Posted by: kathyseal | January 15, 2011

Tiger Mother: Extremism in Pursuit of Excellence is a Vice

The well-written and witty memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (interesting title for marketing a book in these days of war and political violence) is a mixed bag. Chua thinks parents should hold high expectations and encourage kids to work hard and achieve competence. Yes, hurray for that! But the flash point of the book is her methods. They include emotional blackmail and frankly — if what she writes is true, and not writerly exaggeration –abuse. She threatens to take away her daughter’s toys, holiday presents, and even dinner if she doesn’t practice her instrument. She calls her daughter garbage. That’s demeaning and cruel. Chua’s basically telling her kids she’ll love them if they achieve, and not love them when they disobey.

Perhaps some kids are super-resilient and can ignore abuse and be grateful for high involvement like Chua’s and the skills they gain. But 99 out of 100 kids are going to rebel, quit their instrument or sport, and resent if not hate their mother.

And here’s another problem with this book: parents who want their kids to reach their full potential may panic as I did at first when reading about the alleged glorious results of Chua’s harsh coercion. “OMG, maybe I should have forced Zach to play piano!" I thought. "Why didn’t I make Jeff take up the saxophone?" But my kids’ interests — and ultimately their excellence – lay elsewhere. In other words, the book will likely rouse your anxiety, at least momentarily. With all the pressures parents face today, do we really need that provocation? I think not.

So, if you read this book, look at the end first, where Chua admits her methods were a bust.

A word about the cultural angle: Chua’s extreme methods are not typical of Asian-American parents. The memoir plays into the negative stereotype of Chinese mothers as cold enforcers. Not only does this stereotype falsely criticize an ethnic group, but what does it say about the academic preeminence of many Asian-American kids in American schools today? These kids are doing well because they work hard and because their culture and families place a very high value on education. Their parents nurture and support their learning and impose reasonable, helpful rules. Those are lessons to draw, not that kids who aren’t succeeding need Tiger Ladies for mothers.

Maybe you like to read horror stories, but if not, better to check out some of the books about how to fan the flames of a child’s interests while laying down reasonable rules and structures. Maybe they’re less sensational and provocative but at least you’ll benefit from research results that you can actually use to have a high-achieving kid while preserving a great relationship with him.

Have you ever had to fight the urge to do your child’s homework or complete a project for him? At the recent Learning & the Brain Conference in Cambridge, Mass., Wendy talked about the natural human urge to shield our young from emotional, social, and psychological pain. When parents face certain pressures, however, that normal reaction can make us want to control our children. Well, why not give in to this impulse and push our kids to be successful? Read the interesting answer to that question at this just- published report from the conference.

Posted by: kathyseal | November 16, 2009

What Can Parents Learn from Andre Agassi?

Andre Agassi hated tennis? That’s the surprise in his new autobiography Open, but the surprise evaporates when you read why: Agassi didn’t choose to play tennis. He felt forced to play. His immigrant dad wanted his son to live the American dream, to have the life choices he’d not had himself, but ironically thought he had to remove his own son’s choices as a youngster. It wasn’t until Andre dropped in the rankings, and chose to keep playing that he began to appreciate the game.

That should slam the lid on any parent’s nagging question about pushing a kid harder in sports “for his own good.” Indeed, Agassi’s story illustrates what psychological research has found: that you enjoy an activity only when you’re pursuing it autonomously — because you want to not because you have to. And it provides a rich lesson on how adults with the very best intentions can get hooked into the competition their children face, producing fractured relationships rather than the joy they envision.

Wanting the best for his son, Agassi’s father tyrannized him not only by making him hit thousands of tennis balls daily, but also by acting coolly when his son had a bad practice day or lost a match. That night, as Agassi said on the Today show, the atmosphere would be icy at the dinner table. And when Agassi got a trophy for sportsmanship rather than for winning, his father smashed it to pieces. Nothing shows better the harm of controlling a child through conditional love — bestowing or withdrawing warmth based on a child’s performance. That produces the exact opposite of the parent’s goal, as it did in the Agassi family. Andre confesses that he hoped he’d get injured, so he could quit tennis.

The focus on competition tortured the father as well, as he agonized watching his son compete and when scouting younger players coming up who might threaten his son’s standing. And, Agassi says, his father hated how much tennis alienated him and his son from each other.

The most successful and happiest athletes aren’t pushed by adults, but push themselves because of their passion for the sport. Here’s how Olympic gold medalist swimmer Summer Sanders puts it: she wants ambitious parents to understand that the only thing that will take a young athlete “to the furthest edge of her potential is the sheer pleasure she takes in exercising her God-given ability.”

That’s not to say that parents and coaches can’t have a tremendously positive effect on young athletes. In fact their support is crucial: studies have shown that the more parents encourage and support their children, the longer they keep playing a sport.

The critical caveat is to follow children’s lead, guiding them without pushing or controlling. That means, notably, adopting their goals, which surveys have found are usually having fun, being with their friends, and building their skills. Winning is not high on most kids’ list, despite adults’ tendency to focus on it. But kids who have a passion for a sport along with their parents’ support are those who both excel and are happy.

Today Agassi’s great passion is a charter school he began for kids from a poor neighborhood in Las Vegas. Its educational philosophy recognizes the import of adults supporting kids while letting them choose their own aims. Andre Agassi College Preparatory School provides kids an “array of choices and opportunities” while giving them the resources and support they need to reach their own goals. As Agassi puts it, “These children are going on to lives of their choosing.”

Posted by: kathyseal | May 29, 2009

Giving your Kids Empathy

Yesterday while talking to parents at Echo Horizon school in Culver City, Ca. about Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids, I mentioned that I’d found giving my kids empathy difficult — even though I know empathy helps you take a child’s point of view, which strengthens her feelings of autonomy. I guess if your parents were often empathic to you (mine weren’t, for reasons I cite below) it’s easier to find those words. And certainly when your child succeeds or is happy, it’s not hard to say “That’s wonderful!” or flash a big smile.

But when my kids failed, or another kid hurt or bullied them, the emotional turmoil that provoked in me made it hard to empathize. I felt so awful, I wanted to banish their hurt immediately or dismiss their mistake. (“Don’t cry!” “Don’t worry, it doesn’t really matter.”) Sometimes I worried that I’d caused the problem – I should have made him study more! I should help him more with social skills! How can you empathize when you’re undergoing such a maelstrom of emotion? We parents aren’t detached observers.

I think the solution to this difficulty with expressing empathy is the same one you give people who ask how they can get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice! Acknowledge your own tumult of feeling, but then, if you manage to say once or twice “I understand” or “You must feel sad,” it’ll be easier the third time. Notice how your empathic words soothed your child and that memory will make it even easier to empathize the third time around.

Posted by: kathyseal | February 25, 2009

The Mind-Body Connection and School

There’s a report today in the New York Times about growing interest in adjustable desks for school children. These desks that allow kids to stand up and move their bodies as they study seems like a very good idea. Coming on the heels of studies showing that kids who have recess fare better in school than kids who don’t, this trend signals growing awareness of how strongly kids’ physiology can influence their learning.
MRIs and other new technology are increasingly laying bare the physical basis of the human intellect, giving neuroscientists exciting new insights into brain physiology. So paying attention to the effect that children’s entire bodies — not just the brain — have on their ability to learn also seems like a good idea.
Psychotherapists have long known that kids are more likely to share their thoughts and feelings while they’re playing. One psychologist I know likes to talk to boys while tossing a football. Parents too often realize that it’s easier to talk to kids while you’re doing something together. If being in motion helps kids loosen up and talk, it might well follow that a desk allowing them to move their bodies a bit will help them think and learn.

Posted by: kathyseal | February 23, 2009

Kudos to a Reporter!

Here’s the URL for an excellent article on Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids. It’s angled around an announcement of Wendy’s next talk on our book, but the amazing feature of this article is that it seems like the reporter read our book!

Now, I know that you probably look to our blog because you’re interested in thoughtful discussions of parenting, or because you’re looking for the latest research that can help parents. You’re probably not intrigued by the mere fact that reporter Pat Cahill both read and understands our book! But I’m so excited to see that a journalist “gets” exactly what we’re saying, and couldn’t help sharing that with you.


Posted by: kathyseal | December 13, 2008

Forcing Our Kids to Do What’s Good for Them

After I spoke to a PTA group recently about Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids, a dad approached me. “You say to support kids’ autonomy and not pressure them, but when I was a kid my parents took me to the theater twice a year — even when I said ‘Hey, I wanna stay home and play football.’

“They’d say, ‘No, we’re going to A Chorus Line.’ Sometimes I didn’t want to go. But it was never an option, you just went.

“My parents did a good thing – I make my living now writing for the theater! So now I make my kids go with me to plays.”

Parents bring up this issue often: why not “make” kids do activities that are good for them? Why not “make” them take piano lessons? It’s good for them! Why not “make” them keep it up – shouldn’t we teach them persistence? And what about reading for pleasure – shouldn’t we insist on it?

Often the mom or dad says, “My parents made me keep taking music lessons and now I’m glad they did that!”

I think that some activities quite rightly are part of a family structure or culture. Here’s an example: when my children were growing up, we never ate breakfast together. (I’m grumpy in the morning!) And my kids didn’t seem to mind getting their own cereal or toast or orange juice. On the other hand, we always ate dinner together.

This eating or not eating together was just “the way we were.” It was part of our family culture. Dinner together every night was our unspoken tradition, as it was in the family I grew up in.

In that same way, many families embed activities in their daily life — going to church, temple or mosque, visiting the seashore or mountains or seeing grandparents every summer; going on family outings to museums or concerts or ballgames. Music, theater, sports, religious life, community service – all are often woven into the family culture.

Nurturing our kids’ autonomy doesn’t mean that we do only what they ask to do. At the same time as we pay a lot of attention to their interests, every family also has its own structure and culture. We have habits. For example, many young immigrants regularly send money back to their families in their home countries. They do it as a matter of course, because it’s part of their family culture. If you ask why they do it, they’ll say, “That’s what we do.”

Unless a child is objecting strenuously, or you can see or sense she’s unhappy, it’s not violating her autonomy to have a family cultural habit. And so, if your child isn’t reading for pleasure by himself, you might want to make reading part of the family culture.

Quite often if your child is unhappy with piano or tennis and wants to quit, and you let him do so, after a while he’ll miss the activity and ask if he can return to it.

One mom told me that she declared a family reading night once a week, where everyone sits in the living room reading together. Her kids laughed, but they went along with her. When my sons were young we always read when we traveled, and they still bring books whenever they go on a train or a plane.

So it’s a good idea to take your child regularly to activities that you enjoy or consider important. Just keep in mind that these family activities shouldn’t feel controlling to the child.

But that wasn’t the case with the dad who approached me after the PTA meeting. His parents loved music and the theater, and they usually went on these outings with another family. “We’d always buy the 8-track and listen to the music on the way home,” he remembers. “And I always ended up enjoying it.”

Forcing kids almost always backfires, but bringing them along to share your interests and enthusiasm, making healthy activities part of your family culture is a way to encourage them to internalize your values. And that’s a good thing for kids.

Posted by: kathyseal | December 2, 2008

Passion to Play Outranks ‘Sports Gene’

What will they think of next? When it comes to extracting money from worried parents, there’s no shortage of business models. Now the so-called “sports gene” test for only $149 is finding a market for one reason only:  because we parents are under so much pressure these days to make sure our kids succeed. That’s because kids are facing competition everywhere they turn — in school, in sports, in music, you name it.  One girl I know even had to compete to get into her school’s community service program!

All this hyper-competition makes us parents feel like our kids must be “the best” if they’re going to survive in a dog-eat-dog world. Our evolutionary hardwiring — which arose when it was essential for parents to push their kids to compete for food and to stay away from predators — reacts to the competition in our children’s world by turning on our “fight or flight” anxiety.  It makes us feel that we have to do whatever we can to help our kids compete and win.

Enter the entrepreneurs willing to “help” us do that! Enter our criticism of parents for taking that bait.  And yet.  Let’s tease out exactly why we criticize them. Because isn’t it perfectly understandable that we want our kids to achieve?  Sure.  But the problem is that  schemes  like genetic testing put pressure on the kids to excel.  And such pressure backfires.  What makes children excel in sports is their love of the game — which comes from the fun of playing, the feelings of camaraderie, the pride from acquiring new skills.  Their passion motivates them to practice and eventually excel.  But pressure from without — from anyone, for example,  expecting them to live up to the ‘promise’ of a so-called ‘sports gene’ — is a good way to kill that passion.

Posted by: kathyseal | November 30, 2008

College Applications Driving Kids – and Parents – Crazy

The glossy pamphlets flood in: “Live, study, and work in both sleek high-rise towers and turn-of-the-century brownstones,” reads the gorgeously thick Boston University brochure. “Win a Hummer. All you have to do is attend an SJSU football game” trumpets San Jose State University’s.

As kids fill out their college applications amidst the shrinking of parents’ college savings and the drying up of student loans, colleges continue brand-name campaigns set in motion well before the economic crisis.

The slick brochures stuffing mailboxes reflect schools’ desire to plump up demand, raising their rankings with US News & World Report and other magazines. The schools aim to boost their “selectivity,” a ranking factor based on the percentage of applicants denied admission. That’s why colleges push their brand names, luring students to apply — so the school can reject large numbers.

“All colleges say they are highly selective and then encourage us all to apply,” one high school student told a focus group convened by the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group working to overhaul admissions procedures. “They are just playing a game for themselves.”

Wall Street also drives this ratings pressure, since both selectivity and “yield” — the percentage of kids admitted who attend — help determine a university’s bond rating. To be sure, capital projects will now go on hold. But fear of dropping enrollments will redouble schools reliance on consultants’ advice to market themselves like commodities.

This commercialization perpetuates the cachet of a small number of schools, helping to perpetrate the unfortunate myth that a child who attends a prestigious school is “set for life.” And that a family sporting an Ivy League window decal has won the Nobel Prize for Parenting.

This marketing of higher education institutions also sets kids up for the erroneous idea that admission to one of these schools reflects on their value as a human being. (“I have never wanted anything in my life as badly as I wanted to get into that college,” lamented a student in another Education Conservancy focus group.)

As if that weren’t enough, students are subject to angst-provoking mixed messages.

Colleges want you to take the most rigorous courses you can, but some schools don’t weigh the grades for these harder courses when computing GPAs.

That led my friend’s daughter to ask while touring a college, “Which is better – to get a B in a hard course or an A in an easier one?”

“They told me to get an A in the hard one!” she says.

That conundrum will figure even larger now as more kids apply to the less expensive state schools, which often don’t weight the GPAs or weight them differently from the private schools and each other.

Of course none of this calculation will matter if your “place” still goes to someone whose family can add millions to the school’s endowment.

All this competition, confusion and sleight-of-hand pressures parents too. You don’t want your child to spend hours memorizing otherwise useless test-taking strategies, and may not have the money for it anyway. But well-intentioned, moral parents wonder if their kids shouldn’t game the system lest the system game them.

Why not turn a blind eye as Travis portrays his one-time at a beach cleanup into deep commitment to slow global warming?

Why not advise Danielle to leave blank the “applying for financial aid” box to boost her chances of admission – so she can change her mind and apply for aid later?

You have to admire the guts of the parents of a student recently interviewed by Kenyon College Admissions dean Jennifer Delahunty Britz. The high school senior had quit varsity soccer so she could join the school’s Constitution Team. Its study and debate sessions might show her if, as she suspected, the law was for her.

“She had no question in her mind,” says Britz.  “That’s what interested her.”

Her parents didn’t say, “You can’t quit soccer. That will look bad on your college application.”

Fortunately, a positive counter-trend to college admission craziness is gathering strength. The National Association for College Admission Counseling has recommended relying less on the SAT and more on tests reflecting what students have learned in high school. More and more schools are evaluating kids holistically, relying on classroom performance, teacher recommendations, and student essays. The National Survey of Student Engagement rates colleges and universities based on undergraduate educational experiences. And the Education Conservancy is working on a website that will further subvert the rankings game by matching students’ interests, preferences and goals with specific colleges.

Such initiatives provide a glimmer of hope that we are moving toward a college application process that privileges hard work and the desire to learn, diluting the nail- biting competition that is distorting our kids’ educational experience. By stripping away commercialization, it could remove the angst that derives from equating “demand” for a school with its educational value. And parents could heave a sigh of relief as they unequivocally promote honesty and authenticity in their children.

Posted by: kathyseal | November 21, 2008


Activities keep kids healthy and happy

Activities keep kids healthy and happy

Why do we love to criticize other parents for overscheduling their kids?

Maybe it’s a way to justify the choices that you’ve made. “You’ve decided this isn’t your lifestyle,” says sociologist Sandra Hofferth, “and rejected those of other people.”

There’s probably more criticism of overscheduling in America today than there are harried kids:  according to Hofferth’s research, overscheduling is a myth.

The University of Maryland sociologist and her colleagues studied 331 nine- to  12-year-olds and found that highly-scheduled kids – with three or more activities, or four hours of activities, over two days – were not stressed-out. Nor did they have poor self-esteem.

The 331 were picked from a national data base of 3600 children to form a nationally representative sample. About a quarter of the kids were highly scheduled, 58% had a few activities, and 17% had none.

The kids we should really worry about, found the study, are those with no activities. That 17% of kids tended to have low self-esteem and were most likely to be “depressed, anxious, alienated, and fearful,” says Hofferth.

The more highly-educated their mothers and the higher family income, the busier children tended to be. But even kids from low-income families had access to free or low-cost activities in school, religious institutions, or the community.

Hofferth’s team also interviewed a smaller group of kids at length to make sure they hadn’t missed anything. Those children with lots of activities were “perfectly happy,” they found. A few complained they got tired. And some had complained they didn’t want to go to an activity, so the parents had cut back, often from two sports to one. Many of the parents had taken steps to limit their own stress, like cutting their work back to part –time, forgoing promotions, or getting help from friends and family.

Kids do get stressed out, however, when parents pressure them to achieve, or don’t seem to care about what they do, found Columbia University psychologist Suniya Luthar. Extracurricular activities didn’t bother a group of suburban eighth graders she studied, but damage does occur , she writes, “when children feel that their failures render them unworthy in their parents’ eyes or when they believe that their parents” don’t care about their activities. In other words, activities don’t stress kids out, but parental criticism or lack of involvement does.

And what about time to play, dream, create ….relax? Do our kids lack free time? Are they over-dependent robots who can’t invent their own games? That may be, but activities aren’t the culprit. When you subtract time for school, sleep and personal care, American nine-to 12-year-olds average 49 hours week of leisure time. So even if they’re spending as much as 20 hours in activities, which not many do, that still leaves 29 hours. Of course, many kids spend a lot of that watching TV.

Hofferth’s study follows another by Yale University psychologist Joseph L. Mahoney who after reviewing many studies – including a survey of almost 3000 five- to eighteen- year-old American children — found that the more kids participate in activities, the better their well-being. Even the tiny percentage of kids who are busy 20 hours a week are psychologically healthier than those who don’t have activities.

So why all the finger-pointing at our harried neighbors? We get  “a sense of calm and contentment,” says Hofferth, from believing that we’re busy — but not ‘overdoing’ it” like those other parents!

Criticism, by validating our own choices, gives us a sense of control – and as we point out in Pressured Parents Stressed-out Kids, everyone likes that feeling of  control. We like to feel autonomous, that we’re,  doing something because we want to do it not because we have to do it.

I’d add that we criticize others most vehemently when we see a little bit of ourselves in them. That’s why Hamlet’s mother (who’d remarried pronto) said, “The lady doth protest too much” when she another widow insisting she’d never remarry.  Gertrude knew the score: declaring stridently we’d never take an action often shows that somewhere deep down we want to do just that.

Since we love to see our kids acquire skills and to shine, we recognize our  desire to sign them up for more and more activities. So criticizing others for doing so is a way to pat ourselves on the back for reining those desires in a bit for our kids’ sake – and for our own. That’s because ferrying a passel of kids endlessly to activities can create a harried –even an overscheduled –parent.

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