from taking a more careful look at these issues.

In between her shock-and-awe pronouncements, here’s the giant underlying truth that Chua understands: Children have enormous potential. Our bodies and brains are designed with the capacity for an immense array of physical and intellectual skills. This process is driven by a gene and environment interplay in which our genes constantly get turned on and off – “expressed” – like switches according to the specific environmental signals they encounter. Genetic expression, in turn, drives our famous brain “plasticity.” This means that each of us is much more like an improvisational jazz gig than a scripted classical symphony. While genetic differences do of course matter, DNA is not destiny. It is simply not accurate to regard some people as being born with certain talents while others are not. We are, in essence, plastic creatures developing in response to external demands.

But what Chua’s article seems to miss – on a tragic level, if her words are to be taken literally – is that parents do not get to control this process fully. Parents are guides, vital guides, to be sure, with powerful direct and indirect influence, but still mere guides. A child will always develop according to the totality of his or her own environment and will always make millions more decisions for him or herself than any parent can make for them. A child will always develop a singular world view, a sense of self. The smartest parenting, in my view, recognizes and respects that reality from early on – doing everything in the parent’s power to help the child make smart choices and develop strong habits. I want to practice piano. I want to solve this math problem. I want to work through this disappointment.

Chua might respond: “But I did force my kids to master piano! I did force them to be first in their class! I’m a ferocious tiger!” Sure, a strong-willed and crafty adult holding virtually every lever of emotional and physical power can coerce a child into virtually any short-term behavior. But there’s a price to be paid there – and not just in a loss of respect for the parent. The WSJ excerpt mocks the idea that kids are emotionally fragile, but she ought to understand that plasticity applies to a child’s psyche as well as his or her skills. Just as kids can be stretched to develop astounding finger dexterity, they can develop deep wells of resentment and self-loathing. For my book The Genius in All Of Us, I spoke to Columbia University psychiatrist Peter Freed about the downside of parents using emotional coercion to push a child to his or limits. “The parent beams when the child performs well and then withdraws love when he’s underperforming,” explained Freed. “The kid becomes addicted to pleasing the parent. When he doesn’t live up to the parent’s expectations, he feels his parent go cold, which of course is totally devastating. That on-again, off-again feeling about how love works sets the stage for narcissism.” A troubling adult life follows.

Fortunately, there is a much healthier way to incentivize high achievement: Parents can invest in their child’s desire to seek achievement for his or her own inner satisfaction. They can set and model high expectations while showing affection and supporting their kid’s emotional independence. They can model resilience in their own lives, demonstrating that failure is never the final verdict but rather can provide an insight into skills that haven’t yet been sufficiently developed.

To start, parents can use Chua’s DON’T list as the perfect DO list:

  • Sleepovers and play dates Helping your child form and nurture the right friendships is the most important thing you can do for them, bar none. We are social animals. We sink or thrive according to the quality of our relationships. Sleepovers in particular tell a child, “You can handle this.”

  • Drama and musical performance I’m trying to think of a desirable trait not associated with rehearsal and performance, and I can’t think of any. Poise and self-confidence, communication skills, emotional intelligence, literary deconstruction, and, yes, living up to high expectations – all these can come from public performance.

  • Access to good TV and other media Trying to separate your child from the cultural world around us is a recipe for disconnectedness (and it won’t work anyway, unless you have a plan to somehow skip over the teen years). We’re lucky to live in an age where, amid all the media crud, there is also an enormous amount of smart, witty, emotionally resonant television and film. In our family, we’ve found watching choice shows together can be warm and rich. We’ll hit the pause button often to explain civics or history lessons unfolding before us. My eight-year-old knows what a filibuster is – thank you, Aaron Sorkin.

So while I don’t agree with Chua’s methods, let me be clear: I condemn totally and utterly any parents who blithely accept mediocrity in their family life, who convey to their children that average success is all that’s expected – or worse, all that can be hoped for. That is a very dark message indeed – every bit as dark, I think, as Chua’s apparent ferocity towards her children.

The great news is that parents can have it both ways; they can nurture and set the highest of expectations. It worked for our family, anyway – and we’re not even Chinese.

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