Friday, January 21, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Lazy American Mother

Everybody has been talking about an article that recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal, "Why Chinese Mother's are Superior", which is an excerpt from a book by Amy Chua, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother".   Read the article, tell me what you think.  Donna, at Email from the Embassy recently wrote an excellent post on it.  The subject has been on my mind, because my kids received all their test scores in the mail this week.  Virginia is really into testing and identifying kids to put into their "Gifted and Talented" program.  Only, now it has the more politically correct name of "Advanced Academics" or something like that.  Anyway, I got an invite based on my kids' scores to go to the information night for this program last night.  We went through this with Jack when he was in first grade.  He tested in, but we ultimately decided not to put him in a program that required four hours of homework a night. 

Here is where I say that yes, my kids are bright, but they are by no means geniuses.  Henry's scores were high in all subjects, Grace and Olivia where EXACTLY the same in each category (weird, since they have different teachers and interests), but they weren't as high as Henry's, just pleasantly hovering at the low end of the "high" spectrum.  I went to the meeting for two reasons.  Henry is boredboredbored, and having a hard time finding a buddy that shares his interests, so I at least wanted to find out about the program before I wrote it off.  The other reason I went is that we got something in the mail saying that Olivia's nonverbal ability was in the "very superior" rank.  This basically means that she can build the Taj Mahal out of popsicle sticks while punching her brother with one hand tied behind her back, but not necessarily be able to make change out of a dollar.  Now, because Olivia has been the one we've always worried about academically, I thought maybe if she got into this special program she could explore her natural talents without constantly being in her twin sister's 'larger than life' shadow.

At the meeting, I learned that many parents illegally buy the tests off the internet and hire tutors to teach their kids how to take them.  Then, once they get into the program, they have to hire the tutors so the kids can keep up.  Wow.  What a great use of money.  I also learned that kids in the program have every minute of every day scheduled so they can keep up with all the extra work, take music lessons, join sports teams, and be in academic clubs.  My head hurt during the Q & A time when parents were furiously trying to figure out how to give their kids an edge on their applications.  One dad had his checkbook out and would have happily bribed the facilitator if it would have helped.  I would love to have my kids in a program that is challenging, but not at the expense of their free time.    Needless to say, I dumped my application packets in the trash on the way out.  Does that mean I am giving up on my kids by not providing them with every opportunity I can?  Am I nurturing mediocrity because I'd rather my kids spend the afternoon playing with their Dog Academy Playset than writing another book report?  For now, there's no answer to that.  Check back with me in 20 years to see if Olivia is sitting on a park bench, dressed in rags and playing Dog Academy with the squirrels.

I forwarded the WSJ article to Mitch, and he said, "but you're sort of like that!".  I had to think about that for a long time.  It's true that I am pretty strict.  For example,  Jack was not allowed to get below an "A" in any subject when we lived on the island, or he would lose his xbox.  That was because the school wasn't academically challenging, and he could do it with very little effort.  I've relaxed my standards here, because the school is tough, he's taking honors classes, and we've just had a major transition.  However, I guess I do expect him to still get good grades because I know he can.  In fact,  we expect all our kids to do well in school, and if they don't, they lose their screen privileges until they've mastered whatever they need to.  However, each kid's abilities are different, so an easy 'A' for Henry might be the same as a difficult 'B' for Olivia, and I'm fine with that.  We expect them to do their chores and be respectful.  They are only allowed to take one extracurricular activity at  a time, because I think kids need time to do nothing at all and figure out how to entertain themselves.  Unlike the  "Chinese mothers" as detailed in the article,  I don't shame or endlessly berate my children. I'm lazy.  I make the kids do their own homework and school projects.  I'm happy to provide them with  any  supplies they will need, but generally, they are on their own unless a teacher requests parental help (and that teacher just won't get a Christmas gift card from me that year!).  If I hear "Mom!"  from somewhere in the house, not accompanied by cries of pain, I ignore it, figuring they will either get what they need themselves, or come and find me if it's important.  Sometimes, if the younger kids need math help, I will bribe Jack to help them, because I suck at tutoring, and as I said, I'm lazy.  I do spend a large amount of time volunteering in their school,  and I definitely feel like they are getting a good education.  I certainly encourage playdates and any artistic endeavors they have.  We have shelves and shelves of art supplies and they make spectacular messes and amazing creations.  They read and read and read. 

But they also love to watch Spongebob and play videogames and come up with ways to gross each other out.  On holidays and when we are on vacation or at Aunt Kimmie's, they love to have sugar cereal, I just won't let them put it in their bodies before school.  They have cookies and treats on a regular basis.  We tell them they can grow up to be anything they want as long as they love it and are willing to change our diapers (or at least hire someone to do it) in our old age. 

Balance. It's the American way, isn't it?


Bethany and Will said...

Hi! Wow did you ever send this one right up my alley :-)

I'm a Gifted and Talented Coach in Knox County Schools, here in Knoxville, Tennessee (I'm a certified teacher K-6). We don't run our program as you described above and if we did, I wouldn't be working in it ;-) Shoot me an email and I will send you some resources that your kids can work on on their own :-)

This goes for any parents out there! I'd be happy to provide resources (lessons, worksheets, computer games, Webquests) in Math, Reading, Writing, Science, and Social Studies for elementary school.

Drop me a line at: and let me know what resources you need (and what grade level).

Children absolutely need balance and need to grow socially, emotionally, physically, and academically. Focusing too much on one area neglects another.


Becky said...

Awesome post. I feel like kids need to know that we believe in them enough to ask them to excel as much as they can. So I guess I agree with Chua that parents need to respect kids enough to require that they achieve what they are capable of. I think you can still do that while leaving them room to figure out who they are. We don't have to dictate everything. Sounds to me that you require them to do as well as they can in school stuff but you aren't dictating every bit of their lives. Good balance.

Agreed on the downtime thing too. Kids need time to be kids and to figure out what they care about. It's not like I am going to choose their major in college or schedule their time for them. They need to learn how to try and fail and try again (or try something else). They also need time to explore the world around them. I am not dragging my kids all over the world just to have them sit in school or doing homework all the time. (And a good GT program expands their worldview and makes them think harder about and apply the stuff they are already learning. It doesn't just shove more work at them.)

For me, it's about respecting their potential and ability. If my kid can make his/her own sandwich, clean his/her own room, make decisions about what to do outside of school, wear or eat, why would I do that for him/her? The point is to raise well adjusted, independent adults. I'd much rather my kids learned the consequences of something like procrastination now when the stakes are low rather than when it really counts. So I guess I also don't agree with lots of parents who are constantly "saving" their kids.

Kids are smarter than we give them credit for sometimes. I realized that my kids are smart and that if I really respect them, I give them as many chances to choose their own sucesses as possible. Neither bullying/dictating nor babying them respects the unique individuals they are and the potential they have. There has to be a middle ground. I think we are constantly trying to find that balance as we make moves, the kids mature, etc. Helps me to remember that, in order to balance, you have to shift weight a bit every time something changes. Let 'em dream and create and think, and help them find the path to their goals but don't do it for them by pushing them or bailing them out. I love how you talk about giving them materials for school projects but you don't get really involved. Seems like something that would work for life in general. Give them the tools and let them do their own work.

I think you're doing a great job. Thanks for a great read.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Kate. You make me very proud. Pops

Julie said...

I totally agree with you but if they don't start learning how make a proper martini then they will meet the real tiger-mommie! Where's the gifted program for mixology...I got my check book ready for that one.

Kate said...

@Bethany, thank you for the offer, I'm always looking for resources and will keep your contact info.

@Becky and Dad, thanks for the lovely comments.

@Julie, I've already taught them about a three-finger pour. Next up, the vodka gimlet.

Donna said...

Love it - and thanks for the link. We left Virginia just as the gifted talented stress was ramping up, so we never had to experience all of that. But we'll be hopping back into it in a few years, I'm sure. It definitely serves to highlight differences in parenting styles.

Kim said...

OMG! Have you tried kelloggs rice crispy treats cereal?! De-lish!!!

Lynda said...

Awesome post, Ms. Kate. How did you know? We are in the middle of making the big decision between C-vill or OH high school for dd#1. We have a tour set up for next week. dd#2 has already said she want to leave the MS and go to OH or SW because she HATES CMS. Most of it is based on academics/social atmosphere of the school/lack of leadership....we want to thank your Mitch for building a school that kids from all over the island want to attend! I'm trying to wrap my brain around driving to OH everyday 2x when really I should be glad that my girls want to better themselves academically. YIKES. Balance is right. We'll let you know what we decide.

Kate said...

@Lynda, there are so many more opportunities at OH. They even have honors classes. Who knew? Also, never underestimate the free island transit!

Anonymous said...

We watched a piece on Chua on The Today Show. Clint's response, "Mom, why couldn't you be more like that?" The scarey thing is he was serious. I told him his Mother was a total slacker... sorry! Claire

LBG said...

You made me tear up, you dumbhead. <3

Anonymous said...

With a Mom like you, how could your kids be anything but "Gifted". Oh, I guess Mitch probably figures in there somewhere. ;)You've got it right and I still tell people that your kids are my favorite. Respectful and bright with the right amount of sass and sarcasm. They are "real" kids, with bright futures. Leanne Kelly