Some parents do a very good job of messing up their children’s lives.
Some fail to prepare their children for their futures. Some think they are preparing them and are in fact doing harmful and destructive things. In the latter category you can squarely place the recently published law prof-cum-author Amy Chua. Her recent memoir, as she presents it, tells of her successful efforts to see to it that her two daughters turn out to be perfect, or just shy of it. That’s right, she wants to “see to it” (my words) that her daughters turn out “just so”. She will stop at nothing to get her girls to reach perfection: only As, top of all their classes, top musical performances, and so on. She resorts to threats, punishments, insults – all are fair tools in Chua’s mind to get her girls to turn out as she has planned. You can read the N.Y. Times article.
Is this what parenting is? Are children clay in the hands of parents, to mold as they see fit? I thought parenting was about child-rearing: fostering independence and health and preparing children to live in the world. Is it the role or responsibility of parents to shape their children’s lives? to select careers? Do parents have this right even? Is it a crazy new-age, “soft” idea to allow children to “discover themselves” or make of their lives what they would like? Chua’s approach is controlling and totalitarian: she sees her children as tools for her to manipulate for her own ends. Like a benevolent dictator she claims to know what’s best and they’ll become that, like it or not.
Chua doesn’t allow sleep-overs, parties, or after school activities. “No time”, she says, must practice!. They need 2-4 hours a day to practice piano and violin. And she stands over them, literally, seeing that they put their all into it.
What are these children learning in the process? To not love learning or making an effort. To not care about things. To feel like your life is not yours to direct. How is that going to help them in life? It’s the very opposite outcome that we’d want. We want children to become able thinkers who enjoy putting forth all the effort that it takes to work hard, practice and persevere. When you force people to do this they do not learn how to do it, i.e. make the effort, for themselves because you’re the one doing the doing. Just as traditional schools do too much for students- scheduling their time, controlling when they do their work, focusing on remembering instead of understanding, this approach of forcing children to “work hard” will not teach them to work hard but to hate work.
Has Chua been successful? If by this we mean “did she achieve what she set out to do?”, then yes. Her girls have performed beautifully in all areas. So what? Who are they as people? Are they happy? Will they contribute to the world anything meaningful? Or will they be two more frustrated adults who don’t know what they want and don’t have a sense of personal accomplishment?
The end does not justify the means. Punishing children is highly effective to get them to do what you want – just keep increasing the punishment as they get older and they’ll acquiesce. It works as a form of discipline. But it’s wrong. It’s a horrible way to treat children- all people for that matter. Punishment works in the short-term, but in the long term the recipient has not learned how to be self-disciplined because someone else, the one holding the punishment over their head, did the doing. You only learn to be self-disciplined when you have to control yourself- make the effort. This is a huge area in developmental psychology these days (often called self-regulation or executive functions).
Parenting plays a HUGE role in how and what children learn. If we’re sending them off to school every day fearful of the next test score and stressed out about always having to “be the best”, what are we doing to them? What are we saying life is about? Has Amy Chua not seen the recent film Race to Nowhere?
Here’s a quote from Chua about her own experience as a student in law school, where she didn’t really care, she admits, about the rights of criminals and never wanted to be called on in class: “I also wasn’t naturally skeptical or questioning: I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it”. There you go, nothing’s hidden. All that mattered to her was “pass the test”. Learn something? Care about what you’re learning or doing? Who has time to care? This is who she’d like to populate the world with. You want to live in that world?