Passion v. Pragmatism

So, I have lived 29 years of my life feeling like I don’t really know what I am doing. I mean, sure, I know my priorities, and I live them with my actions and decisions, but life has always felt rather haphazard. You know, I have never had a five-year-plan or even a budget. I have survived by the seat of my pants, on a wing and a prayer and all those other cliches that mean God has been good. Well, then other people came into my life. First it was a baby girl while I was trying to be an Army officer in wartime. That was too much “seat-of-the-pants,” too much chaos, too much split passions, so I got out. Then I was at home, supporting my husband, having more babies and moving a lot. Then I decided that homeschooling was probably the right answer for us. Now here I am, with a first-grader and that suddenly makes me feel like I have to be a little bit more deliberate about things.

She deserves a five-year-plan. She deserves predictability, routine and order. All the members of my household do. So, I am fighting my natural instincts to survive in a happy, bubbling chaos — because I know it is not fair to impose that on the people living under my roof and care. However, I recently read a book review in the Atlantic Monthly of Amy Chua’s  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (**disclaimer**I intend on reading the book in its entirety, but the review is well-written and thought-provoking in and of itself.) that has my head spinning and my wheels turning about what path I will set for the children in my little home school.

Amy Chua makes the claim that allowing a child to “follow his passion to its utmost” is not a recipe for success in today’s world, but rather, we have to train our children with certain skills that the evolving modern, international, technologically-advanced world requires for success. An excerpt:

The good mothers have certain ideas about how success in life is achieved, and these ideas have been sizzled into their brains by popularizers such as Joseph Campbell and Oprah Winfrey, and they boil down to this: everyone has at least one natural talent (the good mothers call it a “passion”), and creativity, effortless success, and beaucoup dinero flow not from banging your head against the closed door of, say, organic chemistry if you’re not that excited by it, but from dwelling deeply and ecstatically inside the thing that gives you the most pleasure. But you shouldn’t necessarily—or under any circumstances, actually—follow your bliss in a way that keeps you out of Yale. Because Yale is important, too! So important.

I am a total Western mother. I am the epitome of what Amy Chua detests. I am soft, I value freedom, I want my kids to make choices that illuminate their individuality, but wait, Chua resonates with me. If I am the sole educator, and curriculum-designer, I can’t just trust that my children will develop a love of the relevant subjects in their traditional school classrooms. No, instead I have to carve out what subjects and activities I believe to be worth their time, and I have no idea. Also, when you put the overlay of faith on this modern mother dilemma, it becomes almost too overwhelming to confront. In two years, when I introduce foreign language, do I teach her Latin or hire a local Chinese teenager from a Chinese restaurant to give her Chinese lessons? How am I going to force her to be a computer programer if she wants to go into the arts. I don’t pose these questions as just another variation of the age-old struggle of a parent trying to encourage her kids to make pragmatic choices, but rather, I believe this is a unique moment in history. Top universities in the U.S. are drawing more and more from international applicant pools and students from these countries know their math and science. At my awesome U.S. public high school, on the other hand,  I would have been allowed to stop taking math after my sophomore year- in Singapore, no way!

So I am an ambivalent mess with only a 6-year-old doing schoolwork. We do crafts and a hodgepodge of reading lists and fit in about four days of math a week. She is learning the richness of our Catholic faith and all its heroes, but do I have it in me to make her competitive in tomorrow’s hyper-competitive global economy. Actually, am I kidding myself to think that that is even an important priority? If I have decided to keep her home with the family, doesn’t that mean that I have already made the enormous decision for her that family ties are more important than future economic success? Is it fair for me to have made that choice? Why can’t I put all this cognitive dissonance to rest?


  • Carol

    u00a0I am with you on the “fly by the seat of your pants” tendencies. But, I don’t think that Amy Chua has the right answer. I think her vision is too narrow. I would rather raise an entrepreneur than an ivy league grad headed for a high paying job. Have you heard of Thomas Jefferson Education…it is a leadership approach. Not perfect, but helped me look at education differently. I am also looking at John Holt and some of his ideas. I think maybe the educational system that we tend to hold in high esteem gives kids the wrong idea…that learning must come from experts, and that success is getting the highest scores. I want my kids to know that whatever they learn to do and whatever knowledge they gain is ultimately up to them. I want them to look at the world and see opportunity…even if the job market is bad. I want them to be self reliant, not dependent on their degree or credentials and whatever jobs the economy is supporting (not that they won’t get a degree, use a degree, or take advantage of the job market….just not be slaves to them..know what I mean?)nAnyway…interesting discussion. :)

  • AWOL Mommy

    u00a0Carol, thanks for your thoughts, I am looking forward to exploring the TJ Education and also reading about John Holt’s philosophy.

  • Harmony

    I agree with Carol that Chua’s view is too narrow–of what makes good parenting and what is good education. I think we can learn from her to avoid our modern Western tendencies to just let kids do what they want; life is not always fun, learning is not entertainment, sometimes you have to work hard and do things you don’t enjoy. These are good things for kids to know, and you’re absolutely right that it’s your job as the mom to decide what your children should apply themselves to. But as Christians we know that real success in life is not about what college you go to or how prestigious your job is. As kids get older I think it’s important to keep asking yourself (and them) what their gifts are, where they might be able to serve God best, etc.u00a0 This is not an approach of “if hitchhiking around the country for the rest of your life makes you happy, that’s what you should do”, but a serious seeking of how to make that child’s life count in partnership with them. It might not involve college!nnBut you’re just starting out, and I think the important things at this stage are to continue to make moral training a key part of your educational vision, and to help your child want to learn (all kinds of things, some of which will not be as easy as others). That’s why Charlotte Mason is so attractive to me. She’s not unschooly at all, unlike John Holt, so you might look into her also (Ambleside Online is where I plan to start; you might check out one of my favorite blogs too, Brandy at Afterthoughts, as she discusses her Charlotte Mason approach frequently in a very helpful practical way).nnYou can take this all with a grain of salt since I only have one 19 month old! But I was home schooled and grew up with many others who have gone that road–looks different in every case, but the vast majority are doing just fine in their chosen fields. You can do this!

  • JMB

    I’m not sure if you can really train someone to be competitive if that is not in his or her nature.u00a0 Some people just are more competitive than others.u00a0 Look at some of the better athletes out there – high school, college, the pros – not only do they have athletic talent, they also have a competitive streak as well.u00a0 In fact, I would argue that the competitive streak is probably a better indication of athletic success than sheer talent.u00a0 And I think the same is true for academic success in this day and age.nnEach child is unique.u00a0 Some of my children need to be pushed more in school, and some of mine need to be told to chill out (like the one who doesn’t want to ever go to school on Wednesdays because she has to play the recorder in front of her class).u00a0 I banned that stupid instrument from the house because I hate noise and I told her that I didn’t care if she flunked recorder or not, the most important thing is to show up and be helpful in class.nnPerhaps I’m not the right person to give you advice, but I truly believe that God has a plan for each of our children and he loves them far more than we do as mothers.u00a0u00a0 Children are very forgiving and they need love and permanence more than anything else.u00a0 You will do an excellent job educating your daughter.u00a0 Don’t worry about it.u00a0

  • Julia at LotsaLaundry

    I think one of the main challenges of homeschooling is finding where your teaching style overlaps with your child’s learning style. I have four children who thrive on free time to explore their interests, and one who is much, much happier with lots of structure. nnFor first grade, you can limit your structured teaching to an hour a day. Depending on how you organize your homeschooling — by third grade I expect my kids to get their lists and do most of their work independently — you may not ever get further than a few hours of structured teaching a day. nnI’ve got three at home now (2nd, 4th, and 7th grades), and we’re almost always done with school work by noon. What I formally teach/require is the basics. But we have a resource-rich home, and it’s not uncommon for a child to “finish” school quickly so that she can finish reading a Jane Austen novel, or build a Rube Goldberg contraption, or spend an afternoon designing modifications to a science experiment. I don’t think one can develop passion without free time… and homeschooling allows lots of that! nn

  • Anonymous

    I think you need to take some time to pray about and decide what your goals are for your children’s education.u00a0 Five years down the line is probably too much planning, but perhaps you could briefly write down what you want to accomplish in the next year or two, and then plan your curricula accordingly.u00a0 If you are having trouble, I’d read through some homeschooling curricula and theory books to get an idea of your style and your goals.nnI am very structured, and so I need to leave time in our curricula for free spirit types of activities.u00a0 You seem to be the opposite, so perhaps you need to really schedule those academic basics, and have a plan for the year in place, so that you have plenty of freedom and time to explore other interesting ideas.nnSome basic thoughts.u00a0 Prior to 3rd or 4th grade, a child really needs to learn or focus on a few things.u00a0 Reading, writing, and math.u00a0 I’d be pretty diligent in “drilling” or encouraging a good foundation in those areas, because if those areas are strong you really lay the groundwork for life long learning.u00a0u00a0 Other subjects such as art, music, or science can be more free-form and “fly by the seat of your pants.”u00a0 If your child has a particular passion in one of these areas, then incorporate more of it into your curricula.nnAnd I’ve already given my thoughts on Amy Chua.u00a0 Let her inspire you to work hard and give your children the absolute best, but don’t adopt her end goals!u00a0 nn

  • Mary Alice

    I am going to be pretty forceful here and say that I think that parenting with college admissions in mind is wrong and potentially damaging to our children.u00a0 nnYou are shepherding souls.u00a0 Making the best use of their talents is an important part of that job, but developing their character is the most important part.nnAs for a five year plan, I think that it is helpful to have one – a flexible one.u00a0 Would you expect to homeschool for all of elementary school?u00a0 That is helpful to know.u00a0 If the books you are using in some subjects work for you, plan to stick with them.u00a0 If they aren’t working, do some research and choose different ones.u00a0 Keep some records, so that you can see what you have done.u00a0 I am surprised at how it all sort of settles in as the children get older.nnAs to “tiger mothering,” don’t pay for music lessons if you are not going to require her to practice.u00a0 I admit to teary sessions at the piano with more than one child.u00a0 In the process, they are learning perseverance, self control, things which are ultimately more important than reading music.u00a0 I do not expect that my children will be concert pianists, but I do want them to try hard and learn to play.u00a0 If tears are a regular part of any activity, you have to wonder, is there a problem with the activity, the teacher, the student?u00a0 Why are you doing this?nnTears are a regular part of math for one of my children.u00a0 I am obviously not going to let her quit math at age 6 just because she doesn’t like it.u00a0 However, I am trying to be careful that she does not have a diminished sense of self.u00a0 She studies with a twin brother who knows all the facts off the top of his head.u00a0 I have to separate them now, so that she doesn’t refer to herself as “stupid.”u00a0 That is the last thing I want.nnAcademically, I expect my children to get 100% on every test.u00a0 What thisn means is that we don’t move on until they have mastered the material.u00a0 nEven working this way, everyone has stayed on grade level or above in nall subjects.nnIn our family skiing also is required, it is a family activity that we do together, but we do it for the pure joy.u00a0 I am hesitant about allowing the kids to get into racing, because I don’t want competition to come into play.u00a0 The same child who has struggled with math shows some potential as a ski racer, so it might be wrong to hold her back, that might be a great area for her to increase her self esteem.nnSome of my children are more intellectually curious than others, some are more sociable than others, some more industrious.u00a0 I try to encourage each of them to develop these traits to some degree, so that they will be able to function well in the world.nnA culture which only recognizes particular gifts is really going to miss out on all that the other people have to offer.nn

  • AWOL Mommy

    u00a0I love when you get forceful.

  • AWOL Mommy

    u00a0OK, but MA, on your point about not obsessing over college admission: don’t you think that is a little bit unfair of us to say, since we all went to a great school. I often wonder if it is fair for me to be such an educational free-spirit when my parents put me through college-prep high schools and fancy soccer leagues.

  • Heather

    u00a0First of all, the fact that you went to such a great school bodes well for your children–they will be blessed with intelligence like yours, and you will provide a very intellectually stimulating home environment for them.u00a0 One thing I think is silly about the Amy Chua approach is, she is a professor at Harvard, right?!u00a0 Of course her children would do well in the academic world, even if she had been much gentler in her approach to education.nnOf course we should encourage our children to develop their talents, but we should also be realistic in our expectations.u00a0 The apple doesn’t fall from the tree in most cases.nnI think JMB and Carol have some great thoughts, and for John Holt, I’d start with Learning All the Time, which is focused on the elementary years.u00a0 I think you might also enjoy 12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles by Geoffrey & Renata Caine.u00a0 I’ve been reading more about “Brain Based Learning” and it might reassure you that a free-form method to education is a great foundation for academic success.u00a0 Also, it’s interesting that countries like Sweden that start formal education at 7 consistently outperform the U.S., where our leaders are trying to get children into formal education earlier all the time…

  • Mary Alice

    I did go to a very good private school, and I homeschool now to provide the equivalent education.u00a0 My emphasis is on learning to read and write well, math at your own pace, and intellectual curiosity.nnBefore high school, I did casual summer stuff: neighborhood swim team and tennis lessons, and skied in the winter with my family, but no other sports.u00a0 I did random after school stuff that interested me, loom weaving or pottery or whatever, and I didn’t even get straight As.u00a0 But at home we had interesting conversations and I learned to love to read.nnAs I got close to high school, I decided, for myself, that I wanted to go to Princeton and someone (not my parents) explained to me that you needed outstanding grades.u00a0 I started to work hard in school, and I found that the harder I worked the more interesting my classes were.u00a0 There were times when I struggled and my parents would help me or get me a tutor in my weaker subjects (French and science, generally).u00a0 nnMy parents are both excellent teachers and so the support I would get after school was very valuable, my dad would help teach me to write by editing my papers, he also helped me to think about what sorts of questions might be on an exam, which turns out to be the key to studying well for tests.nnMy mother set up a good working environment for me and made sure that we got our homework done.u00a0 She was also a great listener and very open, so I could always talk through my teenage angst with her.nnBy high school I was also choosing my extra curriculars with an eye towards college and I started teaching skiing, but I loved it and I am still doing it now.u00a0 nnI never did anything particularly interesting in the summer, just hung out with my family at the beach, went camping, babysat, took a class here or there.nnIf Princeton is turning in to the sort of place where I would no longer be admitted, and everyone needs to be this totally intense level of organization kid, I am not sure it will be a good fit for my children, so I am not going to sweat that too much right now, I would rather they be well rounded.u00a0 nnThere comes a time in your child’s life when you are going to have to think and talk about college and career goals, but I think for now it is really important to focus on the basics.nnI think that parenting to raise decent people is much more important then parenting to raise Ivy leaguers.u00a0 I do not think that the two are mutually exclusive, but I think one needs to put first things first.u00a0 A lot of damage can be done by pushing a child.nnI think that temperament comes in to play and it is important to know your child — some need a little push here and there, some need a soft landing pad, and some need to be dragged every step of the way.nnMy neighbor’s son is in a travel soccer league, they can’t come to reunions because he has four games this weekend.u00a0 But this is a child who, by his nature, thrives on activity and competition.u00a0 He needs to be competing at a high level and he is good at it.u00a0 My kids would be totally wiped out if they had to play four soccer games.u00a0 We did one summer of travel baseball and we all said “never again!”u00a0 So, I think it depends on the kid and their gifts and struggles become more apparent as they get further along.nnWe have no idea what the college landscape will be like in 2020, but I suspect big changes are on the horizon, so I think we should try to raise thoughtful, engaged, interesting people, and if those are the sorts of people that Princeton turns out to be looking for, great, but maybe they will go to a small ship building engineering school on Long Island, or a great books school, or seminary.nnI would also say that all of the children I know who are being homeschooled with a Charlotte Mason perspective are really, really wonderful, including my own.u00a0u00a0u00a0 nnHave you read For the Children’s Sake by Susan Shaeffer Maccauley?u00a0 It is the best homeschooling/parenting book I know.

  • ADWF

    I love that your children don’t move on until they have mastered what they are learning. I had been frustrated for years as a college instructor because I wasn’t allowed to slow down the material significantly, even with a large percentage of struggling students (I still did what I could). And many who needed more time at one level were promoted to the next, based on standardized tests. Not good. nnSince our son came into our lives, I’ve left teaching outside the home and am staying at home with him (and with any others who God sends our way!). I will be homeschooling, which leads me to a question:nnDo you have problems with record-keeping requirements, if scores are consistently higher?

  • Mary Alice

    The state we live in now does not require any paperwork, so that is not an issue.u00a0 In other states you have to make a portfolio or submit a standardized test.u00a0 I do make quarterly notes and then write a year end report for each child, without grades.u00a0 Homeschoolers can take the IOWA or CAT standardized tests through Seton or local co-ops.u00a0 We did that once, just to make sure that we were where we needed to be, and I may do it every two or three years, depending on the child.u00a0 If you do it through a co-op, they also get the test taking experience of having to sit in the room with the number two pencils and that is of some use, at least beginning in middle school.nnWhen I tested my second grader, he was above average in all subjects but one, writing mechanics.u00a0 It was questions about what the parts of a letter are called, etc, which we just had not taught.u00a0 Our LA program did not cover that by second grade, but I guess it is part of the learning standards, so that was helpful to see, and we actually enrolled with Seton for that subject to make sure we covered it properly in the future.nnWhen I say that I hold them back on material until they have mastered it, we always manage to catch up in other places, so far everyone has been able to complete each grade level of work on time.