"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

GAM vs. Tiger Moms

Last year Amy Chua started a national debate about how hard parents should push their children to succeed. Her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother put a spotlight on the practices Chinese  mothers used to get their children to the top of the success heap.  Many Americans were appalled, but a slight note of worry was also struck by her comment to Meredith Vieira, "To be perfectly honest, I know that a lot of Asian parents are secretly shocked and horrified by many aspects of Western parenting," including "how much time Westerners allow their kids to waste — hours on Facebook and computer games — and in some ways, how poorly they prepare them for the future. It's a tough world out there." Many mothers worried, "What if she was right? What if our efforts to provide a nurturing environment for our children were actually making them weak and less able to compete?" The Gifted Association of Missouri (GAM) weighed in on this with Kirkwood parents last week when they answered the question, "Should we push our gifted child to excel?" In short, their answer was "No."

GAM's mission is to:
  • Be a leader for gifted children in the school reform movement.
  • Empower parents of gifted children to become informed and active advocates for their gifted children.
  • Ensure adequate funding for the education of gifted children in Missouri.
In their Fall 2011 newsletter GAMbit, they wrote about this issue of seeking perfection. The phrase many parents of gifted kids have heard from gifted program leaders is, "Perfect is the enemy of good." GAMbit reiterated this mantra, "With a little misguided help from their parents, many talented children drive themselves crazy trying to achieve perfection." Striving for perfection, which is rarely, if ever achieved can lead to high stress, burn out or the adoption of an ideology which says, "Why even try at all?" They write that many gifted kids "snap" when they begin college. Instead, parents should encourage their children to work to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, set realistic goals and focus on the bigger picture. Some things are not worth all the pressure and stress. Being a well rounded person who is content is what, at the end of the day, is most important.

One of the reasons Tiger Mom tactics work is because they can count on other parents not pushing their kids so hard. If everyone did it, there would be no advantage. And the technique obviously works. At a recent Duke TIP award ceremony for seventh graders who took the SAT, there was a separate category for the highest scoring students, those who scored over 650 (out of 800). These were jokingly referred to (in the audience) as the Asian awards and were awarded to almost exclusively Asian children. No one believes that these children had some genetic or innate advantage. They simply prepared better than the other students and a lot of that probably came from parents who pushed them.

GAM is correct that there can be unnecessary pressure put on children to be perfect. We should focus on them succeeding and it is up to the individual to define what success means. There was much in their advice that could be poked at if you took it just at face value. "Stress your interest in your child's social skills and her progress developing relationships with peers." What if your child has autism? Social relationships are the most stressful thing for them, but that is what you should focus on? Instead of developing her raw talent, your gifted child should be forging a relationship with the child who is eating paste in her class?  Of course not. Their advice must be measured against your child's reality. Every parent must decide what is best for their child and take the parts of GAM's advice that seem useful.

Are Tiger Moms wrong because they put all kinds of pressure on their kids to succeed? Are pressure and stress really the problem? Well, who has the higher suicide rate: Asian American kids who are practically guaranteed slots at our prestigious universities, frequently with large scholarships, who win many of the private contests in both academics and the arts and who have little trouble finding jobs after graduation because their parents pushed them toward perfection, or the Chinese workers in places like Foxconn* who are placed under tremendous pressure by their managers to produce and work long grueling hours? (hint: Foxconn had to place nets around their dorms to catch people jumping off the roof.)

Perhaps it is not the pressure itself which is the problem, it is the reward for the effort that we should be focusing on. Pressure to achieve all A's, if that was truly random, would be pointless and cruel.  But getting all A's has monetary value in our society. You can get better scholarships. You can even get reductions on your auto insurance for your child's A's. Doing well in school is not some meaningless goal (like being there for 180 days is.)   Ask any Olympic athlete, when corporate endorsements are on the line, training that extra two hours a day to achieve .001 second improvement, while stressful and no guarantee of success, is worth it. The only issue for parents then is where to draw that line.

One parent was upset by the gifted presentation in Kirkwood. She felt it sent the message to parents not to push their kids, to quit before the race even started. Many things may be screwed up in our current public education system and parents may be required to do many things to fit in this system. But one thing we do still have going for us is that we are still free to take or reject advice like this from supposed experts. We, as parents, still have some autonomy to evaluate what is best for our kids and follow that path. We have a much better view of the finish line than our kids, which is something the Tiger Moms have known all along.

* Suicides at Apple Factory in China Rock the Sweatshop Supply System

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