Sunday, January 23, 2011

How to Parent is Not Always Apparent

Photo by Ed Yourdon
 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License
There are so many articles out there now about Amy Chua and her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" that I hesitated to jump into the fray.  Since I read the WSJ article excerpt, I have been following the many retorts and analyses-- including David Brooks and Kate Zernike of the NYT, Time Magazine's front page coverage, the LA Times and  Techcrunch.  I will not repeat all the discussion here although I do marvel at how much discussion there has been.  I just want to make a few observations:

  • Amy Chua is a marketing genius.  She decided to write a memoir pitting China against the US for efficacy of child rearing style on achievement.  What great timing, particularly given the recent news that Shanghai children excel in standardized tests whereas US children, not so much. She hit a nerve about our success as achievement oriented parents and nation. 
  • Contrary to David Brooks' ridiculous argument, managing a sleepover is not as cognitively demanding or arduous as other intellectual activity.   While I think social skills are important, I do not think they are intellectually more difficult than academic or musical skills. If that were true, every cheerleader and high school jock would be a genius later and we all know examples of those who could not make it despite their social success in high school.
  • Let's not treat Chua's book as a parenting manual.  It's a memoir!
In reflecting on my own parenting in recent years, I have changed my view somewhat of what I think is important.  My children, who are now in their 20s, are wonderful, bright, inquisitive people who have good hearts and good social skills.  How much our parenting led to these effects is not clear.  Both of my children had very, very challenging adolescences.  I would not wish their or our experiences during those years on anyone.  I frequently wonder if my husband and I could have done something different to have warded off those difficult years.

My goals when my children were younger were to instill high self- esteem and encourage them to have many social experiences so that they would have good social skills when they were older.  My daughter started going to sleepovers when she was 3 years old.  We also had them play lots of team sports to teach team work and responsibility.  School was important but not as central as it was for me.  My social skills were hampered by having few play opportunities when I was growing up.  So I focused on academics and doing things by myself.  I wanted my children to have a different experience.  Most parenting, I suspect, is either trying to replicate what was done to you or trying to change what you perceive was done to you.  "Why didn't you get a 100%?" was a frequent question to me that I took to heart, even when it was said somewhat light heartedly because I had usually gotten the highest grade in my class in any event.  I tried to avoid putting that type of pressure on my children, but I suspect that I did it anyway whether or not I said it out loud.

Although I am pleased with the adults my children have become, if I were to do it again I might focus on a few different things:
  • Resilience.  I think that supporting the development of resilience is very important and research supports that belief.  Unfortunately, developing resilience requires undergoing and overcoming hardship.  It is hard to watch your children suffer.
  •  Delay of gratification.  In We Have Met the Enemy, Daniel Akst lays out the research  (mostly by Walter Mischel) showing the correlation between delay of gratification and later success and wellbeing.  Of course, correlation is not necessarily causation and I do not agree that ADHD is merely an artifact of not learning to delay gratification.  However, even with distracted, antsy kids, one could do more to teach delay of gratification --e.g. organizational skills and planning do seem to help.  Again, however, it is harder with these types of children than the child who comes wired to pay attention and follow rules.  
  • Emphasize effort and achievement.  I think I spent a lot of time praising my children for their efforts (although they may disagree!) but not pushing them to work harder toward an achievement. It is tough to know when to keep pushing and when to back off, particularly if you also want to foster social skills and creativity.  I am not sure even now what the right balance is.  But perhaps rather than emphasize so much social interaction in reaction to my own upbringing, I should have encouraged more alone time for thought and intellectual activity.  Learning how to be alone and deal with boredom relates to delay of gratification and resilience as well.
Luckily I do not have to experience a do-over.  I try hard to keep my snout out of my grandchildren's upbringing (although again my son and daughter in law may disagree!).  And it is so clear to me that my grandchildren are wired differently from my own children--with their own particular personalities and needs.  Perhaps the best parenting skill of all, one even Amy Chua claims both she and her parents have, is unmitigated love for one's children, even if you do expect a lot from them.

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