Monday, January 17, 2011

This word, "sacrifice"; I don't think it means what you think it means

What sacrifice means:
Doing something to your own detriment, only to benefit someone else.

What sacrifice does not mean:
A) Bullying someone else to achieve a goal you forced on them and then using their achievement as a feather in your cap.
B) Entrapment.

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Last week, Ms. Amy Chua, a largely unknown professor at Yale thrust herself into the flames of the blogosphere by writing this article for the Wall Street Journal. She did it, of course, for money, as she has just written a book and what better way is there to drive sales than 15 minutes of fame? Her article espouses the virtues of hard-line parenting approach, illustrated by her own method of raising her daughters. Highlights include telling her daughters that they are garbage, forcing them to play piano/violin and never letting them have a sleepover, among other arbitrarily despotic things.  (Since the publication of the article, she has come out claiming that WSJ has completely misrepresented her book in the article.  The article, for which she is listed as the author.  A-ha. Sure.).

Many people gave strong opinions on the merits of this method, most notably Asian kids who have been raised so. Kristen has a great, articulate review, and Genghis Mom offers a brutal rebuttal. I do not want to add to their outrage, but I thought it would be interesting to compare the 'western' and 'eastern' approaches to parenting in the light of the recent literature (NurtureShock
, here we go).  Is there any merit to the Chinese approach?  And is it true that by torturing her children in this way, Ms. Chua is being a conscientious parent, sacrificing for her children, as she claims?

Ms. Chua's premise is right: many studies have shown that eastern and western cultures have fundamentally different approaches to intelligence.  Easterners tend to see it as a skill.  Westerners see it as talent.  Easterners believe it can be developed to any extent just through deliberate practice; you can't be "not good" at something - you must just be too lazy to practice.  Westerners, on another hand, see practice as having limited utility: if you don't have the innate talent, practicing is pointless as you'll never improve.

The truth is somewhere in between.  It turns out believing that intelligence is malleable has very powerful implications for your success - on this account, Ms. Chua is right as well.  It has been demonstrated that when students are praised for "trying hard" and "practicing" instead of "being smart", they work harder, stay with the problems longer and do better.  They believe that the amount of effort they invest makes a difference in how well they do, so they expand more effort.  This approach also has a secondary, interesting side effect: it separates how well you do from what you are.  If you believe you do well because you are smart, then failure is evidence of your being otherwise - and you end up being terrified to fail.  Such students will shy away from trying new solutions, from taking on difficult coursework, just because they are afraid to fail - a smart person wouldn't get a bad score on a test, so if you do you must not be smart.  On another hand, students who believe that their good performance is the result of their effort, not their innate talent, handle failure much better - they decide they must not have worked hard enough, and can walk away with their self-image intact.

So on the surface what Ms. Chua proposes is a good idea.  Praise kids for effort, tell them to work harder and they will be more likely to succeed.  Unfortunately, through the Chinese cultural prism, this approach becomes morphed into something counter-productive.  In Chinese culture  being lazy seems as bad a personal vice as being stupid.  And if you are not good at something, you must not have worked hard enough, and therefore must be lazy, and therefore, worthless.  Rather than allowing you to disassociate our performance from your self-worth, the Chinese Mom sends you back into the destructive spiral of "If I can't get this, then I'm a worthless human being", same as the western kids experience from feeling not smart.  To make things worse, the stance that ALL performance is due to your effort drives the child's risk of failure higher.

In any field, sooner or later you bump up against what your physical ability allows you to do.  In playing the piano, a player whose hand is large enough to reach over 1 octave will always out-play you, given the same amount of practice.  In ballet, a person with the right body type will always dance better than you, given the same amount of practice.  Even in intellectual fields, there will always be people who will figure out problems faster, understand concepts easier and learn new information more efficiently than you.  They are simply better built do to this.  You can expand exactly the same effort as those people, and possibly even more, and still never reach their level - simply because you are not as good of a computer.

Usually such effects show up when you get to the very top of a field, and pretending they do not exist makes for very bitter disappointment.  I was pretty good at dance when I was younger, but I had the presence of mind to realize that my body type was probably not going to be most suited for ballet.  And, given how I turned out, I would not be able to dance ballet even if I had the best technique in the entire world.  My body was going to look like it does no matter how many hours I spent in the dance studio, and I simply am not built for it. Prentending that this does not matter would have left me unemployed and exhausted after many years of training.  Prentending that how well you can think does not matter leaves many Asian kids unemployed and exhausted after many years of school.  In the words of Po Bronson, "Kids are being mislead into believing they're capable of futures they're actually unprepared for."

The truth is, anyone can get high grades in high school with effort.  Seriously, high school is easy. But when you use those high school grades to get yourself into a top-notch university, and a major in engineering, the game has changed.  If you have been getting those high grades by spending countless hours on each subject, then guess what?  You are going to run out of time.  There are simply not enough hours in the week now for you to be able to learn by sitting and reading until you finally get it.  Your classmates, being better computers, will understand this concept in lecture, without needing countless hours of studying just to grasp the concept.  What your Mom told you is not true: practice is not all there is.  Practice is necessary to become good at something, but on the path to becoming good in a subject, some people start farther ahead than others.

For this reason, it is counterproductive to pursue something you are not naturally good at: you are starting with a handicap, and the higher you make it in a field, the more pronounced and limiting this handicap is going to become.  The Chinese Mom method is terrible not just because it tyranically forces the child to work, but because it pays no attention to the field where the child is most likely to succeed.  Ms. Chua sets arbitrary, capricious goals for her daughters, and with a lot of expanded effort, her daughters achieve them.  One has to wonder what her daughters are actually good at and interested in, and how many opportunities have they missed to develop those unique talents while they were pursuing more feathers in Ms. Chua's cap.

But are Ms Chua's actions at least in good faith?  Is there really a sacrifice of sorts; is she doing this for herself and not for them?  Pushing your child as hard as possible is often called 'sacrifice' by parents.  No parents wants to be the mean guy, and you sometimes need to be to get the kid to achieve their potential.  But this is only true if you are pushing the kid on a path he himself has chosen, or at least shown promise in.  Shoving the child toward your own goals so that you can look good in your community is hardly sacrifice.

We also often hear 'sacrifice' used to get the child to pursue your goals in the first place.  To get a kid to comply, I have seen parents use ridiculous arguments, like how many floors they had to climb back in Soviet Russia to get their groceries back for the kids; how cold the weather was; how many jobs they held; how many hours they worked.  To the children of such parents, please understand: all of what your folks say is total bullshit.  It's not that they didn't work hard; I'm sure they did.  But they sure as heck did not do it for you or because of you.  If you weren't there, would your mother have had to climb fewer floors to get groceries?  Or would she have been unemployed?! Would the weather have been different? Hardly.  You did not ask to be born  - you parents chose to have you.  The decisions they made are theirs, and theirs alone, and to blame their past challenges on you in order to get you to comply is not sacrifice.  It's a guilt trip of the highest order.  It's called entrapment.  It's very common, and a very low thing to do to your kids.

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I do have Ms. Chua to thank for being able to articulate what I have long felt - that I have the privilege of being raised by not just good but extraordinary parents. My parents are extraordinary, downright strange, because my parents have never asked me to be something I was not.

I did not realize how much of a rarity that was until now.  All of my friends have been chided for not being what their parent wishes them to be. They were prohibited from going to the college of their choice, harassed for their pick of spouse, criticized for work status, ostracized for being gay, made fun of for the way they think.

Their parents do not see them as individuals. They see them as extensions of themselves.

My parents have never, not once, made such requests or judgements of me. They have always made me feel loved and supported as the person I am, and while they pushed hard to make sure I achieve high goals, they were goals on a path chosen by me.

My parents supported me throughout my childhood; they honestly shared what they saw as my strengths and weaknesses and tried to help me make the best of myself.  They encouraged me to think of what I wanted to become, which resulted in discovering that we had no connections to pull and no people to bribe to help me get into the right major in the right university (no matter how great you are academically, and I was pretty great, in Russia you must have connections to get anywhere). The realization that I was not going to be able to achieve what I said I wanted in Russia was a huge factor in their decision to come to the US. They left behind a very comfortable life, a guaranteed retirement, friends, success and everything they knew to give me a better shot in my life. (That, Ms.Chua, is a good example of sacrifice.)

I hope to be the parent that my Mom and Dad are to me. So to my boys, I solemnly swear that your father and I will never ask you to be something you are simply not. We will be hard on you. We will expect you to excel. We will demand hard work. We will not let you quit. We will be honest with you. But we will do all that to help you make the most of what you already are, not to mold you into something different. You are perfect the way you came. Work hard as you are, and you will find that is enough to succeed.

And, to Ms.Chua, remember: if you can't understand this post, you are not working hard enough. I would be happy to come over to your house and yell at you till 5am until you finally get it. We can even start now: you are garbage. And a failure. You are welcome.

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