I haven’t really touched any of this whole Tiger Mother thing. I know thin ice when I see it but today I feel like living on the edge. The thing is, I think that kids do need to learn how to apply themselves to a task. They do need to learn how to put the effort in for future pay-off in the form of the satisfaction of a job well-done. Sometimes, they do need to learn that it isn’t just up to them and that they need to respect their parents’ wishes and assessments of merit.
My children (ages 3 and 5) study the violin (they had a choice between violin and piano). Usually I have to cajole (using a varied assortment of carrots and sticks) them into practicing but I don’t force the grins on their faces when they are successful in their efforts to play “the extra long monkey song.” They have homework from Chinese school – a daily assignment that takes Jie-jie 20 minutes or so. Mei-mei is young for loads of writing so we work on character recognition instead. Again, they rarely ask to do it but they do enjoy pointing out all the characters that they can read. I can tell similar stories about the science projects, “number work” and “reading work” we do at home, putting away the stroller so the kids could walk, about “smart start” sports, and every hike, tramp and camping trip we have ever taken.
I have learned that resistance is greatest when I am not helping the kids put in enough effort to be successful. In other words, the more we practice, the easier it is to practice. All my praise and encouragement is meaningless if the violin sounds terrible, they arrive at Chinese school and cannot demonstrate adequate comprehension, and they cannot see their progress in academics, making lay-ups, and reaching the summit of the mountains we see out our windows. Kids can see their own accomplishments and that is how it should be. As they grow older, I hope they will acquire the habit of practice and working hard and they will follow their interests to specialize but they will also maintain skills that Jason and I feel they ought to have.
I also believe that some of the most important work that kids do they do through play. There are some afternoons and evenings when the kids get home and engage one another immediately in imaginary play. Sometimes they will create plot lines that they carry on for days and days, moving toys and furniture to create a set, mobilizing a host of household items as props, and enlisting an epic cast of characters portrayed by the pets and the legions of dolls and stuffed animals they have amassed over time. I wait for a break in the action so that we can attend to daily tasks but I frequently feel myself faced with a difficult choice – do I interrupt this work so they can do their other work? In such instances I compromise, skipping math and writing (hopefully they get a bit of that at school) to give them a bit of extra time but making sure that they get to violin and Chinese before bed-time. It is much easier on the weekend because we have the whole day and I can just follow the flow.
In our house the difficulty lies in finding the time to balance the work discussed above with the opportunity for self-direction and exploration. I look for opportunities to integrate learning – studying fractions by measuring the ingredients for cookies, stomping out new rhythms from their music reading as we walk to school, etc. etc but all the same, since I go to work and they go to school, there is not enough time.
When I reflect on my own education I marvel at the differences. Unlike many commentators, I don’t think the difference lies in how “programmed” we are. From age 5 my parents (who had no education beyond high school and were decidedly “middle class” in the non-sociological sense of the term) had me in piano, dance, oil painting, softball as well as sharing an afternoon paper route with my brother. I also had loads of time to play. I really think the difference is in the academics – I didn’t have “number work,” “letter work” or “reading work” at home. My parents had faith in my school and left such curricular concerns up to them. Although I witness the energy, enthusiasm and skill of the folks at my children’s schools, I do not necessarily see those schools as an allies in academic preparation. Mei-mei’s preschool provides loads of opportunities for creative expression, self-exploration and socializing and that seems to me to be appropriate age 3 although I do wish they did a bit more with numbers, letters and science concepts. With Jie-jie’s kindergarten it is a bit more complicated – in part because I get the sense that much more effort goes into managing the behavior than in engaging intellects. It seems that the day is pretty structured with few opportunities for independent work and that, instead, academic content is introduced in group settings where managing classroom dynamics looms just as large as the material. In short, I don’t feel very confident that Jie-jie is being challenged intellectually and in a manner that suits her. So when she arrives home I feel she really needs some unstructured time to decompress for the social learning she has been doing but I also feel that she needs to put in some academic work time.
I know that I make many mistakes as a parent and that I will have to face the consequences. In the end, my only defense is that I am thinking about it, trying to be intentional, trying to put my kids first, seeking compromises and best guesses that help my kids to be happy, healthy, confident and fulfilled people in the present and in the future.