Friday, January 21, 2011

When to Push....

Following test scores suggesting strong academic performance by Chinese students in Shanghai, I've read any number of protests, "Our nation would do just fine in comparison to other developed nations if we don't include the poor kids." And I read at least one study that suggested otherwise - that between our nation's relatively cavalier attitude toward academic achievement and our assumption that smart kids can take care of themselves, we are lagging at the high end of the curve. Having seen with my own eyes how easy it is for kids to get through high school with next to no math or science, and get through an undergraduate program with even less, how can we pretend otherwise?

I have followed some of the recent furor over a Wall Street Journal article on "Tiger parenting", published under the inflammatory headline, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior", along with the responses of various Chinese parents and children who took issue with the depiction of Chinese parenting and the explanation that the WSJ pulled out some sensational portions of the book without presenting the evolution of it's author's views and parenting style. In short, the WSJ article suggested that if you chain your child to a desk to do homework, freeze out pretty much anything that could distract your child from homework, demand top performance in everything the child attempts, and don't hesitate to use brutal derision if your child is less than perfect, "you're doing it wrong".

Ruth Marcus wrote a column attempting to give some balance to the issue, acknowledging that the WSJ article omitted some important context, but also describing a counter-voice, a recent book suggesting that parents not push their kids and be accepting of imperfect grades. We compare this:
"I would do it all again with some adjustments," Chua told Diane Rehm. She's still proud of having rejected the birthday cards. She relates what I think is the saddest story in the book - about how her late mother-in-law begged in vain for a single day with each granddaughter - with no apparent regret: "I never had a full day for them to spare. The girls barely had time as it was to do their homework, speak Chinese with their tutor, and practice their instruments."
with this:
"One of the ways teens learn about the importance of hard work is by suffering the consequences of their procrastination and laziness," Mogel writes. "A wise parent will resist interfering with those natural consequences, even if it means allowing a child to take a lower-than-wished-for grade."

Parental pushiness is a Mogel no-no. "Let affirmation - 'Yes, a B-plus!' - stand happily alone," she advises. Mogel cautions against the "What about varsity?" school of parenting, constantly prodding children to achieve the next level.
That suggests an inconsistency in Mogel's views - you don't cheer a B-plus that results from "procrastination and laziness". You would cheer a B-plus that results from a reasonable effort by the child. I haven't read Mogel's book, but I expect that she draws a distinction.

Marcus suggests that it is an exercise in caution to intervene too much in a child's life - that doing so carries less risk than intervening too little. On the whole, that seems correct, although it's not something we can measure objectively. If you ask two parents of very similar teens to draw a set of lines the child is not to cross, you might find some very different ideas. Given that odds are both teens "will turn out okay". Parenting isn't a scientific process, despite what your kid tells you there's unlikely to be a moment of parenting when you actually ruin her life, and we give ourselves credit than we deserve for how well our kids turn out. (Faults? Those are the kid's fault, or that "bad influence" friend, or maybe the other parent's....)

I agree with Marcus that some parental pushing is appropriate. I'll take her at her word that Mogel suggests not pushing at all. But... if you have high expectations for yourself, odds are you'll end up pushing your child without saying a word. I agree on the whole with Marcus on praise - it should not be lavished on underachievement. You don't lavish praise on a B+ from a child who could easily have scored an A. But you also shouldn't withhold praise "absent exceptional performance". At various times I've heard "experts" describe how and when to give praise to young children, elevating it to something of a pseudo-science. "Don't tell the child that she's 'good' or 'bad'. Praise or criticize the action, not the child." "Don't simply say, 'I like that painting you made,' identify what it is in the painting that you like."

But here's something interesting - self-esteem is negatively correlated to academic performance. You want your child to do well in school? Make sure she knows she's only as good as her grades. Make her terrified of coming home with a B+. Those kids pulling B's and C's or worse? Some of them are the happiest, most self-assured kids on the block. So yes, I can see how a certain style "Tiger Parenting" can help contribute to academic success, even as it's not a model I would personally follow and I'm skeptical of its long-term academic benefits. If the child wants an "A" because it makes him happy? Great. If the child wants an "A" to make you happy? Not as great. If the child wants an "A" because he's terrified of your reaction to anything less? Not a parenting style to which I aspire.

Our society has some difficult choices to make as we prepare for a future in which it appears that much of the so-called "working class", the nation's blue collar workers, can expect to earn at the lower middle class level, if that. We have to face the issue that not every person has the aptitude for or interest in college, and that we're doing our nation's colleges no favors by filling them up with kids who neither want to be there or lack interest in anything resembling academic rigor. We do even worse by ignoring the privilege that has helped people like Bill Gates (Lakeside School) or Mark Zuckerberg (Phillips Exeter Academy) succeed "despite being college drop-outs" - parental support for their interests, parents willing to pay for private tutors and elite schools to help their children achieve remarkable things within their areas of interest, and by the time they dropped out quite possibly a more complete education than is achieved by many graduates of lower and middle tier colleges. Sure, give everybody the opportunity for an education such that they can maximize their potential, but make sure that you're not doing so at the expense of identifying and fostering next generation of business and scientific innovators.

Push your child to do her best, and whatever your expectations or aspirations try to recognize that her best is good enough.


  1. These articles often present one-size-fits-all solutions for parenting styles and education. Obviously, children and students vary widely in their needs. The missing idea, which you allude to, is that the principal educational objective ought to be learning, not empty credentialing in the form of either a grade or a degree. Americans make this sort of mistake all the time: chase the wrong goal and later wonder why we're dissatisfied.

  2. Chua is trying to peddle a book. Full stop.

    That said, five minutes ago the news cycle was about the horror of "helicopter parenting", which is pretty much what Chua advocates, only without the gloss of telling anxious achievement-oriented white parents that there is some ancient Chinese secret to get their kids into Harvard.

    As Chua apparently found out the hard way, one of the little problems with parenting techniques is that children are not identical. The obedient child who wants praise will react very differently than the independent child who couldn't care less what you think of her.

  3. Reading the New Yorker's review of her book, yes, I would have to say it does sound like this whole "The WSJ got it wrong" thing is little more than marketing.


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