Sunday, January 23, 2011

Being Prepared:Tiger Mothers and Farmer Boys

There has been quite a bit of talk about Amy Chua's article, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior." I have to admit that while I balked when I first read it two weeks ago, I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

I have been in the Yale community for six years now and I admit, there is a large spectrum of individual talent and work ethic, but certainly, each individual who attends Yale has shown some special talents to be admitted here (and I can be a somewhat objective outside observer, since I'm not one of the people who goes here). Over the years, I have spent quite a bit of time talking to these friends about their childhoods, how they developed their interests, and how they think that they got into Yale. Ms. Chua's bullet list of no sleepovers, no tv, no school plays, no grades except 'A's, does not jive with my findings from these conversations I've had. Certainly, most of them grew up reading piles of books and some were busy with musical performances from a very young age. But, there are just as many, if not more, who watched tv, who spent time invested in sports or drama, who, dare I say it, were not the top student in every class. Unfortunately for all parents, there isn't a simple set of rules that we follow to automatically help our children unleash their potential for greatness. However, as much as I disagree with Ms. Chua's controlling parenting style, I whole-heartedly agree with this statement:

" a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't."

From my anecdotal information, Amy Chua is right about one thing: the people who get into these programs are intense. I studied pretty hard in college, I thought, and did pretty well. However, after I started studying with Shane, I began to understand how the top students operate. Shane was always at class, even 15 minutes early to class. He always went to the TA's help sessions and office hours. He assumed that he would need to study a great deal for every class--every general education class was given plenty of attention, no matter how unrelated it was with his academic interests. While I was always in search of a teacher whose style was in sync with mine, Shane would persevere with any teacher, always humbly working away at the class material. He did not give up on any class, any grade, any exam, even if the class was taught poorly or was disorganized. He worked odd jobs (pinning flies! tracking frogs!) in biology labs which fed into research positions and teaching assistant jobs. And, like Amy Chua describes, he wasn't afraid to practice, practice, practice. His essays were to the professor early for review, and he was the king of MCAT practice exams. He was a combination monk and robot, studying almost every minute of the week, aside from our brief Friday evening date. And, as a consequence, my grades were becoming pretty spectacular, too. We were the 4.0 couple and it felt good.

Using Shane as my case study, we see that it's true, grit and intensity is required for anyone that wants to succeed, especially in an ubercompetetive program. From my anecdotal information, I'm finding that to get into Yale, an individual needs nearly perfect grades and nearly perfect entrance exam scores. That will get the application from the envelope to a desk, rather than from the envelope to a garbage can. This first step in the process validates Ms. Chua's remarks about playing the game and getting the good grades.

However, many applicants have these credentials. Every high school has a valedictorian, every university has a dean's list. Although Ms. Chua scoffs at the western idea of 'being special', that is exactly what is different between the students who go to Yale and the students who don't. Being special means making the most of the opportunities that you have been given; someone wrote a novel in high school, another started a very large, very successful non-profit organization, someone else did field research on hibernating bears. This 'specialness' is hard to describe, and nearly impossible to force upon someone; in fact, it's partly based on luck, because a good opportunity is hard to identify at first. But, we all see opportunities come and go. These particular people find things to do that they are passionate about and latch on, dig in, make it theirs, and make it flourish.

Watching different friends go through their respective programs here at Yale, I see a related pattern in their training that might be replicated as a parent: these programs simply send the best professionals in the field to talk about what's important and what they like to do (aka. class lecture), help each student figure out what they are happiest doing all day (PhD mentorship, business and law internships, hospital rotations), and assist students in finding further opportunities in the field. I know, it's much more complicated and emotional than this, but in essence, these programs want their students to figure out what it is that they are especially talented at and work really hard at it. [What do you think, Yalies? Did I get it right?]

I'd really love to replicate this process as a mother in these precious formative years. If consistent nurturing and guidance from adults makes all of the difference, I should be confidently teaching my kids about the world and helping them latch on to the experiences that will help them. Peter and I are now reading Farmer Boy, from Laura Ingall Wilder's Little House series. We have followed our nine-year-old protagonist, Almonzo, through the seasonal rhythms of life on the farm: Alongside his father, he tirelessly prepares the soil, plants and harvests the crops (who can forget the harrowing midnight corn-watering to fight frost and his terrible run-in with an exploding potato?!), he hauls hay and timber. He goes to the fair for three days and simply cannot wait to get back home to feed his cows. Granted, this book is perhaps romanticized, given that the author is relating her beloved husband's childhood, but after finishing the final chapter, I was left feeling the importance of letting our children into our adult world.

Letting children in is a hard thing to do, because parenting in our current cultural climate is somewhat unnatural. I feel like I need to create normal childhood experiences intentionally, because in suburbia, we don't have a big orchard or grove or trees for our kids to run wild in. And I don't mean to bring them into Amy Chua's adult world, with relentless, degrading piano practice sessions. Heartless insults to my children is the opposite of what I want to do. But, if I can confidently work alongside my kids, giving them responsibilities that are real, that contribute to our family, I can honestly think of nothing that they want more than that and no greater gift that I can give them. My favorite passage in Farmer Boy says it all:

"[Almonzo] helped to feed the patient cows, and the horses eagerly whinnying over the bars of their stalls, and the hungrily bleating sheep, and the grunting pigs. And he felt like saying to them all: 'You can depend on me. I'm big enough to take care of you all.'
Then he shut the door snugly behind him, leaving them all fed and warm and comfortable for the night, and he went trudging through the storm to the good supper waiting in the kitchen." (p.310)

What a beautiful example of a child who feels the satisfaction that comes from being responsible for something that matters! I am determined to give my kids the opportunity to matter, to contribute, even as they are little guys. So, for starters, we are finally using a chore chart! ta da! I put up the most simple, plain chart imaginable (after years of agonizing about how to make it supremely cool and aesthetic), and yesterday, Peter folded all of the socks, made his bed, bussed his dishes and cleaned the playroom. And after, he asked if there were more chores to be done! We'll see how he does in a month or two...

I'm excited to rise to the occasion of mothering. This whole essay seems so idealized compared to the reality of raising my 4 year-old and 15 month-old, which is much louder, more chaotic, less well-behaved than these Wednesday afternoon dreams. But, after all of this stewing about parenting, my greatest conclusion is that I can expect good, big things from my kids. I'm not sure what they'll be and whatever they are will require enormous efforts all around, but we can do it.

So, parents of the world, what do you think?


Robyn said...

Beautiful Becca, beautiful!

Todd said...

Becca - What a thoughtful post. Maybe you should give up the whole art thing and just write.

I have a few comments for you. First, this touched a nerve for me because I had the same thought when I read her article - the part about not giving up is the one that made the most sense. Our Ebbert family motto is, "Work hard, do your best and don't give up."

Second, I have spent many years wondering what exactly I want for my kids. It seems that the world measures success by academic, professional and economic achievement. Of course I want my kids to succeed in that way, but my job as a parent is not JUST to teach them to make money or excel at school or piano. I think deep down what I REALLY want is for them to be emotionally and spiritually well balanced. Being able to "not give up" and overcome adversity is a big part of that. How many people have good careers and are poor parents or spouses, etc?

I could go on and on, but I won't. Thanks for a great, inspiring post!

Becca said...

Todd, yes, I agree. As much as we dream for our kids, don't we just really want happiness for them?! Thanks for your thoughts. And thanks for the writing props!

Jill said...

Becca! Thank you for writing this inspiring post. I really, really miss you! I've been thinking a lot about Ms. Chua's article, also. I'm still trying to figure out how to balance wanting success for my children, but on whose terms? Because while academic, wordly success is important, is it always what makes people happy? How do you find the balance as parents without pushing too hard or letting them slack? I guess hopefully you teach them well enough, so that success is something that they want for themselves, and there they will find their own happiness. I'm still trying to make up my mind on that one... and on a lot of other things!

And I agree with your statements about creating these "normal" childhood experiences. I just read something about how kids now, are loosing the ability to delay gratification compared to their parents generation. Everything is NOW and screens and consume and blech! I'm getting a little pessimistic, but seriously, can't we let them just be kids? As much as we had fun at Disneyland, I kind of want to cover her eyes when it comes to some things. We can't always just live "Happily Ever After"!

And randomly, today Kate asked me "What's Star Wars, mom?" I thought of you :)

Deanna said...

Fabulous post, Becca! Ms. Chua's article was certainly interesting to read and gave me a lot to think about as well.

One thing I found very depressing in her proscription for a "successful" life for her children is that it didn't leave much, if any, room for human relationships aside from their relationship with her as their slave driver. When I think back to my growing up years, most of my memories and happiness stem from PEOPLE and the interactions that I had with them. And that is still absolutely true today. I am married to my best friend - not a career, a musical instrument, or my own mind. I don't think that such an intense self-focus brings lasting happiness. At least that is my belief.

And I honestly think that I would be 100% miserable being that kind of parent to my children. The example that Ms. Chua gave of the night she had an all out war with her daughter over the piano piece would have completely broken Alia. And it would have broken me. And I don't think that makes me or her weak. It means that I value more about my daughter than just her musical perfection and I want SO MUCH MORE for her than that - more than can only be achieved by having balance in all areas. And I certainly don't want to allow my kids to give up. That's something we work on very hard. And I do believe in and in many ways expect my kids to be at the incredibly successful end of the spectrum. But I'm not willing to sacrifice our eternal relationship for that. I think it can be done without resorting to that. I think that my child doesn't have to be accepted to Juilliard at the age of 10 to be considered a success in this life.

Anyway, certainly lots to think about. And the psychology part of my definitely found it so interesting to just consider the differences in cultural norms and expectations and ideas of what is "right".

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Ben said...

A bit delayed on the comment here...

Success is a difficult thing to define. When I think of success, attending a "good" school doesn't come to mind. I think of it more as what you do with what you have. Also, when I think of the most "successful" people I know, they tend to be very much "people people" - e.g., they interact exceptionally well with others. They certainly aren't "dumb," but I don't need to feel blown away by their intellect for me to view them as highly successful.

I think people have a tendency to overvalue a good education. I said it. I mean it.

It may be odd that I say that, because I value my education very highly, and believe it has opened a lot of doors for me, but it's more the connections that I made than the things I actually learned that have helped me. In essence, it's the people - not the knowledge - that has helped me most. The knowledge could be gained elsewhere. The connections - possibly not.

When I was considering what school to go to, I read an article that said that empirically, "success" (defined in financial terms) is more highly correlated with how good of a school you were accepted to go to than how good of a school you actually went to. But of course, "success" is very much a nebulous term.

We all want our children to be successful, but what exactly is that? Do we want our children to be geniuses ("really really smart")? Maybe not. It can cause more problems than its worth sometimes. Of course, it can help a lot too. Do we want them to have a lot of money? Not necessarily. Again, it can help or hurt, depending on the situation. Do we want them to be sociable and relate with others well? Definitely. For me, that is the most important factor of success and is more useful in life than specific knowledge about anything (gospel aside).

But again, I think it's easy to disagree with me. Everyone certainly has their own opinion.

As to why there are so many Chinese that excel - it's simply the math behind it. The Chinese have more "honor students" than the US has students. We see only the best of the best outside of China, and their an impressive bunch. But oddly, the most impressive people I've seen - of any nationality - are the ones that are sociable, engaging and clear-thinking. Maybe not so oddly, success - in any definition - seems to follow those people around anywhere they go, regardless of whether or not they gave up when learning to play the piano.

Holly said...

I want my children to love learning. I want them to think creatively. I want them to know how to solve their problems by looking at them in different ways. These abilities should allow them to work out many of life's issues for themselves. My biggest concern is killing that love of learning and ability to think creatively.

The Tiger Mother's approach would not work for us. I have stubborn tiger children. I really did like her comment about no one liking anything until they are good at it though - that has stuck with me.