Wednesday, January 19, 2011

High Achievement

  The book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua seems to have struck a nerve in certain circles. In the first excerpts of the book in the Wall Street Journal, Chua seemingly recommends a ‘Chinese’ approach to parenting, which allows seemingly no fun time (no TV, computer games or sleepovers), a demand for excellence in school (grades less than an A are not allowed), and complete control over the child’s extracurricular activities (the child must learn to play the piano or violin AND ONLY the Piano or violin). Chua is using the word ’Chinese’ as the demand for perfection, not me.

  She compares the ‘Chinese’ parenting method favorably to the permissive Western parenting method of nicely asking their children to do their best and then praising the effort when their children fail. After reading the excerpt I think Chua’s main point is that by demanding excellence (not letting the child go to the bathroom until excellence is achieved, for example), the child will be more successful and have more self-esteem than by praising any effort a child gives regardless of the results of said efforts.

  Some people are so threatened by Chua’s conclusions that she's receiving death threats and she’s recently backtracked, saying the book excepts doesn’t include how she explained that has mellowed in her parenting approach. This ‘extreme parenting’ guide is sensational enough to get attention and has hit on the insecurities of many parents who are worried about their children not being able to compete in the global economy. I don’t agree with Chua either, but I can see some logic in her ideas. I think it is a truism that parents want what is best for their children, with the only the methods in question.

  I coached both my sons in the earliest stages of Little League, T-ball for 5 and 6 year olds. The players would hit the ball off a tee, and run to the base while the other team would try to pick up the ball and throw them out. It was meant to teach the kids the basics of baseball. When Matt was 6 in 1999, hardly anyone every made an out because the kids fielded so poorly, but if someone happened to catch a ball or make a throw to a base that was caught, the kid would go back to the dugout and sit down. Since no one wanted to get thrown out, everyone ran hard to the next base, and there was a bonus in that if the ball was thrown away, the player could run 2 bases.
  In the 3 short years later when I coached Ben in T-ball, a new standard had emerged among the coaches. The kids would hit the ball, run to one base only, and stay there whether they made an out or the ball was overthrown. I was still ‘old school’ and would let the kids run 2 bases if they could and made them sit down if they made an out. This was pretty unpopular with the other T-Ball coaches (“We don’t want a track meet out there, Coach”), but I didn’t care because I think kids are meant to run and I tried to find ways to get them to run. I noticed that while the kids on my team tried to run as fast as they could to try to get to run 2 bases, the kids on the other teams would trot to the next base because there was no reward for running fast and no penalty for running so slowly that they got thrown out. These kids also wouldn’t rush to field the ball because there was no incentive to try to make an out and half of them would barely swing hard at the ball. Not making any demands on these kids made it look like a lazy convention.

  When my kids were in Little League, I saw plenty of parents yelling at their kids when they weren’t performing well. Sometimes, the kids would crawl into a shell, other times their performance would dramatically improve. Once I saw a coach pull his 14 year old son from the game. They started yelling and cursing at each other and, but later in the game, the kid hid a home run and got a big hug from his dad. I don’t know what the deal was, but I’m sure some therapist is paying off his second house because of it.

  I only knew one chess family that would get upset when their kid didn’t win. My son was in the same tournament and in the last round the father started getting upset with his son’s chess coach because it looked like his son was losing. The coach explained that his son had a good position and it only looked like he was losing. When the kid ended up losing the game, the parents sat him on some stairs and gave him a good talking to in their native tongue, complete with finger-wagging. At a later tournament, the kid gave up a draw to a player he should have beaten and his sister kept on asking him how ‘he could not beat that guy’. The kid looked like he would rather be anywhere else and did not seem to me to have the same zest for chess after that. The only time I got upset at my kids over a chess game was when 6-year old Ben was playing some kid from Ames who would start a conversation with him over whether he wrote down the move correctly whenever Ben’s clock was running. Ben lost the game on time and I was furious that he would let that kid distract him like that. I probably went a little overboard, but that situation never happened again.

  I directed the K-8 and High School chess championships last weekend and there were a lot of the top players in the state there. A few years ago most of the top scholastic players in the state were home schooled. I thought at the time it was because they had more time to practice and study chess than the other kids. Lately the top scholastic players have been the children of college professors at the state universities. A lot of these kids got their start at school clubs but then receive private lessons. I had chess lessons for both my kids at various times and I think they help a lot, but not as much as having a desire to compete and learn. In talking with the parents, many of them also paid for piano and violin lessons for their children. But when their kids eventually lost a chess game or two (there’s limited room at the top), I didn’t see any yelling, screaming, or calling the kids ‘garbage’ (as Chua confesses to having been called and been called).

  I’ve always wanted my kids to do well, but most of all I want to see them be happy at what they do. I feel if you like doing something you will learn to do it well, not that if you learn to do something well you will then learn to like it. I feel my children are high achievers, and don’t feel as if I’ve pushed them into anything. When they’ve wanted to give up baseball or chess or other activities, I’ve gone along because I think it is pointless to make people and children do things they don’t want to do. I do try to point out the consequences, but that’s where it ends.

  Part of the allure of ‘extreme parenting’ is the results. The Polgar sisters were trained to be chess masters from their birth by their father Lazlo as part of his ‘Geniuses are made, not born’ theory. They have all made a tremendous living playing, teaching, and promoting chess. Mickey Mantle was pitched to by his father and his left-handed uncle so he would learn to be a switch hitter and he was one of the greatest players ever. But while every success story takes on a storybook quality to be handed down to generations, we rarely hear of the children who were bred for success but fell short of the mark and what happened to them. Todd Marinovich is a well-known example of extreme parenting gone wrong, but even he attained a comparatively high level of success despite his drug and legal problems. The high suicide rates among students who have extremely high expectations is also rarely reported.
  I’m pretty comfortable with the way Kathy and I raised our sons, but if I was in a country that only allowed each couple one child, the stakes might be high enough for me to go ‘extreme’ in my parenting. Unquestionably, it’s a cold world and coddled children will be at a disadvantage if they are not taught to want to do their best or to expect that minimal effort will be rewarded, but I don’t think it’s necessary to be as hardcore as Chua. I would be the first to admit that Chua’s methods would surely be better than this example of ‘extreme unparenting’!