Our Sunday Visitor is carrying a piece of mine looking at the controversial question of whether the berating Chinese “Tiger Mother” is truly superior to the doting and timid “you’re so special!” Western mode of parenting. I am of two minds on it:
In America we have allowed genuine excellence to be sacrificed upon the altar of our children’s self-esteem, and our barely earned praise has become a kind of cheap grace. In our schools, every test gets a star, every assembly gets a “participation certificate” and every sporting try gets a trophy. Often children do begin to realize that when everything they do is overpraised, their specialness has been undervalued through condescension. That, in turn, reveals the flimsy foundation upon which their self-esteem has been so carefully built. Such a realization can be shattering.
Still, to Western sensibilities, Chua’s methods can seem extreme. Chua relates being called “garbage” by her father, noting it inspired her to work harder and never made his love feel out-of-reach. Relating at a party that she had replicated his method on one of her extremely successful daughters, Chua found herself immediately ostracized, and also the cause of some Western High Drama, as one party guest “broke down in tears and had to leave early.”
That response forces the question: Have Americans become such hypersensitive violets that they cannot bear a bracing wind?
Six years ago, then Harvard president Lawrence Summers suggested that the underrepresentation of female scientists at elite universities could partly be attributed to “innate” differences between men and women. His remark caused a female biologist from MIT to dramatically depart the meeting in a near swoon.
Perhaps some of this is a reflection of cultural differences that seem sharp-edged in the first throes of immigration, but eventually dull. My mother, born of an impoverished, knock-about family of Irish immigrants, seemed to believe that raising her children with a psychic callus would serve them well in the world, and so she dished out the criticisms along with the boiled potatoes. Being the stumpy member of my otherwise-tall family, I never did understand what was particularly funny about being referred to as “the after-birth,” but, on the other hand, I have never had to exit a gathering of people because someone’s perspective gave me a case of the vapors.
Read it all and answer the poll
Meanwhile, Todd Zywicki takes a look at Anthony Esolen’s book, Ten Ways To Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, and American parents shouldn’t feel great about this, either:
While professor Chua conscripts her daughters with compulsory three-hour violin and piano lessons (leaving open the obvious question, “What is so special about the violin or piano as opposed to the cello, trumpet or, for that matter, fly-fishing or baseball?”) Mr. Esolen says we should encourage children to pursue their passions and develop a love of those activities for their own sake, regardless of their utility. Whereas Ms. Chua insists on world-class proficiency in the hobbies her daughters pursue under the belief that such things are fun only after one becomes expert, Mr. Esolen instinctively sides with G.K. Chesterton’s tribute to amateurism that anything “worth doing is worth doing badly.”
If Ms. Chua sees American children as needing more structure and control, Mr. Esolen urges the opposite – fewer play dates and music lessons and more free time for play, reading and tree climbing. If we want to destroy children’s imagination, we should fill up their time with scheduled activities, tell them what books to read and what instruments to play and, above all, stress that none of this is to be enjoyed for its own sake but merely as steppingstones to eventual admission to Harvard or Brown.
These articles are of-a-piece, in a weird way, with my column yesterday on the audacity of being uncredentialed.
It is a wonderful thing to sit in a classroom and grow in knowledge, if one is in fact doing that, but often it seems that degrees should be awarded in going through the motions; they come without a genuine expansion of thought, or an enlargement of wonder. And, to paraphrase Gregory of Nyssa, it’s the wondering that begets the knowing.
Clearly, there needs to be a balance between achievement for sake of excellence and excellence born purely of passion, and unimpressed with what anyone else thinks. Educationally (and perhaps otherwise) we’re schizophrenic. We want our kids to have the best opportunities but we hobble them with insipid curricula that are too heavy on social engineering and too light on personal accounting. We watch the government pay lip service about the importance of a good education and the crippling effect of poor schools upon our young, then we watch the same gasbags do everything they can to prevent poor kids from getting into good schools, because they’re real concern lies with their union-filled coffers, and not the kids.
UPDATE I: Evangelical writer and Baylor University Fellow Thomas S. Kidd has more thoughts on raising boring children and Esolen’s book.
UPDATE II: Timothy Dalrymple’s thoughts on why we have children:
We have children because love overflows. I believe as a Christian that I am created in the image of a God who is Love, a God whose love so desired an object that it brought us into being. Although the wisdom and power of love within us is clouded and twisted by sin, still the image of Love is there. We have children because love is essentially creative, and because our souls long for other souls we can love lavishly and forever.
Love precedes the beloved. That is why it is unconditional. In bearing children we participate in God’s continuing creative act, and in sustaining and guiding and sacrificing for our children we reflect God’s redemptive act. Theologically, then, we have children because we are made after the image of a God who had children, a God who is irreducibly relational and endlessly creative.
It’s unimaginable that we could forget that, but we do. You’ll want to read it all.
UPDATE II:: Shrinkwrapped looks at the limitations of parenting:
Most parents have a tremendous narcissistic investment in their child(ren) and unconsciously love those aspects of the child that resemble what they value in themselves and hate those aspects of their child that they detest in themselves. Finding way to minimize the effects of one’s unconscious Narcissistic investment and tolerating, even enabling, the child to find and become the person he wants (needs?) to be, is a rare skill in parenting. Some Chinese Tiger Mom’s will, in between the demands of piano practice, find ways to encourage or at least tolerate their child’s interests and developmental diversions, even while being disappointed that he prefers the flute (possibly an acceptable instrument) or the guitar (unacceptable) or, God [they-don't believe-in] forbid, baseball. An argument can be made that a parent who wants a child to study piano 3 hours a day and is able to compromise on 1 and 1/2 hours a day exchange for allowing their son to go to baseball practice or their daughter to learn to cook (or go to baseball practice for those very few girls who prefer) is a mother who is able to set her own narcissism in second place to the needs of their child.