Usually our blogs are full of pictures but right now there is something we need to talk about. If you haven’t yet read the article by Amy Chua that came out in the New York Times last week called Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, you should. It is the first part of a new book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother which has set off a firestorm of controversy about parenting styles and what is important to a child’s success. To read the article click here. When this woman goes through her list of things she never allowed her children to do, my first reaction was “Wow, this is crazy!” On the other hand some ideas were excellent and I agree that Western mothers tend to coddle and cow-tow to their kids. But there was something that didn’t feel right about the coercion and force for excellence portrayed in her tough methods. Over the next few days as I digested what she had to say and read myriads of follow up articles like this. I discussed it with daughters and friends I began to reflect on my own childhood and the amazing mother who raised me.
I’ve come to two conclusions: 1) The work ethic is one of the most important factors in our children’s ability to succeed and 2) The initiative to complete goals and accomplishments in life has to ultimately come from the child, not the parent.
I am so lucky! Both my mother and father came from farm families, as did their parents and their parent’s parents. The work ethic is in our blood, maybe just as the striving for excellence is in generations of the Chinese families’ blood. My grandmother died in the flu epidemic of 1919 when she was 39 having had 10 children. As a farm wife, however, she left her children a grand legacy. They knew how to work! My mother started plowing fields behind horses when she was nine and when I was a child my sister and I began driving trucks and tractors to help with the haying when we were eight. We used to count the number of times we “killed the engine” on those hazy, crazy summer days.
But the really hard work at our house was practicing the violin and the piano. My mother Hazel Jacobson who was born in 1905 was a musician who started out as a teenager playing the piano in dance bands by ear and ended up having taught at least a thousand piano students and influencing over a thousand children as a elementary school teacher. Every day that we were in our family home growing up my sister Lenna and I practiced…both violin and piano. Even though there was no violin teacher in the valley, my mother took us from Montpelier Idaho where we were born and raised to Logan, Utah an hour and a half away for violin lessons once every two weeks. And we ended up playing violin duets for almost every wedding and funeral in Bear Lake Valley for many years.
I remember thinking that I was about the most deprived and underprivileged child in the world as I practiced an hour on the piano and an hour and half on the violin every day when I went to high school. While my friends were out “dragging main” and having ice cream sundaes, I was home practicing. But I didn’t feel the iron hand and the feeling of force because of one smart thing my mother did. She informed us from the time we were about ten years old that she and my dad were no longer going to give us an allowance for clothes or even movie money. We were going to have to earn it…by practicing! And practice we did! If we wanted “things” there was no option. It was an absolute necessity.
The reason I used the word “ultimately” in the second conclusion above was that practicing is no fun for many years. Since we all work on rewards, she was wise enough to know that the pain of practicing was eased by a reward and in this case, a monetary one because we knew we couldn’t survive without it. If we got all our practicing done on the five week days our money was doubled. This mother was smart! The smartest part was that it was our goal to get our practicing done…not hers. We made charts and filled them out and were so proud to buy our own clothes with our hard earned money, even though Montpelier did not really offer what you would call “a fashion statement!” The bottom line is that I ended up being a music major in violin education and Lenna is an excellent accompanist for ward choirs and recitals.
Homework was another issue. I had been taught how to set goals and accomplish them but I don’t ever remember my parents pushing me to get good grades. That passion must have come in the genes because I was obsessed with getting good grades. I would stay up all night to finish an assignment if that was what was required for a good grade. I had an outstanding accelerated English teacher (no AP classes in those days) who changed my life with his demands. I worked hard I must admit partially out of fear but mostly because I knew that I was learning something that would be important. That excruciatingly difficult class changed my life…but not because I had a Chinese mother screaming at me but because I had a Farm mother who believed in me.
Now decades after that growing up experience, I reflect on the things my farm mother taught me and how it has played out in our own family. We have nine children. One of every kind. Some were about as motivated as a cow chewing her cud. Even those have found their own way to success because they have learned how to set goals for what they really want and they know how to work. Others have driven us to distraction trying to get good grades. Our youngest daughter would record her entire AP Biology chapter on a recorder and then listen to it as she went to sleep. We begged her not to set a goal to get straight A’s because we knew what she (and we) would have to go through…the weeping and wailing, the late nights and grumpy mornings… to get there. We had a huge family celebration when she got her first B at BYU.
None are fabulous musicians. Yes, they all took lessons and we paid them to practice and they don’t feel their time was wasted but other things interested them more. I must admit when I reflect on how I could have been better at sitting by them during every practice and every lesson when I read that article and felt like “Mother Inferior”, I forgave myself because you can only do what you can do. This “Tiger” author has only has two kids…except I know a mom who has done what she has done only with eleven children…without yelling! Darn!
At the moment Richard and I are just completing a book for Penguin in New York called The Entitlement Trap. The whole premise of the book is quite the opposite of what Amy Chua’s premise that coercion and force is the best way to motivate children to become their best! Our premise is that if children don’t perceive ownership of their own goals you are asking for trouble by way of resentment and rebellion. Of course you may also receive profound gratitude in the end but it’s a gamble that’s pretty scary to take. When kids set their own academic goals instead of the parent demanding a certain grade, the dialogue goes from the parent saying “Nothing is accepted but an A” to “Let me help you with your goal to get an A (or a B).” And we have to admit some kids who got C’s or worse turned out to be innovative and creative adults.
The bottom line is that every child and every family is different and our challenge as parents is to try to help our children reach their potential! I had no idea when our children were small that out of all that confusion would come five outstanding photographers, gifted teachers, enthusiastic salesmen, a fervid farmer or magnificent mothers (especially with their mother who wrote a book called I Didn’t Plan to be a Witch as a role model). The most important thing is that they all know how to work and they have been pulled to their professions by their passions. With the ability to set their own goals they continue to work through scorching sun and unexpected storms like a farmhand to accomplish them. How grateful I am for the genes from my long line of Farm Mothers!
Here’s my mom with our little Josh, now 37. I’m thinking she’s thinking, “This precious little child is going to learn to work!”