Friday, January 14, 2011

And No Stuffed Animals Were Burned!

Perhaps you have heard of Amy Chua's essay in the Wall Street Journal about the superiority of Chinese Mothers. If you haven't, I'm going to guess you don't have young children. Or you don't follow the Internets all that much, which means you aren't going to be reading this blog.

Although when I heard Ms. Chua on the Diane Rehm Show (and WOW, isn't Diane Rehm beautiful!), she suggested that her extreme parenting (calling her children garbage when they get an A- or less on a test, threatening to burn their stuffed animals if they don't play the piano well, no extra-curricular activities or friends), is a bit tongue-in-cheek, my understanding is that that is not true. A friend of a friend is Ms. Chua's neighbor, and indeed, can attest to the truth of the dinner party incident related in the article. She does berate her children and she limits their social activities in order that they will be The Best and win The Medal. She loves them and argues that she believes they are the best and they can win the medal and that is why she pushes them so hard.

Clearly, this is not our style. On the other hand, I think Dave and I can push Conor a little bit more, especially in skills we know he can do but he's afraid at failing at. So oddly enough, inspired by Ms. Chua, we had Conor sit down after dinner the other night and practice tying his shoes. He has not learned this yet and it's probably past time. So Dave and I hid in the kitchen and mouthed GARBAGE! GARBAGE! towards Conor (because we are apparently that kind of parent). Conor took a minute and then shouted out, "I DID IT!!!!" "YAY!" we shouted back. "Untie it and do it again!"

A minute passed. "I DID IT AGAIN!" "YAY! Do it one more time!" And Conor did. We told him he could have an ice cream sandwich if he tied both his shoes and went out to the garage freezer to get one. He struggled a bit, but did it. And no stuffed animals were burned.

But, yes, we were inspired to push him to do it. (A push as harsh as blowing on him) And we are actually inspired to do more of this You Can Do It, Just Practice parenting. (And you may be thinking we are incredibly slack. But no, we simply have 19 month old twins)

In any case, Ms. Chua's parenting style could be on to something name calling and toy destroying notwithstanding. Research suggests that everyone can become an expert/genius in something. Come again? Genes change and adapt to the environment. From the article, "This means that everything about us - our personalities, our intelligence, our abilities - are actually determined by the lives we lead. The very notion of "innate" no longer holds together." We settle for mediocrity because we think we aren't innately talented enough when expertise actually comes from effort and self-discipline. According to this new research, even IQ (which has long been thought as an innate, stable trait) changes according to the environment.

I love this research. FINALLY, science is demonstrating that genes apart from the environment mean nothing and the environment has no effect on people outside of the genes a person is given.

This is huge to me, and probably not in the way you think. We think in terms of cause and effect. A causes B. Genes cause people to Be The Way They Are. But NO, others argue (and I have tended to be here). Environment is the stronger contributor to people becoming the way they are. But that's silly, too, because it's obvious that people have certain proclivities; you can't make an introvert an extrovert no matter how hard you try. So scientists have been asking the question, which is more important: nature or nurture.

As I've grown as a researcher and as a methodologist, I've realized that one of our main problems is that we have a hard time thinking in terms of interaction (genes and environment mutually cause people to be the way they are), particularly when the interaction is recursive---the interaction is continual and progressive. I think the next big leap in the way social and biological scientists think about why people are what they are and do what they do. It's hard to think this way. It takes some mental effort to really work through the theoretical logic (not to mention the analyses!) of research like this. But I think generations of researchers behind us are going to build on our mental efforts and find it easy--just like we all naturally think in causal terms, which wasn't the case before the Renaissance. Before the Renaissance, witches caused everything.

And going back to the beginning of this entry, witches can "cause" genius, too. There is a lesson here, besides it's really fun to silently mouth "GARBAGE!" and "I am going to BURN all your stuffed animals if you don't tie your shoes!!!" at your children when they are doing something. For us, it's that our limits are self-imposed. We can do more than we think we can. And we want our children to know that they can do a lot of what they want, too. They just need to keep trying. And we'll support them, and not abuse them, along the way.


Rebecca said...

Meh, all kids will need therapy for one reason or another. At least with the Chinese mothers or their children will know why.

Kim said...

Interesting post. As Jun is adopted and we don't know much at all about her birth parents, the nature/nurture thing is often on my mind.

Kim said...

Interesting post. As Jun is adopted and we don't know much at all about her birth parents, the nature/nurture thing is often on my mind.

Carroll said...

As the mother of a successful young adult who was very much into waiting until he was sure he could do something successfully before he even was willing to try (I'm talking being born 2 weeks late, letting go of my leg when we finally found him the right nursery school, and not riding a bike until almost a full year after his friends had all fallen off, gotten hurt and finally mastered theirs ((he never even hesitated -- just got on that first time and rode straight down the street)) I can attest that children *will* bloom when they are ready. I'm firmly in your camp, Anita. They know their own timetables far better than even the most loving parents. Conor tied his shoes because he was *ready* to do it, and good for you for not forcing the issue before he could do it successfully :-)

I think parents "fail" when they try to, say, teach a 2-year old to tie her shoes. Practice for a year and then hooray she gets it and is the only three-year-old shoe-tying prodigy on the block. Who wins?