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Not a tiger

July 21, 2011

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Note to readers: I was travelling when I learned of the passing of fellow columnist Steve Mount. I will miss Steve’s insightful writing. More importantly, I will miss his unfailing friendliness and hard work to enhance the educational experience of Williston’s school children.

Amy Chua’s book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011)”, reminds me how varied, interesting and — in some cases — extreme parenting styles can be. Chua, a first generation Chinese-American and Yale law professor, imposes ultra-high achievement expectations on her daughters. She’s raising them in what she calls, “the Chinese way.” Although, I imagine, some Chinese might disagree.

Chua’s teenage daughter’s, Luisa and Sophia, are high-achievers. Their mother meticulously engineers their educational, extracurricular and social involvements, arriving at a sort of manufactured prodigiousness. Activities are weighed, judged and meticulously calibrated, to maximize college acceptance potential.

Chua details in her book how Luisa and Sophia are prohibited from engaging in play dates, sleepovers, school plays and computer games. They are not allowed to bring home a grade less than an A. They may play only pre-approved instruments — piano or violin. They must practice three hours a day.  They must practice while on family vacations.

This Doctrine of Chua leaves me with a feeling of unease. Parents imposing a pre-scripted life path leave little room for children to make mistakes and learn from them. They deny them the opportunity to seek and find their true passions. I worry about the emotional anguish kids experience when parents establish unreasonably high expectations. I suspect emotional intelligence and social skills are compromised when young people are burdened with bone-crushing “academic” requirements. Thinking “for” our children, choreographing their every step, denies them the opportunity to develop skills to think for themselves.

When I was in high school, I was friendly with both the Valedictorian and the Salutatorian of my graduating class. Suzanne, the Valedictorian, studied hard, participated in music and cheerleading activities, and had many friends. Julie, the Salutatorian, studied all the time (even through lunch). She limited her activities to make room for one thing: studying. Which of the two was actually “smarter?” I think it was Suzanne; she used her time more wisely.

Applying oneself academically is important. Earning straight A’s is not necessarily a ticket to success. Intellectual curiosity and a willingness to learn for the sake of learning, I believe, lead us to finding our passions. Pursuing that which we love, and earning a living while doing it, seems a recipe for success…and happiness.

Luisa and Sophia should be commended for their achievements. That said, I wonder what price they pay — emotional and otherwise — for their mother’s micromanagement of their lives. Chua hovers, in true helicopter parenting fashion, directing her daughters’ movements.

Where do autonomy, thinking on one’s feet and defining one’s path fall into this equation? How can young people learn to think for themselves when all the thinking is done for them? How can they learn from mistakes if “less than perfect” is not an option? What of desperation among youths pushed to the brink by expectations that squeeze out activities and experiences that may bring true joy?

While I may not agree with Chua’s parenting style, I acknowledge her right to do so. I think modeling self-actualization — living life with passion, setting and working towards our own personal goals — sends the most powerful message of empowerment to our children. Forcing them to play an instrument or load up on AP courses does not.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]

 

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