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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Neither Constant Criticism Nor Constant Praise Works

If y'all read any Asian-American blogs at all, you've probably heard the blow-up* surrounding Amy Chua's recent article in The Wall Street Journal entitled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. There is so very much I could say, but I think I should just allow her words to stand by themselves. Reading her piece through Western eyes tends to first garner "is this satire?" responses before the ugly realization settles in that no, this is NOT in fact satire.

Excuse me while I stand up on my soapbox for awhile.

I grew up with several close Asian-American friends, y'all. Many of them survived childhoods much like the one Ms. Chua lauded. One of my closest friends was forced to return to her parent's native country as a child bride at the age of 15. She ran away while overseas, made her way back to the United States with the assistance of a supportive extended relative, and spent years trying to rebuild her relationships with her very disappointed parents. Another close friend in high school lived with her parents' extremely strict rules, including not being allowed to cut her own hair, and being forbidden to sleep over at other peoples' houses, although her mother (finally!) convinced her father to allow other children to sleep at their house. One of my roommates in college withdrew and returned home as a result of severe depression.

I also grew up a military brat. And yes, many of my fellow military brats, of many different races and ethnicities, survived similar childhoods... childhoods where love was conditional on achievement, where results mattered above all else, where personal happiness took a back seat to parental bragging rights. One of my closest friends in elementary school was punished severely if she failed to receive straight As. Another was physically abused whenever he failed to live up to his father's expectations, whatever they might have been. I feel so grateful that Tonggu Grammy and the Colonel did NOT fall into that trap.

While I do not in any way subscribe to the abusive style of parenting described in Ms. Chua's recent article, I also don't fit the stereotypical "western parenting" she so smugly derides in her article.

I do not believe in the constant praise of children. When I taught school almost a decade ago, I once knew a little boy who could not function without hearing the words "good job" at least a dozen times a day. Because that's what his momma always said to him. When he zipped up his coat, when he built a tall block tower, when he successfully wrote his name, he would always order me to "say... say... say 'good job,' Miss Tonggu Momma." And I never would. Instead I would observe his new-found skill, responding with, "you just zipped up your coat!" in an excited voice or "that's a really tall tower" or "you are getting SO big now."

But I never said "good job."

Because doing so both sets up unrealistic expectations in a child and also reinforces performance-oriented, conditional love. Constantly saying "good job" for age-appropriate skill mastery develops over-inflated self-esteem in children who have yet to learn the lesson that yes, they are very special, but they are no more special than any other child in the room. Constant praise leads tweens and teens to believe they WILL make it in the NBA or become the next president of the United States, even if said dreams exist in a place devoid of reality. I'm not saying that it's wise to crush a child's dreams - heaven knows I have a child who truly believes she is the greatest thing since sliced bread - but I am saying that we, as parents, need to balance praise with a heavy dose of realism, and to focus on effort and character rather than achievements and outcome.

Oh, and by the way, it took almost seven months before I was able to turn to my Constantly Needing Praise Student and say, "sweetie, you don't need me to tell you that you did a good job. You already know that you did." And to have him understand what I was saying. Get it. And change because of it.

I also do not believe, despite my failure to enforce lengthy practices and advanced lessons, that my child cannot achieve Great Things. If y'all have read here for any length of time, you've probably guessed that I think my Tongginator is an intelligent little gal. Goodness, if y'all have been reading here for awhile, you probably think that as well. Because she is. As obnoxious as that sounds, she is. But I also know that focusing on the effort, not the outcome, is my goal. I'd rather parent a hard-working child who obtains Bs than a lazy child who skates through school with all As. And I know that my expectations for the Tongginator cannot and should not impact my expectations for her future mei mei. Because no two children are alike.

I firmly believe that ALL children will succeed in life in their own unique ways. It's when we push our own ideas of success onto our children that we create problems. Some children will never fit into the box that is society's definition of success. Goodness, if I forced the Tongginator to fit into my box of success, she'd still be in ballet and there would NOT be a drum set in our basement. As parents, we also create problems when we steal from their futures in order to create the facade of success at an early age.

What's so terrible about allowing our kids to be KIDS?

We need to trust that our children will succeed in life no matter their starting points. We need to teach them strong work ethics (which I agree many Western parents fail to do), but we also need to show them that their sense of self-worth is not dependent on always being first. Because doing so only teaches them that our love is conditional.

And it's not realistic anyway.

Because someone else is ALWAYS better.

And because the world's values don't usually line up with the values we strive to teach.

* Countless Asian-American blogs responded to Amy Chua's article, including Hyphen Magazine, Betty Ming Liu, Christine Lu, Resist Racism, Racialicious and the Shanghaiist, just to name a few.


Mia_h_n said...

First of I haven't had time to read Chua's article yet (and have never heard about it before this second) so my comment is only towards your post.

With that said I really agree with you. There's a difference between helping your kid develope a healthy sense of self-worth and completely overpraising them, to the point where they end up with big heads and hurt feelings, because the grown-up world doesn't revolve around them and is a little more unforgiving than their parents.

I like to try it make the praise "neutral" and not so performance/goal oriented so the kids experience that they don't need the validation in order to try and do things. They can know what's right and good and do things for their own sake.

Don't get me wrong, I can slip a "good job" right in there when needed, but as long as they do what they want that should be enough. Like you said, I firmly believe that parents should be cautious of putting their expectations on the kid, and maybe the kid can be truly happy with something else or less than the parents. Then let them be. Stop pushing. And it just became personal so I'll go now.

Mia_h_n said...

Sheesh! Good thing I didn't read the article until now. I can also say A LOT about this, but I'd better not.

But an interesting read for sure. Thanks for the tip.

Sharon said...

Well said/written! And hey, Linhsey's no ballerina either and we too have a drumset! We actually have 2 because even though I teach piano lessons, not one of my children plays the piano. We have drummers and guitarists... hehehehe. And that's just fine with me!

Anonymous said...

I don't know a great deal about many Eastern cultures. But I do watch an enormous amount of figure skating, and I have seen the strain that the skaters from those cultures are under - because anything less than gold is never acceptable. Where here, people looked at Joannie Rochette's bronze as a marvelous triumph and expression of courage and grace, Mao Asada, for receiving silver instead of gold, nearly fell apart. Despite landing two triple axels and making history. She didn't win gold. She failed.

That is a terrible thing to do to a person, whether child or adult. To believe that you have to live up to some arbitrary mark in order to be successful, to be LOVED?

As a human being, this saddens me. As a Christian, it saddens me even more, because what is Christianity but saying "I know you can't reach that mark, child. I will reach it for you, and you will take the credit for it, and I do this for no reason but that I love you."

(And I also love your point about someone else always being better. My parents drilled that into us as children, and it horrifies me how many people seem to completely fail to see that reality!)

autumnesf said...

Good job tends to be a phrase for physical activities (participating not excelling) and surprises like cleaning the room without being asked. Its always an I'm happy you are doing this -- not result oriented. And it is almost always followed up with a "did you have fun?"

Excellent post! Couldn't agree more!

Johnny said...

Along these same lines, it makes me cringe when little 5 year old kids get a "black belt" in an martial art.

"Good job" to the extreme!

Patricia/NYC said...


prechrswife said...

Well-written, and I totally agree with you. I read the article the other day, and now I'm curious to read some of the blog responses.

AwesomeCloud and family said...

Drums are a better investment than ballet, anyway. She can still play drums when she's 60, if she wants to.

happygeek said...

Read the article. Cringed. Understood a little better why so many of my second generation friends are so crazy permissive with their kids. The pendulum is just swinging.
I guess the thing the bugged me most about the article is the war zone that house would often be. And for what?

Gayla said...

Great post! And I'm not just saying that as a "good job." ;-) I'm really glad you put this out there. And I can tell you were a great teacher and are a great Mom b/c you get that constant praise only creates a need for constant praise. It's empty.

Thank you again for saying all you did!

Anonymous said...

Great post!! As a teacher I see the kids needing constant praise all the time. So much fun to deal with. I had a child last month in a class I was subbing in who was like this. if he didn't get it he would constantly complain he was sick and wanted to call home.
I watched a documentary a few months ago on this very subjuct. The first group of these over coddled kids are entering the work force and it's not going well for them. They can't keep a job because they feel they are worth a lot but can get away with doing nothing.
It will be scary and interesting to see where this generation ends up.

Janet said...

I give my kids a "good job" when they DO a good job. If they haven't done one, I do point out why it wasn't good, so they know how to improve. I do NOT understand parents who feel the need to make their child think that they are perfect and excuse away any sort of trouble. Frankly, it does them no favours. In fact, my son was just asking me for help with his paper (in something he could DEFINITELY do on his own) and I said, "I'm not writing this paper for you...do your own work." I'm mean that way. :-)

a Tonggu Momma said...

Autumn and Janet - those are excellent points. I think warranted "good jobs" are definitely important. I'm talking about the times parents use it as a throw-away comment to move things along or assist them in not truly having to engage their children. I know I used to do it, and still catch myself at it sometimes. Or parents who over-praise 20 million times a day. I think we all know parents who do that consistently.

Briana's Mom said...

I definitely praise Briana for many things, but I know I also find myself correcting Briana just as much. It definitely is a balancing act.

I didn't read the article until just now, but I did see Amy Chua promoting her book on the Today show the other day. I have to admit I was astounded by her parenting style and was not in support of it at all. I did find her "backpedaling" and "downplaying" her actions a bit in the interview with Meredith Viera, probably because of all the negative press she had received.

I had a friend in high school that had an immigrant mother from the Philippines. Her mom was "this kind" of strict. If I called my friend on the phone and didn't ask for my friend to come to the phone in the exact way that her mother liked, her mom would hang up on me (and I was always polite on the phone). It really angered me. And my friend was also only allowed to go to the prom if she went with an Asian boy. I managed to set her up with an Asian friend so she could go to the prom. Back then, I really didn't understand the strictness, but now I do. I still don't agree with it, but I understand it a lot more now.

Patty O. said...

I read the article and had a similar response to you. I think she's right that working hard and not giving up is what is going to build self-esteem in our kids. But I didn't really like her approach. I mean, what's so wrong with a kid being in a play? How did she decide which instruments were acceptable and which weren't? And why is sports and physical fitness not important?

I want to teach my kids to work hard and to not give up, but I also want them to pursue the interests they enjoy, not the ones I think they should enjoy.

Brazenlilly said...

Good stuff, TM. Good stuff. It's about finding balance! When we began our parenting journey several years ago, I read an article about giving your child the "gift" of disappointment and even failure. Then coaching them through troubleshooting and figuring out the answer to a problem on their own, and giving them very specific praise about what they had accomplished. It has stuck with me ever since. No blanket "good job" statements, but rather: "I like how you saw that spill and went to get a towel to clean it up. Thank you." I don't want my kid to get to kinder and never have lost a game of Candyland his whole life!

LucisMomma said...

Love this post. This part:

"I also grew up a military brat. And yes, many of my fellow military brats, of many different races and ethnicities, survived similar childhoods... childhoods where love was conditional on achievement, where results mattered above all else, where personal happiness took a back seat to parental bragging rights. "

was me growing up. With my report card, I got, "Hmm. You couldn't do better?" and that was with A's and A+ and an occasional B. Everything tied to how my parents thought others saw *them.* :(

You stated things very well here. :)

Logical Libby said...

Right with ya. There has to be a happy medium.

Also, I kind of feel like she's writing a cook book while the cake is still in the oven. I mean, she has no idea how her girls are actually going to turn out, or the relationship (if any) she will have with them as adults.

The Byrd's Nest said...

I read this article on Mia's facebook. I only agreed with one thing....Western parents let their children watch too much TV...mine included:)

The part that turns my stomach is that should we (they) truly be raising up another generation of children who succeed by being shamed into it. Can you imagine that pressure?

I might step on some toes and you know this is not my personality but I just can't help myself. Shame and guilt were the ultimate reason my little Lottie was abandoned on the side of the road....because she wasn't a boy. Shame and guilt were the reason that my little Emma Jane's first mom in Korea put her up for adoption at 17 months old...because she was a 16 yr. old single mom and shamed into thinking she nor Emma would be accepted. Perfection is overrated!

P.S. I have to praise Emma extra because she has super low self esteem...otherwise I just praise them in a normal way. The way this mom treated her daughter at the piano made my stomach turn. In our family...success isn't based on how talented or smart you are. Being the smartest in your class or the greatest gymnast or piano player doesn't get you a bigger crown in heaven:)

Sharie said...

I heard about this on NPR today, but missed the story, I'll have to go back and read it now.

I too think there has to be a balance. My goals for Amelia are that she be happy in life, with who she is, that she have the confidence to try what ever she wants to, but the understanding that she won't always succeed. Most importantly, I want her to be generous with others and know what it means to be accountable for her own actions.
I parent to achieve these goals - as far as I can tell understanding that she won't always be successful, and learning to be accountable will be the most difficult for her to learn.

Claudia said...

This stuff is really tricky, huh? I read 'nurture shock' last year, and it was REALLY good - very helpful on the issue of overpraise, especially. I'm trying and trying to learn to say 'i'm so glad you kept on trying' more and more, rather than 'clever girl / boy', but I find the second comes much more easily and quickly to my lips.

On a related point - I do wonder how much we adults are really not much different from that student of yours. I think one of the hardest things about mothering is that there is not the opportunity for positive feedback in the same way that there is in many jobs. I find this tough, because I work really hard at it, and I want someone to tell me that I'm doing a good job! I wonder (and you know I'm talking to myself first) how many of us turn to blogging in order to get some of that positive feedback that we're missing. I know I can be guilty of this. I want to connect, but I also want people to tell me that I'm doing it right.

Tricky stuff, right?

Aus said...

Hey TM - I read that article a day or so ago - and remember thinking 'yeah - in a different culture that might just be the norm' - and we (you and us) have been to China - and we CAN see how that might apply there....but this is the US - and a different culture!

Is there a middle ground - absolutely - and all of us try (in our sometimes execllent and sometimes poor) way to find that and raise our children correctly.

In the Aus house there are 'degrees' of success that very from "that'll do" to "nice work" to the coveted "good job"! Each handed out as necessary - and once in a while you get less than a 'that'll do' - because what you did just wasn't good enough! Does it make them crazy - yeah - but it also teaches them - lazy / sloppy / half-hearted effort will be treated that was in the grown up world, learn that 'life lesson' now!

Speaking as a guy with a 'law and order' type background too - the Colonel really had to excercise a lot of self control to parent the way you described him - that merits a Good Job to him - ok? ;)

Oh - and TM - concerning this post - Good Job!

hugs - aus and co.

Cedar said...

I don't know what to say to this. I read a lot of the links and comments and the stories about suicides and depression make me very sad. Yes, yes, it is a balance, and so, so tricky, but while I accept that being able to accomplish something well will build self-esteem/confidence, I don't see how it leads to feeling loved unconditionally. She kept saying her children knew she loved them--how? Did she tell them I am pushing you so hard and calling you names because I love you and I have to prepare you for what you will face in this world and because of love of you I want you to do/be the best. That is the problem "the best"--I want my children to reach their full potential, but at 2, 7, and 10 how do I know exactly what that is? Right now is when they need the freedom to explore, play, try and, as others said earlier, fail KNOWING they are loved unconditionally. So sad for children that don't feel loved.

*Overflowing* said...

Ugghh, I haven't read her article, yet! I truly appreciate you tackling this...you did a fabulous job!!! Blessings!

Anonymous said...

I (white, mainstream Canadian) enjoyed reading Amy Chua's article as it reminded me of all the families of all my Chinese (and others with immigrant parents) friends growing up. Sleepovers? - "Go to another person's house, sleep on the floor and expose yourself to possible sexual assault??" - what a completely bizarre idea this was to my friends' parents.

Surely, if my parents REALLY loved me they would have made me continue onto Grade 10 of Royal Conservatory piano instead of letting me quit after Grade 8 when I was supposed to be practicing 3 hours/day. (My Chinese friend who continued on still plays the piano every day. I do not.) I felt like there was a bit of a tongue in cheek tone to her writing as well.

Are my friends now parenting how they were parented? Not exactly. They are keeping what worked for them and adding in what they've grown to value after growing up in a different culture from that of their parents. Am I going to parent exactly how I was parented? I'll keep some things and probably do other things differently. I think this is pretty typical.

I think this article is a really good example of cultural differences - how very different we can be yet how similar. I think Amy Chua put it very well in the last part of her article, " All decent parents want to do what's best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that."

Abusive situations can occur in all kinds of families, but most parenting practices, when love is the motivation, are not abusive.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you. Also I read an interview with the author, the "Tiger Mom" herself, and sounds like the WSJ article misrepresented her somewhat, made her a little more one-dimensional than she is. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=%2Fg%2Fa%2F2011%2F01%2F13%2Fapop011311.DTL

the meaklims said...

Incredible post TM! AGAIN!

Can I just say this, because I'm feeling a bit embarrassed, I used to say I'd never be that parent, but here I am.

I am ready to change though, this post was great for me. I really really appreciated it.