Crouching Tigers, Raising Dragons

jovidushi-003There’s always enough blame to go around. There’s always a nice fat chunk of it that can be placed upon the sturdy shoulders of parents the world over. That’s in fact one of the undeniable contributions of parents to society – because you can’t blame the government for everything. Children are born perfect and destined for perfection except that between that first suck of air and that first utility bill, the darn parents get involved and everything goes haywire.

Or so they say. So lets go back to those previous posts on under-performing schools and over-performing students, both equally misguided and doomed. Assuming we all agree with Seliman’s paraphrasing of the Greeks, how do we teach children to lead a productive and purposeful life? The memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (Penguin, January 2011), whose list of credits include a professorship at Yale Law, authorship of Day of Empire (Anchor, 2009), and World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (Doubleday, 2002) and mothership of two high-achieving daughters, has a few thoughts on that. You can read the excerpt over at the Wall Street Journal. Here are two snippets:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

Chua’s book generated, among other things, a collection of rap songs spoofing her method of parenting. There has been criticism of her, testimonies of clawed-kids and bemoaning of the lives of her deprived children. There has even been defense of the American Way and at least one writer, Ayelet Waldman, graciously acknowledging that we all muster the best we have on behalf of our children. But while we are busy doing all this, we are still failing to examine what ails our own over-achieving (albeit sub-par compared to tiger cubs), children. Ours certainly excel at various games and classes. Some of them go to Olympic trials in their chosen sport, others graduate with academic distinction, and most of them do these things without ever once experiencing failure. Few if any of them achieve the same degree of success that a Hua kid might. Conversely, a Chua offspring is probably less able to separate herself and her own ambition from those of her parents than one of our daughters or sons are able to do. Yet somewhere between these two lies an ideal of contented childhood that could signify successful adulthood.

I decided to look closely at the choices I have made as a parent. My oldest daughter tried everything from ballet to tap to gymnastics to basketball to tennis to track to swimming…and she excelled at everything. Somewhere during those early years, I had the presence of mind (and the absence of confusion brought on by other children, not to mention the relatively normal environment in which I lived, in Maine), to recognize her bliss when she found it in running and swimming. Holding a prize for distinction in mathematics or earning good money for creative writing did not mean that she had to spend her summers delving deep into the mysteries of the universe as opposed to getting bored at home. I was able to say no thanks to the NJ State Ballet and the traveling gymnastics league in Madison, to the Bossov Ballet School and the basketball league in Maine as well as the glossy invitations to the plush programs run by Johns Hopkins for gifted children. Being good at various things did not necessitate filling up every waking moment with trying to become better at all of those things. In the same way that one best friend is a treasure beyond compare, one great sport could, truly, bring both comfort and joy to her.

Fast forward a few years and I find myself in an environment that makes it just short of impossible to divorce performance from worth. Having discovered that, no, just because I dance does not mean I can ice-skate, and, in fact, I look completely ludicrous and graceless as I lurch about the rink, I decided to enroll my younger daughters in a season of lessons. Everything went swimmingly well until I was handed, at the end of the session, a little booklet with blank pages listing all the many levels and skills-sets that awaited them during, presumably, years and years of skating. It wasn’t enough for my children to simply learn how to ice skate so they could do it with their friends, they had to be reeled into a program where some greater skill was waiting, always out of reach. And trying to achieve all of these skills in all the many sports/activities that our children may try does deprive them of the focus they may need to reach a level of perfection that is, for most people, only possible in one or two of them.

I use ice-skating as my example, but take a look at any one of the activities that American parents in a school district like this could choose – soccer, basketball, swimming, running, fencing, dancing (in a multitude of styles), performing (theater and dance), playing tennis, rowing, playing the piano/fiddle/violin/cello/guitar, skating… Any time that a child signs up for one of these activities, that child is expected to continue that activity, the implication being that dropping out of something after having tried it for a season or a summer, implies a failure on the part of both child and parent. And, sadly, too many of us seem to agree.

While parents like Chua pick an activity or two for their children and then bully their children into excelling at those activities, most of us offer our children a range of activities and (a) do not encourage them to find the ones they truly love and (b) allow the underlying popular judgment (made by parents, coaches and team mates alike), that stopping equals “giving up” or “quitting” to go uncontested. Our children grow up with the sense that the only reason to participate in a sport/activity is if ribbons/medals/trophies are guaranteed by their dedication and performance. They are unable to identify the things that truly bring them joy because far too many of these activities force the acquisition of competencies unrelated to the enjoyment of the activity by the child. It’s a lose-lose. Often they are either winning at something they don’t truly care about, abandoning those they may actually enjoy but do not excel at, or they are turning their backs on joyless activities and feeling like losers for doing so.

No wonder so many of them end up in high school stressed out, unhappy, out of touch with their own souls while meticulously churning out those A’s and making it into those Honors classes. No wonder so many of them are terrified that the worst thing that could happen to them is a ‘B’ that they feel is waiting around the next corner to bite them in the arse. No wonder they make it through high school and enter college completely unprepared for the delight of exercising an unfettered mind while simultaneously expecting to attend Stanford, Brown or Yale.

The single truly self-reflecting article I saw on this topic was by Karen Heller of the Philadelphia Inquirer who, it happens, was at Penn Charter watching ‘Race to Nowhere’ at the same time I was and drawing similar conclusions:

Not all children are exceptional in every way. Nor should they be. They can’t all be in the top 10 percent.

And not every child will go to Harvard, though it’s not for lack of trying.

With a range of colleges and universities, how did so many students see themselves at Harvard? A record 35,000 students applied for the Class of 2015, a jump of 15 percent, despite a decline in high school graduates. This means one in 50 seniors wants to attend Harvard, even though the odds of getting in are lousy. The admittance rate last year was 6.9 percent.

So, yes, we’d better prepare our children for failure.

I don’t know whom, exactly, to blame for this. Surely, some of the blame belongs to parents – children cannot enroll in activities on their own, and their approach to school has as much to do with a parent/guardian’s views as it does with their own ideas. Some of it belongs to secondary schools that measure success by average GPAs and college admissions over the fostering of the thing that is the truest indicator of life-long success: a love of learning. And some of it belongs to colleges that fall back repeatedly on the letter grade, standardized test scores and GPA over the personal history and intellectual potential of a student. When a student is reduced to listing awards and grades, and that becomes the measure of her worth, something quintessential about education is lost.

I realize that I am speaking of a privileged group of kids, those who live within a middle or upper middle class income bracket, and I know full well that, like the two movies, they are separated by a considerable gulf from the problems that beset their poorer counter parts. The overall thrust of a culture, however, affects us all equally. The kid who is told that college will save him and the kid who is told that college is non-negotiable, both will, one day, find themselves in a similar if not identical college environment. And that environment will probably be wrong in how both of them are judged. There are some changes afoot here in my house. The youngest is not in the Challenge Program for advanced kids, the middle one has been asked to aim for a D or less so she can realize that the world still stands, and the oldest has been advised to drop her second language and take pottery or photography instead. There are mixed results. The notion that “not in Challenge” means that she is not “smart enough” still hovers in the presence of her older siblings, the ‘D’ remains elusive, and a concentrated effort is being made – on the part of the youngling – to replace that second language with Theology rather than clay. But it’s a start.


6 thoughts on “Crouching Tigers, Raising Dragons”

  1. “The youngest is not in the Challenge Program for advanced kids, the middle one has been asked to aim for a D or less so she can realize that the world still stands, and the oldest has been advised to drop her second language and take pottery or photography instead.”

    Nicely done!

    Our daughter excelled for a time in piano–until she didn’t want to do it anymore. And, yes, the piano program was all ready for her to continue for next 8 years or so (she could’ve arrived at college with college credit already in the books!).

    For a time she was big into acting, even performing wonderfully in her first show. But that’s over. I admired her bravery for getting on the stage–and for getting off it.

    She’s done the Duke gifted summer program, which she thoroughly enjoyed–and it helped her realize she didn’t want to become an engineer.

    She’s slated to take an algebra class this summer (totally her choice–her parents are math idiots).

    I’m sometimes a bit sad to see an interest fall away but I think that’s just a function of my eagerness to see who she will become. I want to know, now.

    I’m all for stick-to-it-ness and determination but balance and discovery and foolishness are all part of it, too. It’s not product design!

  2. Ru says:

    We are two and our numbers are growing, Derek! I also see some of the parents here refusing to dance the rat-dance. Someday our kids may grow up to be the hippies and commune-dwellers but then again hippies and commune-dwellers seem to be a lot happier than the rest of us!

  3. Hi, Ru. You’ll upset John Boehner with all that talk of hippies and communes, and the man’s already red enough. You hit it on the head with one word: “bully”. It’s one thing to make sure one’s kids are studying and whatnot, and another thing to lock them into stalag life. Kids are more likely to excel at something when it’s fun, even if excellence is simply their own personal best as opposed to awards and accolades. Adults hop after external triumphs all the time and are rarely happy about it; why do so many parents think their kids should feel differently? My young niece has gone from guitar, to forensics, to history, to drums. She’s 13 but realizes there’s enough offered by the world to keep her busy an entire lifetime. I’m sure she’ll find a little more bliss in one thing or another, but the key is that it will (hopefully) be bliss and not simply something to prove her worth to somebody else (including her parents and me!) Kids shouldn’t be a population of over-achieving zombies. As a kid I couldn’t play basketball to save my life, but I had a whole lot of fun doing it. Hua’s notion that fun is dependent on mastery is a lotta hooie. Kids need to be pushed and prodded–that’s part and parcel of parenting–but parents have to know when to get in and out of the way. I bet a lot of over-achieving kids get hit with the realization that after all that practice, all that obvious mastery, at the end of the day nobody cares. Put another way, it can be lonely in the symphony even when surrounded by a hundred other master musicians if you’d rather have a fiddle on the corner of a hot street.

  4. Ru says:

    Clarence – As always, you say it beautifully. I agree whole-heartedly with the analogy of the symphony and the street corner. There was a joke going around one time where a guy who fished off a remote island was visited by two businessmen on vacation who needed him to take them fishing. They caught a lot of fish and they asked him why he didn’t want to make more money by perhaps selling on the mainland. He said “and then what?” They said, then you can buy a big warehouse and distribute nationally. “And then?” Well, they said, you’ll be a millionaire. “What would I do then?” They said, you could hire someone else to do all that work and go buy a boat and go fishing all day. And he said, “well, that’s what I do now, so why go into all that trouble?”


  5. Ru, love it! I’ve got to remember that joke. It says so much about the primary illness of the world, which is the notion that too much is never enough. It’s bad enough that any and every thing is subject for sale, but now even our kids are pretty much just advertisements for themselves.

  6. Canetas says:

    Great article. For me the best way to prepare a kid for the future would be a mix of the both worlds. The chinese way and the western parents way.

    If you just let the kid do whatever he wants, he could endup with pretty much uselless skills that will make him be eaten alive when he enters the market.

    However if you just tell him what to do you can endup with a pretty messed up grown up man/womem.

    That also shows how hard it is to raise a kid nowdays. But for me the General problem is: Too much info, very few action by the parents.

Leave a Reply