You may have seen this essay in the Wall Street Journal, the thoughts of a Chinese mother on the benefits of really pushing your children hard at a young age, to an extent that is unthinkable for most Western parents. And she makes a convincing argument at times, it’s true. Now, as much as possible, I try not to criticize the parenting style of other people because God knows it’s not easy raising kids, but I feel I have to say this: as a product of exactly that kind of parenting, I beg you not to raise your children like that.
First, let me prove that I was truly a product of performance/excellence driven parenting: I started playing cello when I was three years old. I played hockey when I was five, starting playing competitive tennis when I was 9, national tournaments by the time I was 11 – I was even ranked 30th in the Western United States as a junior, 2nd in Chicago. I took every single AP course my high school had to offer (except I dropped out of BC Calculus because I was too stpuid), and graduated 4th in my class. I scored 1530 out of 1600 on my SAT. I attended Yale University.
And the way that I achieved such heights of adolescent excellence is because of my mother. She invested immense amounts of time and energy and passion into developing these skills, and I appreciate that. But let me also say that she invested a lot of pain and anger and shouting and beatings into these skills as well, and I didn’t appreciate that at all.
Now, despite this impressive adolescent resume, let me tell you why you should not raise your children in the same way I was raised:
It doesn’t breed excellence in the long term. I kicked butt in everything as a kid. I could thrash people in tennis, and if not in tennis, then in cello. And if not in tennis or cello, then in academics. I stood apart as a young child because of my ability to do so many things that other children simply could not do. And this was true for a long time, maybe up until college.
But what began to happen is that the gap between me and other children began to tighten. Music, sports, academics, kids starting getting better and eventually passing me up in every sphere. Now, I remember myself being a good tennis player who got worse, a good cello player who scarcely knows how to play, a smart young boy who now hates books with a passion. But the excellence that I exhibited as a child did not truly carry over into my adulthood. Now those skills are just parlor tricks that have no real value in my life, nothing more.
And the reason this happened is because when you do something because you are afraid, or because your mother forces you to do it, your ceiling is very low. You will perform excellently not because of joy, but because of fear, and fear can only take you so far. True lifelong excellence is not merely rooted in the development of skills, but in natural ability and love. It is far more effective to spend time identifying what your child naturally excels at, what they love doing, and then, to foster the skills that they need. But forcing your child to play an instrument/sport they don’t have natural facility with is like making someone use their right hand to write when they are left handed. Why not just let them write the way God intended?
How I wish that my mom could have accepted how much I loved to sing and play guitar, and supported me in what I already did better than anyone else. I could have been a contender. And why the heck does every Asian child have to play violin or piano? Ever heard of a trumpet?? What’s up with that.
There are lifelong side effects. Researchers have recently discovered that the adolescent brain sees all negative events as a form of trauma – in their perspective, the events of their lives are as bad as they feel, even if they aren’t. So something may not seem like a big deal, and may not be in the grand scheme, but to a young person, it is. Which is why teen suicide is so common, because everything is traumatic to their fragile and unshielded psyche.
I will be blunt with you: I and my siblings are still, to this day, sifting through the ashes of how we were raised. Yes, we were excellent – my brother was in incredible tennis player, my sister played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I… well, I wasn’t as good as they were in those things, but whatever. But we still are suffering to this day. We see it it in every relationship that we have. I see it in how I raise my own children. We see it in our workplace, and how we interact with people. We are people who are afraid that others will stop loving us if we don’t perform, expect unrealistic things out of our loved ones. The skills we developed as children lasted only a season…but the trauma that we suffered has lasted a lifetime.
I am afraid for Ms. Chua and her children, that she does not know how deep those words and those acts of discipline will affect her children. She hopes that they will accept those actions as symbols of her love and commitment for them, but there is also a good chance that they may hate her guts for it.
Children learn more than we want them to. The centerpiece of Ms. Chua’s article is her story about Lulu learning to play the piano. Lulu did not want to learn this piece, but her mother forced her to, not allowing her to go to the bathroom or have water until she learned it. Lulu finally learned how to play it, and BAM! Instant connection between mother and daughter, they bonded, Lulu learned to play a difficult piece and the value of persistence, everyone wins!
Lulu probably learned not just one, but a few things through that instance. She learned how to play a difficult piano piece and how to play offset rhythms on both hands – important for any musician. But she also learned something about her mother, that Lulu can only connect with her mother if she performs well. Her mother will hug and kiss her when she does the right thing and pleases her. Now, this isn’t the real lesson that Ms. Chua wants to teach her child, but children don’t always learn the lessons that we wish they would – they learn whatever lesson is most obvious. So that day, Lulu learned to play a piano piece, and that her mother loves her conditionally.
To me, it is FAR more important that my children know that I love them unconditionally than for them to learn how to play an instrument they don’t like for a few years, and will never play again. It is far more important for them to know that they can talk to me when they fail and mess up, then for them to taste the fruits of academic excellence. It is far more important for my children to understand grace, the grace that Christ poured out me, that is poured out upon them. Now obviously, my priorities are very based out of my faith, and I have no idea what Ms. Chua’s values are. But no matter what, there are things that children must learn that are more important than the value of persistence and skill-building, because there is so much more to us as human beings. After all, I’m pretty sure the job of parents is to raise humans, not robots.
Now, I don’t think that every child will respond to this type of parenting style in the way that I have. And I can’t say that Ms. Chua raises her children in the exact same way in which I was raised, although it does seem eerily familiar to me. But parents who do this are taking a dire and short-sighted gamble, assuming that her children will one day fully appreciate what she has done for and to them. She is playing not with fire, but something so much more precious and dangerous: with her children’s life.
Out of my own personal experience as a son, and as a father, I do believe there is a better way. There is a better way in which we watch and listen to our children and observe what they love, and then encourage them to do the best they can in the unique ways in which God has created them. There is a way to develop them as children and also protect them as adults. There is a way to develop not only a child’s skills, but a child’s heart and soul at the same time. Yes, I want them to know the value of hard work and persistence, but I want them to know that I love them even when they fail in those important endeavors, in the way that my Father loves me. I hope this a good counter-balance for those of you who felt convinced by this essay.