Downfalls of the Parental Extremes

It has been a few days since I read Amy Chua’s at once stimulating, frustrating, pompous, enlightening, conceited, deliciously polemic, disgustingly hubristic, and in spots, spot-on essay in the Wall Street Journal, extolling the supposed superiority of the “Chinese Mother.”

Why did I form all those impressions essentially simultaneously? Probably because she is so straightforward and blunt with her ideals, which I hugely respect and admire, while at the same time, intensely disagreeing with some of those ideals and cheering loudly in my head at others. That, friends, is the mark of a timeless essay and discussion piece. Like her or not, Ms. Chua has started a needed conversation in this land.

Instead of itemizing my likes and dislikes of her points, or overly picking nits out of the opposite of them, I shall advocate a medium far from either extreme of the parenthood spectrum. She seems to represent the east pole to the west pole of the hovering, over-indulgent parent, that’s for sure!

I’m far from the perfect parent, but seem to have found a reasonable equilibrium sitting somewhere between those poles. My kids don’t have video game systems (at least at my house) but can do sleepovers (as long as a parent is verifiably present), and are expected to excel but are not materially punished to any sustained degree if they don’t. Nor do I pay them for grades, under the ideal that excellence is, or at least should be, intrinsically self-rewarding. My approval and laud is their reward. My disappointment their punishment, to the extent it may matter to them. Ultimately, they will succeed to the level of their own motivation and interest; I’m just here to equip them with the foundation for it. The rest is up to them!

Whither failure? Actually, I see failure as something manifestly necessary in a kid’s development. It’s a form of tough love to let your kid fail, to step aside as they fall on their faces, and make them get back up, dust off, climb out of the hole they’ve created for themselves, and reap the fruits of their newfound humility in doing so. That’s one of the hardest self-disciplines of parenthood, until one realizes it’s short-term pain for long-term gain.

To the over-indulgent parent–the type that, alas, predominates in America–failure isn’t an option because it would hurt the kid’s “self esteem,” so they feel the need to protect and coddle at every turn. School systems have bought in, such that providing the grade of F for failure and C for average is deemed too harsh, politically incorrect, as if the flimsiest scratch on the youthful psyche will fester and erupt into horrifying and catastrophic psychological damage at some future point. The great disservice that over-protection and lack of accountability does to a kid is well-documented. I’m very familiar with a few such parents, and have seen the ugly side of that first-hand.

And yet, assorted repackagings of the same old, hackneyed, touchy-feely bullcrap arise from the halls of educational academia (many of whom aren’t even parents) on a yearly basis, psychological flavors-of-the year rolling off the assembly line and touted as the cure for the woes that ail American education, each trendy method soon discarded in favor of something newer, in what seems like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. The fashionable rubbish is, in turn, peddled to the publishers of books on parenthood, the chimney-mouthed chirpers of cheer on morning talk shows, and the developers of breathlessly promoted school curricula, all of whom leap from fad to fad like fleas on a hot brick, change for the sake of change and not for the sake of kids, in blind and futile probing for the educational Holy Grail. Meanwhile, the best method of all–common sense!–lies unseen and rotting away right under their noses.

The “Latest and Greatest in Education and Parenthood” is quite a fiscally lucrative industry, but nothing particularly helpful to parents or kids who sway hither and yon with each new wave, only to find themselves still anchored in the same spot at sea. Meanwhile, over-indulgence and lack of self-discipline create a nation of spoiled, mentally dependent and academically barren whiners who expect to have only the current moment’s necessary knowledge spoon-fed to them. Those are the exorbitantly needless and wasteful pitfalls that the “Chinese Mother,” to her credit, largely bypasses.

Still, I see Ms. Chua’s system as only marginally better. Yes, I tremendously admire the emphasis on hard work; that’s a facet of her system well worth propagating in an era of pervasive, collective individual laziness and smug delusions of entitlement as we see all across young society today (with plenty of exceptions, thankfully). That said, her method overemphasizes excellence in the name of competition, at the expense of excellence for its own sake, a subtle but profound distinction with enormous implications, whether or not she would admit or intend for this to be the case.

Her philosophy barely tolerates the tiniest of imperfections and doesn’t even contain the concept of failure; so how will her kids ever deal with it when it eventually happens? Debilitating depression? Suicide? I hope not. The prevailing psychobabble is way, way overblown in general, but has its roots in the reality of too many tragic endings to stories of extreme parental fascism.

Chua’s approach seems to work for her kids for now; I just hope that they’ll be well-adjusted adults who can find success and satisfaction in more than merely the arena of victory in competitive endeavors. Right now, to me, they look for all the world like automatons, robots, mechanized semi-humans who can calculate every equation error-free and play every note to impeccable correctness of pitch and timing, exuding monotonic seriousness to the Xth power of Y*Z while engaged in high achievement. Fine, as far as it goes…yet woefully incomplete! What about the vast remainder of the brain’s capacity–other forms of intelligence that all that incessant drill-practice doesn’t leave time for, like interpersonal skills, abstract thought, gut-busting humor, intuitive thought, or creativity in problem-solving?

Can the products of such homes fully appreciate the ephemeral beauty of a storm-tossed sky, evolve rigidly rule-bound mathematical construction into applied conceptual understanding, laugh heartily at both a great joke and at themselves, think “outside the box” to develop marvels of innovation, question unjust authority, or paint amazing imagery in others’ minds with creative writing that evokes and inspires a multifaceted raft of emotions?

The other thing that has bothered me about the Chinese approach is the intense emphasis on rote drills and memorization. That’s fine if you want to create self-programmed machines disguised in the form of human protoplasm, emotionally foot-bound but technically near-perfect beings who can do amazing feats of mechanical and mathematical prowess. Congratulations to such parents: you successfully raised Mr. Spock.

News flash: memorization is not the same as understanding!

There are places for such people, for sure, but not in any vocation requiring creativity, adaptability or imagination. Chuck Doswell, renowned both as an atmospheric scientist and an iconoclast, once described some peers with that apparent mental construction (whatever their actual nationality), eventually pigeonholing themselves deep into overspecialization, who “learn more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.”

Instead of the whiny, spoiled slacker, or the automaton bereft of appreciation for the beauty in the abstract and unfamiliar, how about this state of childhood learning and growth: excellence and hard work are their own rewards, little extrinsic motivation is needed or given, yet legal and rip-roaring fun within specific and unambiguous limits is seen as healthy; and creativity and problem-solving skills are combined with a strong practice ethic to yield the well-rounded child? Is this middle ground too much to ask? Of course, it is hard to accomplish; but nobody ever said parenthood was easy. Nor should it be.

Again, I can’t claim to be the ideal parent. My kids will be the first to tell you that I ain’t, especially after I have disciplined or corrected them. 🙂 But at least, I hope, they will be equipped with the tools to turn into well-rounded and productive members of American society, capable of utter greatness, impeded in their pursuit thereof only by their own self-limitations in using those tools.


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