Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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“Why Chinese mothers are superior” sounds like a lot of sports parents

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Burning up the mommy blogs and parenting sites is a Wall Street Journal piece by Amy Chua called “Why Chinese mothers are superior.” I had to admit they were, at least by the description she gives, because the night before I read the piece my 11-year-old daughter had a sleepover.

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.

I think you could sub “baseball” or “volleyball” for “piano” and “violin,” and make whatever substitutions are necessary to turn a Chinese mother into a sports parent — or any parent so obsessive about their child’s success that they are strict beyond belief, lest anything take anyone’s eyes off the prize.

I think you can also find justification given by the intense sport parent in this passage from Chua’s piece:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

On some level, she probably is right. A child usually is not going to play piano for hours a day, or hit the batting cage for hours a day, or do whatever for hours a day that does not involve some level of enjoyment — unless they’ve done it for so long, and they’ve gotten so good at it, that they respond to the praise they’re getting for doing it so well.

Alas, being the “Chinese mother” is a tricky strategy. For every Ichiro Suzuki that seems to respond well and thrive to the parental-obsessive treatment, there is an Andre Agassi who does well but resents his father, or a Todd Marinovich who advances to the highest level and falls apart, or skads of others kids we never hear of who just burn out. And I’m not talking just sports. Unfortunately, as a parent, we never know whether we’ve pushed too hard or not enough until it’s too late to undo the damage — and the guilt you might feel as a result.

Chua details a confrontation she had with her 7-year-old daughter over trouble she had playing a certain piece on a piano, a fight that escalated into screaming fits (by the daughter) and threats of eternal punishment and withholding water until she learned to play the piece (by the mother). At one point, when Chua’s husband (who is not Chinese) tries to step in, she responds:

“Oh no, not this,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Everyone is special in their special own way,” I mimicked sarcastically. “Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don’t worry, you don’t have to lift a finger. I’m willing to put in as long as it takes, and I’m happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games.”

I’m amazed he can take them to Yankees games. He must sneak them out.

Anyway, the 7-year-old learns to play the piece, she’s joyful she can, she loves her mother, dumb-ass dad admits she’s right, and all is well.

There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids’ true interests. For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. 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.

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

Unlike many who have commented on Chua’s piece, the fault I find is not in her individual parenting methods. They’re her kids, and that’s her business. I don’t doubt that she loves her kids and wants the best for them — and I don’t doubt that either from sports parents who also might seem overbearing on first, second, third and fourth looks.

But I do find fault with this either-or at the end of her piece. To me, good parenting combines the best of both the “Western” and “Chinese” scenarios she lays out. You can encourage your kids to pursue their passions while also reminding them that many others are pursuing the same passion, and showing them what they have to do to make their passion into a viable future, thus providing a nuturing environment AND giving them work habits and inner confidence no one can ever take away.

Now, I need to step away to have my kids turn off their video games and go to bed.

Written by rkcookjr

January 9, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Amid downturn, a rally to save youth sports

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Self-promotion alert! A piece I wrote for’s “The Elkhart Project” about youth sports and the recession is up (with the headline I nicked).

We’re at an interesting point in youth sports. On the one hand, any program, particularly one affiliated with a school, that draws from a truly downtrodden area, particularly an urban area, is dying on the vine. Meanwhile, as I mentioned in the story, cities across the country are blowing out their budgets to build new youth sports facilities not only for their own local pleasure, but as an economic engine because of all the tournaments it could hold, and the money they bring in from parents who are spending more and more to get their kids into bigger and bigger leagues.

This video on the Abilene News-Reporter site has Jon Smith, director of the Abilene Youth Sports Authority, this week explaining why taxpayers should love to kick in to build a $40 million facility in the central Texas city of 120,000. Last year, the people of Abilene told the youth sports authority to stay out of their wallets. Geez, people, the Authority itself was founded, in its own words, “on Christian principles” — how much more of a sign from God do you need?

Anyway, it’s not surprising that those who have the money to spend, spend it, and those who can’t, don’t. What’s interesting is cases like Elkhart, Ind., where the unemployment rate went from 5 percent to 18 percent in about six months (Elkhart is more reliant on manufacturing jobs, as a percentage of employment, than any metro area in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — something like 40 percent). I understand why the parents want to keep their kids in activities, despite the economy. As they say in the article, it’s fun, it’s relatively inexpensive (as entertainment and socializing for the adults, too), it gets kids up and moving around, and, hey, it’s not the kids’ fault the RV plants shut down.

However, one thing I began to suspect after I wrote the article, and especially in wondering how long people in Elkhart can keep up youth sports spending (in the most devastated parts of the city, they aren’t), is the importance of youth sports in staying middle class. After all, if you’re in between jobs, you can suck it up, sign up your kids and maintain your social standing. If you’re having to pull your kids out of stuff, that’s not only disappointing to your children, but it’s also a signal to your family and the world that something has fundamentally changed. You’re not a middle-class person who happened to run into a rut. You’re a poor person.

This is amateur sociology on my part. I didn’t ask the people of Elkhart if that’s how they felt. I’m not sure how many have given it that much thought, and I’m not a budding Marxist trying to show how capitalism crushes the workers’ spirits. But as a parent, I know that if  I had to start saying no to my kids about signing up for their favorite activities, it would be a profound change in mindset about who we are and where we stand as a family.

By the way, when you talk to the people in Elkhart, you can’t help but root for them. Not to say that people in other areas hard-hit by the recession aren’t worthy of support. But in Elkhart I found people who carried a real and genuinely positive attitude that somehow, things were going to get better, and they were going to make things better the best they could. I hope they succeed.