If you haven't heard about Amy Chua's Wall Street Journal article, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" then you must not read much. Rather than me summarize, you should just go read it. Go ahead, link above, cause I'm nice like that.
I'm not going to arbitrarily rebut her article, because as shocking as much of it seems at first, the other articles I've read that include the original author's point of view make it clear to me that she's not always certain she's done the right things, and that the book the article was excerpted from was a memoir, a coming-of-age story. About the mother.
So, instead, I think it's worth talking about pushing your kids. When, why, how much, and when to stop.
As with most of this sort of thing, I can only have this conversation in the context of my own experience with my own two darling, brilliant, and ultimately stubborn and challenging little people.
Because left to their own devices, kids' choices might not line up very well with choices that lead to success in today's world. If you're on a different parenting angle where you aren't concerned about helping your child build a foundation for success in the future, just be warned that this article is probably not going to be your cup of tea. Because I do believe that one of our bigger jobs as parents is to help our kids build skills that will help them be successful in life.
Now, I contrast this with the idea that seems uniquely American (I'd love to hear from those parenting in other cultures, as maybe I'm wrong) that we need to force our children to be independent from a very early age. One of the primary things people will ask a new parent, even when their baby is still itty bitty and just a few weeks or months old, is "is the baby sleeping through the night?" Ugh. (For the curious, my best answer to this was always, "We're all sleeping great, thanks for asking!")
Dr. James McKenna has great articles on sleeping and norms, but this post isn't about sleeping any more than it's about being a Chinese mother, which I am not. It's about pushing our children. It seems from a very early age we encourage children to be independent, yet is this the right choice for helping our children build skills to be successful in the world?
A friend recently told me, aghast, about someone else's child who was cooking his own breakfast at age 2 or 3. ON THE STOVE! I'm all for encouraging our children to do things for themselves, but even that struck me as just plain odd. But in our culture of forcing independence from an early age, is this really so strange a thought? Shouldn't they be able to pour their own milk and fetch their own snacks?
My answer? Within reason. Yes, children should be given the opportunity to build skills like pouring, but being a lazy mom, I have no desire to clean up the mess that results so I limited pouring to kitchen sink-types of play for many years and just did the dang pouring for them. Now that they're older, I permit much pouring (except of the milk, which comes in real glass bottles and eek! The mess one makes when it shatters is unreal. Remember? Lazy mom. Not on speaking terms with the mop.)
And a different point of view on this is - if I force my kids to be independent now (ages 7 & 9) and get all their own food - I start to cede control of their diets to their own whims. I believe one of my important jobs is to help them learn how to make good food choices, how to have a healthy diet, how to use food as fuel but also enjoy food (because who doesn't love a pop-tart once in a while, right?)
So by being the hardline mom I am, where my kids are required (sort-of. Oldest was caught this morning with a bucket of pretzels that he had not asked permission for. He was not punished, but the violation was noted...) to ask permission before eating something. Doesn't matter what, they have to ask. Because they ask, then I can help guide them to foods I think will satisfy their needs at the time. Being a control freak does have its advantages.
What about activities? You've heard me talk about the push/pull of activities before. How much is too much? When should you say no? When should you push?
Of course the answer here again is "it depends." But the answer isn't to refuse access to food or toilets as mentioned in the original article. Unless...see, I firmly believe that each of us knows our children, we know what they're capable of, what their tricks are. And we learn what pressure points we need to access. Because I've denied my child food or a toilet break before, because I knew they were asking for those just to horse around and avoid whatever mean mommy was making them do.
Yet, at the same time, I've also given the 9 year old a break from homework when I could tell his mind just couldn't focus at the time, figuring it's better to invest in a 20 minute break followed by 10 more minutes of homework than a 30 minute battle that will leave us both in tears.
Where I think some parents have trouble, though, is seeing that line. It's different for every child, so you can't even generalize from that useful first baby (aka "the practice child.") as what works for them rarely works for #2. But if you stop to listen, think, and evaluate, you can usually puzzle out what's really going on.
Example - I signed my daughter up for basketball this fall. A friend was joining, figured it would be a fun activity, something to keep her moving through the colder months. It was mostly my idea, but at 7 I figure she's at an age where she should try out a lot of different things so she can find the things that she loves to do.
From the beginning it didn't go well, but I attributed it to my own dislike of the style of the coach. He seemed a bit...unprepared to meet the needs of 6, 7 and 8 year old girls learning the game. (Case in point - he was trying to get them to set picks the entire first practice. When many girls weren't even aware that they should be dribbling most of the time, and a bit unclear on the whole idea of "offense" and "defense.")
The first game was a disaster. Both coaches were yelling at each other. Yeah, I blogged about that, too. I was mad. But I worked hard at keeping my feelings out of it and proceeded on through another week of practices and another game with the daughter. After the second game, she told me she really didn't like basketball at all.
I know that most parents would at this point say that "well, we paid for it, by gummity you're going to go and you're going to ENJOY it!" But here's the thing - quitting isn't a reflection on me as a parent. At all. It has nothing to do with me. The biggest question I had to answer was why. Why did my daughter want to quit? And were those reasons the right kinds of reasons to give up on an activity? (even after paying the non-refundable fee, sigh.)
Her reasons? The games were really chaotic. Loud. She didn't like all the yelling.
Wow. I thought she might say she didn't like the game. She didn't like dribbling. I expected my perfectionist daughter to dissolve into tears and tell me she wasn't any good at it.
But her perception of her ability had nothing to do with what she was asking. She felt overwhelmed at the games. And the girls were always reaching and grabbing, slapping at the ball. It's a very physical game (I blame the coaches, imagine me rolling my eyes here) and it did not suit her one bit.
Is that a reason to quit? I felt it was. I felt it was an easy decision, once I understood her reasons. I don't need to push my child to engage in an activity that is overwhelming. That isn't what I'm here for.
By comparison, my son is on a gymnastics team. He's had some periods of time (this is his third year on the team) where he's been less enthusiastic about the sport than others. He's mentioned wanting to quit. We've talked about it a number of times over the years, but each time we've agreed that he should keep at it for a bit, get through the next milestone (the next month, the next meet) and re-evaluate. And each time he's decided he wants to continue. And I'm thrilled because gymnastics is a whole-body activity that really helps him in a lot of subtle ways. And nobody yells much at the meets.
Am I pushing him to continue? A bit, yes. I think it's a good sport for him. It's year-round, it meets some sensory needs of his that I don't think even he knows or notices (because they're met by the practices so well.) I like the other parents. The gym is close. It's not a cheap activity, but as his primary one, it seems reasonable. So yes, I push him. But I push him to choose for himself. I don't say "it's up to you." I say "I feel like gymnastics is good because A, B, C. I'd like to see you continue. We can discuss stopping at <next milestone> but I'd really like to see you keep up with it." We parents are experts at applying that gentle pressure. But there's what I mean. Sometimes it is right to push.
Sometimes I can tell my daughter is having trouble with something because she's stubborn, or upset, or seeing things from the wrong angle. Pushing is okay (which reminds me, one of my new year's resolutions should have been to get that girl going on a 2 wheeler! She's been afraid for too long. I need to stop talking and start pushing, literally.) But pushing her to continue an activity that gave her very little (a little bit of exercise) and instead just set all her alarm bells firing (why are all these girls RUNNING at me? Will those grown-ups just stop shouting ever? Everybody is yelling! help!) That wasn't the right choice.
I pushed her to continue with dance when she was getting frustrated at the way other kids in her class would run around and not listen. But I pushed because the recital was coming up. And the recital ended up being her favorite part of the whole thing, she loved the costumes and the stage and the performance, everything.
How about you? When have you had to push your children on something? Homework seems a popular one. What have you found that works? How have you had to change your perspective child to child?