The American way to self-control

American parents can teach their children self-control without emulating Asian “tiger mothers” or strict French mamans, write Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, authors of  Welcome to Your Child’s Brain in a New York Times commentary.

Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing Up Bébé, “is envious of Parisian parents whose children don’t throw tantrums in public or fight on playground,” they write. “She ascribes this good behavior to stern French methods like forcing children to follow schedules and wait for attention.”

But, non.

Fortunately for American parents, psychologists find that children can learn self-control without externally imposed pressure.

. . . Find something that the child is crazy about but that requires active effort. Whether it’s compiling baseball statistics or making (but not passively watching) YouTube videos, passionate hobbies build mental staying power that can also be used for math homework.

It’s not that easy to teach self-control, responds Daniel Willingham on his new blog.

The authors suggest that “rather than trying to emulate the strict discipline supposedly instilled by child-rearing techniques in other countries, it may be more useful to consider the science of successful parenting in general.”

Uh, actually, the science of successful parenting shows that children who are high in self-control are more likely to come from homes with house rules.

The suggested “American” strategies — find a hobby, encourage imaginative play, teach a second language, promote aerobic exercise — aren’t likely to work, he predicts.

The successful “Tools of the Mind” curriculum uses lots of imaginative play, but . . . it requires a skillful teacher (and a set of ground rules as to how the drama is to be carried out) for the strategy to work.

A hobby might help self control if the child is (as the authors say) passionate about it, and so learn that hard work is necessary for a desired payoff. But again, you’re sort of leaving a lot to chance if you hope that your child will develop a hobby consonant with that, and will actually stick with it. (I’m reminded of the 13-year-old son of a friend, who calmly told his mother “Mom, don’t you get it? Watching TV is my hobby. It’s what I do.

Willingham isn’t arguing for  ”strict parenting,” he writes. The “science of parenting” shows that “parental warmth, and a predictable, organized home environment” are associated with self-control.

Willingham writes here on what teachers can do to increase students’ self-control.

Pressure points

A Pew Research Center poll from 2006 explains why Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is striking a nerve, writes Chad Aldeman on The Quick and the Ed.

Learning by fooling around

Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways To Destroy the Imagination of Your Child is the roar of the lion father, according to a Washington Times review. While “tiger mom” Amy Chua wants structure and parental control, Esolen thinks children need free time for playing, reading, tree climbing and fooling around.

If we want to destroy children’s imagination, we should fill up their time with scheduled activities, tell them what books to read and what instruments to play and, above all, stress that none of this is to be enjoyed for its own sake but merely as steppingstones to eventual admission to Harvard or Brown.

The structure of Mr. Esolen‘s book is 10 chapters titled by mock “how to” lists to deaden your child’s imagination. For example, “Keep your children indoors as much as possible,” “Never leave children to themselves,” “Replace the fairy tale with political cliches and fads,” “Cast aspersions upon the heroic and patriotic” and “Cut all heroes down to size.” He castigates the bland gender-neutralism of modern society (“Level distinctions between man and woman”) and the general elimination of faith from modern society (“Deny the transcendent”).

For some children, free time is used for climbing trees and inventing games. For others, it’s spent sitting on the couch watching TV or playing video games.

To heck with Harvard

Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary, Harvard president and Obama  economic adviser, was pitted against Amy Chua, Yale law professor and self-proclaimed “tiger mother,” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, notes the Wall Street Journal. An Ivy League degree isn’t everything, Summers said.

“Which two freshmen at Harvard have arguably been most transformative of the world in the last 25 years?” he asked. “You can make a reasonable case for Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, neither of whom graduated.” If they had been the product of a Tiger Mom upbringing, he added, their mothers would probably have been none too pleased with their performance.

The A, B and C alums at Harvard in fact could be broadly characterized thus, he said: The A students became academics, B students spent their time trying to get their children into the university as legacies, and the C students—the ones who had made the money—sat on the fund-raising committee.

Of course, thanks to grade inflation, the Ivy League isn’t turning out B or C alums any more. The elite colleges take A or A+ students. The most creative and entrepreneurial may not see the need to complete a degree.

Many cubs, many tigers

In response to Amy Chua’s declaration of Chinese maternal superiority (now partially retracted), author Ayelet Waldman speaks up for Nerf-spined Western mothers:

Here are some of the things that my four children of a Jewish mother were always allowed to do:

• Quit the piano and the violin, especially if their defeatist attitude coincided with a recital, thus saving me from the torture of listening to other people’s precious children soldier through hackneyed pieces of the juvenile repertoire, plink after ever more unbearable plonk.

• Sleep over at their friends’ houses, especially on New Year’s Eve or our anniversary, thus saving us the cost of a babysitter.

• Play on the computer and surf the Internet, so long as they paid for their Neopet Usuki dolls and World of Warcraft abomination cleavers out of their own allowances.

• Participate in any extracurricular activity they wanted, so long as I was never required to drive farther than 10 minutes to get them there, or to sit on a field in a folding chair in anything but the balmiest weather for any longer than 60 minutes.

• Quit said extracurricular activities, especially if their quitting coincided with league finals that might have demanded participation on my part exceeding the requirements stated above.

Waldman admires Chua’s ability to pressure her children without guilt or regret. But her own mildly dyslexic child didn’t learn to read through maternal coercion.

For years I forced her to spell words in the bathtub with foam letters, to do worksheets, to memorize phonemes and take practice tests. My hectoring succeeded only in making her miserable.

Rosie insisted on trying a four-hour-a-day reading program that drilled in letters, sight words and phonics.  It was exhausting.

We begged her to quit. Neither her father nor I could stand the sight of her misery, her despair, the pain, psychic and physical, she seemed far too young to bear. But every day she refused.

. . . At the end of a grim and brutal month, Rosie learned to read.

She came out of the ordeal with confidence in her strength and tenacity.  Her parents were “stunned with pride.” It was Rosie’s victory, not theirs.

Roaring like a tiger works for some children, but others need a different sort of tiger mom, Waldman writes.

There’s an inherent flaw in the insanely perfect parenting styles of the educated classes: You drive yourself crazy or you drive your kids crazy. Or both. It’s not worth it.

Update: In a letter to the New York Post, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, the elder cub, writes about growing up with a tiger mom.

Everybody’s talking about the birthday cards we once made for you, which you rejected because they weren’t good enough. Funny how some people are convinced that Lulu and I are scarred for life. Maybe if I had poured my heart into it, I would have been upset. But let’s face it: The card was feeble, and I was busted. It took me 30 seconds; I didn’t even sharpen the pencil. That’s why, when you rejected it, I didn’t feel you were rejecting me. If I actually tried my best at something, you’d never throw it back in my face.

For Sophia, living life to the fullest is “about knowing that you’ve pushed yourself, body and mind, to the limits of your own potential,” she writes. Her mother taught her to go all out.

‘Tiger mother’ retreats

Chinese mothers aren’t really superior, says Amy Chua, complaining her Wall Street Journal piece, as edited and headlined, didn’t reflect her real views. (She took herself out of context!)

High expectations must be “coupled with love, understanding and parental involvement,” Chua writes in a response to readers.

This is the gift my parents gave me, and what I hope I’m giving my daughters. I’ve also taught law students of all backgrounds for 17 years, and I’ve met countless students raised the “tough immigrant” way (by parents from Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Korea, Jamaica, Haiti, Iran, Ireland, etc.) who are thriving, independent, bold, creative, hilarious and, at least to my eyes, as happy as anyone. But I also know of people raised with “tough love” who are not happy and who resent their parents. There is no easy formula for parenting, no right approach.

In Mother, superior? in the San Francisco Chronicle, Jeff Yang agrees that Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is a “riveting read” written in a “slightly rueful, frequently self-deprecating” tone.

“The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book,” Chua told Yang.  “But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.”

“Tiger mother” is not a term used by young Asian-Americans, Yang adds.

. . .  for many Asian Americans, the path to adulthood is a sustained, multi-decade-long three-legged race, in which mom drags offspring through a furious gauntlet of piano lessons and college prep, violin lessons and more college prep, disappointment and anger and blowups and reconciliation and then more college prep.

We survivors commonly call this the “Crazy Asian Mom” phenomenon.

Always lovingly, of course. And never to her face.

He links to Erick Liang’s YouTube video, titled “Crazy Asian Mother,” which explains what happens when a Chinese-American student gets a B+ in English.

Beware of the ‘tiger mother’

In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua argues that traditional Chinese mothers are better at raising children who excel than Westernized mothers, who are softies.  In the Wall Street Journal, Chua, a Yale law professor, brags:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

Chua rejected her daughters’ handmade birthday cards because they weren’t good enough. Her description of how she forced her younger daughter to keep practicing a difficult piano piece with no water or bathroom breaks sounds like child abuse by American standards.

Chua, the daughter of immigrants, claims her version of Chinese parenting stems from faith in her children’s abilities. There’s no need to fear failure because success is just a matter of working harder.

The Journal links to reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle, EW and Washington Post.  All the reviewers seem to be fascinated and appalled by Chua’s parenting.