Please Don’t Raise Your Kids Like This

January 10, 2011  20 Comments

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.

Beg you.

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!

Not quite.

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.



Husband and Father of 4. Pastor of Peace Fellowship Church in Washington D.C. Aspiring Writer, Former Musician

20 responses to Please Don’t Raise Your Kids Like This

  1. i will file this away for myself if/when i become a parent.

    and just saying – i totally imagined the scene from “on the waterfront” and heard marlon brando’s voice. and i believe you *are* a contender.

  2. First time I came across your blog, but thanks for posting the article. The Wall Street article scares the bejesus out of me. I know there is a middle ground between discipline-averse comfort building, and militant perfectionism, but that article pretty much bulldozed past any of that subtlety.

    Wow, still have cold-shivers from reading that. Very scary.

    • yeah…while reading that article, i got flashbacks from my childhood and started rocking back and forth while holding my knees. not really, but almost.

  3. Very nice post. Makes me remember I was the George W. Bush to your Richard Broadhead while we were at school. In lab, I remarked how amazing you were at various things, and you said to me without any pause, “but my personality sucks.” I was surprised by the comment and left it at that. If only your mom met my dad who realized their kids can get to Yale as long as they come from Arkansas, and there’s are national quotas to be met. Anyhow, I should have said what I was thinking back then – ‘but you’re personality doesn’t suck!’

  4. I think this is a terrific response the the WSJ article. While I was not raised that way, I can surely relate to some points of it but I have also vowed never to raise my children that way.

    The WSJ article has gone viral with numerous shares on facebook and email. I think it’s only a matter of time before your article makes it back to the WSJ. (I think it should and hopes that Ms. Chua reads it and reflects upon her own essay).

    • you know, i hope she does too, but not in a self-serving way. i just don’t want her kids to feel the way that i feel about my mom sometimes, because everyone loses then.

  5. The quoted reply from Amy Chua in the top comment here suggests she may actually have a different position:

  6. i should say that the picture from this article was taken directly from the Wall Street Journal, and used quite without permission. sorry wsj…

  7. It’s our job as parents to help our children discover their own passions and then once they find them we need to inspire them to do their very best so that they can then get the most out of them. Parents then evolve from being ‘guidance counselors’ to becoming ‘cheerleaders’. It shouldn’t matter what others do or think. This should be the ideal goal for all parents.

    • i agree – of course there will be moments when parents have to push their children, and that’s often forgotten. but observing, watching, and discerning our children’s skills and joys has to be step 1, and should make those “pushy” moments more rare.

  8. Great, great essay. I might assign this to undergraduates in my US Immigration History class about the immigration experience. It is also interesting to note that Amy Chua actually has a down syndrome sister who has been handicapped and living with her parents all her life. I bet her parents never put the same pressures on her sister. However, to me this handicap evidences the fact that there is a vast spectrum of learning abilities and giftedness, and not everyone is naturally good at the same things. Nor should they be!!

    • hm, i’m sure that her own childhood holds insight into how she raises her children. i’m just not sure that she realizes that we have the choice to improve upon the way we were raised, rather than simply imitating it. and you’re right, there is a huge spectrum of what makes children special, something that many asian aren’t fully aware of. i alluded to this when i was talking about every asian kid playing violin or piano – i mean, are those the only two instruments known to man or something??

  9. This review was awesome. totally agree

  10. Peter, good to connect on FB. This is truly an excellent post on so many levels, so much wisdom in this post. This particular sentence is worth its weight in gold:

    ” 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.”

    I think, however, that though the skills themselves may not have much value now the process of gaining those skills still have value – including practice, the ability to know that if you really work at something you can improve, and the like. I want to commend you again, excellent post brother. I’ll refer others to this post as well.

    • hey joe, been a looooong time! i’ve considered that idea often throughout my life, that perhaps i understand hard work and progress more than the average person. and maybe if i were a more flexible and open-minded person, i probably would. but personally, i don’t think i do. i have friends who learned the value of hard work without the trauma, and actually thrived as a result of it, are harder working than myself by far. if anything, the difficulty of how i was raised poisons the very notion of hard work. i am officially allergic to hard work as a result.

      ultimately, i think the way that children interpret their upbringing is so unique to that individual child, their personality, their context, stuff like that. but that should be a warning to be more careful as we mold our children, rather than the opposite.

  11. I just re-entered the blogosphere and have enjoyed reading several of your posts. I can remember very clearly Ms. Chua’s meteoric appearance and then disappearance from the media spotlight, partly because it reminded me of a wonderful Chinese woman I dated in college more than 30 years ago.

    Several times while we were studying or having dinner at her apartment, the phone would ring and she would answer in the next room. The switch to Mandarin (or was it Cantonese? . . as if I would know the difference) was the signal it was a call from home. Actually she didn’t say much; they sounded like one-sided conversations most of the time.

    A few minutes later she would return to the room somber, usually appearing slightly shaken and occasionally brushing back tears. She was in a competitive field (pre-med at Johns Hopkins) but she was a very disciplined student, so I struggled to understand how she could be letting anyone down. And those moments always bothered me, but out of respect for her and her family and obviously feeling like I was unqualified to pass judgment on a world much different than I knew, I kept my thoughts to myself.

    So I appreciate the window into this world that you’ve provided and the way you’ve steered a different course for your family. It’s harder than it looks to Americans who are so steeped in individualism and ‘doing your own thing.’

    Just one other thing. You should have learned how to play the piano, violin and trumpet SIMULTANEOUSLY. This would have (1) pleased everyone in your family; (2) one-upped all your peers; and (3) had you been recorded, been good for a few thousand hits on YouTube.

    • thanks for this dave – there are times where i too hesitate to pass judgment on this way of child-rearing, despite my personal experience. it is uncanny as to what levels of excellence children can achieve when they’re pushed to this extent. but despite the allure of having incredibly talented children, i have come to realize that so many of my peers who were raised in the same context also suffer from the same debilitating problems in adulthood: anger, poor memories of childhood and their parents, etc. and i don’t want my kids to grow up that way…

      i would have played piano, violin & trumpet simultaneously, had youtube existed when i was a kid!

Leave a Reply