Telling your kids they suck

21 01 2011

I had started writing a post yesterday about the debate surrounding Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but I ended up scrapping it. As it turns out, I have more things to say than would neatly fit into a single blog post, so after I rambled on and on for a few pages, I decided to toss the whole thing in the bin and get a little more focus.

I don’t agree with the notion that Chua is abusive towards her children. I don’t think that by being strict and mean and pushing her kids as hard as she does that she’s got all the answers either, but if all of the American mommies out there can chill out a bit, she does point to a real flaw in the way that the Western obsession with self-esteem is abusive.

The idea that we’ve been raising a generation of praise junkies who treasure their precious self-esteem more than anything else has been pretty well established, despite warnings that all of the “good jobs” and “you’re so perfect” and “you’re a unique snowflake of awesomeness” were going to do harm. Don’t even get me started on a great many of the college students I’ve taught in recent years. Many have been fine, bright and hard-working. A great many more have had this sense of entitlement that has had 18 plus years head start over anything I could do with them, interestingly, to their ultimate disadvantage. They learned less, wasted more time and were often just too into themselves to realize it.

I was watching American Idol on Wednesday with my daughter and I started to tell her about American Junior, the spinoff that enjoyed one season back in 2003, right when she was born. I think I learned so much about parenting from that show. I certainly learned that a parent’s love can make them blind and that being uncritical and dishonest about your kids was doing them a disservice. I told myself I wasn’t going to be that kind of dad, for damned sure. Then, I started to explain all of this to my daughter, but then backed off. Singing just happens to be a skill that she doesn’t really have, but I’ve never praised her for it either. I’ve always said that she should practice more, work on it more, same as with everything else she has to do. Shockingly, she doesn’t enjoy it any less.

And that’s what I think is important about what Chua’s saying. There’s a lot of value in practice. I think our culture forces to place too much importance on talent. We like the idea that someone can be a born singer, a born athlete and we celebrate that effortless talent and we heap praise on it. I’ve seen it first- hand in the number of times I’ve been beaten out despite my talents by someone that just plain worked harder. There have been more than a few tough lessons of that.

The danger of excessive praise then is that it’s dishonest. It does build self-esteem junkies and it does limit potential and that, itself, makes it abusive. It’s narcissism that hides behind being done “out of love.”  I’m not saying we shouldn’t love our kids, obviously. We should want more for them. We should also not celebrate mediocrity. We should be prepared every now and then to tell them that they suck at something and need to work to improve. Get kids to actually accomplish something through effort and their self-esteem will easily take care of itself (and more deservedly so).

So, okay, maybe Chua’s a bit excessive there, but certainly not abusive. Neglect is abusive. Limiting potential is abusive. There’s a middle road there between what Chua did with her kids and the self-esteem obsession that I think we should shoot for.

What Chua is guilty of is the same as every other parenting pundit: they’re very good at trying to tell other people how to raise their kids and nothing starts a fight faster than that. If someone questions my parenting, believe me, I get defensive. She challenged some norms. Them’s fightin’ words. Them’s also some good “I’m gonna sell me some books and get on Oprah by pissing everyone off” words.  And now I’m going to rush out and buy this book so I can get angry about it (p.s. not really). Gives me an idea though… I bet I could sell more than a few copies of an ebook explaining how to use waterboarding techniques to influence your toddler’s behavior. Hmmm. (p.s. also not really).

So, I think a lot of the furor right now is just a defensive snap reaction to the book and the article and it’s exacerbated by Chua’s abrasive personality. The good news is, like this article says, we’re really all too busy and cash-strapped to carry on with this current buzz for long. A few more talk shows and editorials and we’ll be on to something else next week, easily.

UPDATE: This Time Healthland article just came out a few minutes ago (I’m adding this at 5:45 pm) and contained this gem:

Yet we remain in denial. The economic and emotional stress on working parents that results is overwhelming, but rather than concede that we have a big social problem on our hands or look for national solutions, we spend our time debating whether moms are doing their jobs right and seeking answers (or blame) in individual parenting styles.

Research shows repeatedly that low-quality day care can harm children, particularly infants, over the long term, leading to academic and cognitive deficits in adolescence and greater risk-taking and impulsivity. But as a country, we are still ignoring the issue: we don’t require companies to provide paid parental leave, for instance, and we do little else to support quality early child care. Instead, we endlessly debate the Tiger Mom.

Bingo. The rest of us can have all the expectations we want, but the debate is really about those with the economic means to go Tiger. The vast majority of us do what we can to enforce our philosophies.

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