Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Lessons in Reading

Three weeks ago in my post about Amy Chua and her Wall Street Journal essay on Tiger mothers, I took her to task for the kind of bullying of children that she labeled “coercion Chinese-style.” While I then suggested that there are alternative approaches to motivation and discipline, I did not get into what such an alternative looks like. So, now I will.

During a severe cold spell before Christmas, I began to get the itch to teach Pip to read. We had spent the fall working through the alphabet, and by then Pip could easily recognize most of letters. As we were both getting bored with the alphabet process, reading seemed like the obvious next challenge. For a trial run one day, I pulled Dr Seuss’s Hop on Pop off of our bookshelf and brought it over to Pip. Each page in Hop on Pop contains two or three rhyming words and then a simple sentence created from those words. It seemed like a promising text in which Pip could try out some reading work. We sat down together on the couch and started to worked our way through the first few pages.

What became immediately apparent was that while reading is something Pip likes, it is not something he is especially interested in learning. This is not to say that Pip does not want to read. He does. But, as with most four-year olds, he is not internally motivated to grind through the steps necessary to become a proficient reader. He is quite happy to memorize the lines of stories as Ava and I read them to him and then parrot those lines back to us the next day.

During that first session with Hop on Pop, he was curious enough to play along as we sounded out a couple of words together, but when I asked him to do something on his own, he balked. He flopped over and laid down on the couch. When I encouraged him to sit up and work through it with me, he moved over to another chair. I followed him, telling him to pick out a toy he could play with after we were done. This fumbling attempt at bribery only made things worse as he became interested in the toy and was even less motivated to cooperate with my instructions. I finally got him to grudgingly work through the first three pages by engaging in a series of circus tricks, chants, and horseplay that left both of us frustrated and exhausted.

The next day we tried again, and the results were about the same. The third day I just about slipped into Tiger parent mode as Pip balked right from the start. I managed to get through one page before our allotted time was up. The fourth day brought more of the same and after about fifteen minutes I asked Pip if he wanted to keep going. Of course, he said no. The begging and pleading wasn’t fun for either of us, and it was time to give up the experiment with reading until I could find a better way to approach it.


Over Christmas one of Ava’s co-workers hosted a party during which his wife showed me the book she was using to teach her daughter to read. It was a rather bland looking book. There were no cartoon characters or silly word games, only a series of regimented exercises in black and red text that gradually introduced the child to different sounds while also inculcating the process needed to sound out words. I found the simplicity and the absence of memorization lists appealing. I was also intrigued by the fact that each exercise was scripted down to the very words the instructor is supposed to say. I came away from the party thinking that this could be the next thing for Pip and I to try.

A month ago I checked out the book from the public library. On a Wednesday morning we sat down on the couch and tried the first lesson. Things went okay until the end when Pip was supposed to write one of the letters he had learned. This was a challenge for him and, as with Hop on Pop, he balked. Seeing that we were headed right back to where we started, I quickly brought the lesson to a close. Just bringing in a new book had not changed the fundamental challenge of motivating Pip to take on something that I wanted him to do. I decided to put the book away for a couple of days and start fresh with a more complete strategy after the weekend.

As I approached the reading lesson on Monday morning I decided to do a couple of things differently. First, I moved the lesson time up from mid-morning to right after brushing our teeth. That way there would be no opportunity for Pip to start playing with something and feel pulled between that something and the reading lesson. Second, I moved our lesson location from the couch to a table in the living room where we each would have our own chairs. Having never used the living room table in this way before, I hoped that the new configuration would both formalize the lesson and establish a different space that Pip would associate only with the lesson. Third, I designated a particular pencil and notebook for Pip to use only for writing exercises.

My goal with each of these steps was to make the time of our reading lesson into a special period for Pip. The arrangement of the chairs was especially for him. He got a notebook and pencil that he did not have to share with Polly (a rare thing in our house). Most importantly, he got some focused attention from me. With these things I hoped to give him some feeling of ownership over the work I am asking of him and, consequently, just enough leverage to keep bringing him back to the work when the going got hard.

That day we went back and did the first lesson again. Having done the tasks before, Pip worked through it with only two stops this time. I even managed to coax him into writing three letters. When it was all done, I gave him a big hug and kiss then told him how proud I was of him. While he was drained from the work (as was I), he had an air of accomplishment about him, a kind of giddy confidence that managed to hang around him through the rest of the day. On Tuesday morning, when I told him it was time for the reading lesson, he went out into the living room and started arranging the table and chairs.


Over the last three weeks I have learned two basic things necessary to keep him invested in each day’s lesson. One is to be honest about what it is we are doing. I can’t pretend that a particular lesson is fun and exciting. There are moments of joy and pride in each day’s work, but if I hype something, Pip gets discouraged when it doesn’t turn out to be that exciting. He feels like he missed something and either I’m disappointed in him or he isn’t understanding what I’m telling him. Either way this frustration makes him less inclined to continue with the lesson.

The other thing I’ve learned is that it takes a balance of pushing and holding back to keep him going through a lesson. The key is to learn the signals and pay attention to them. For Pip, if he asks to go to the bathroom, it means he needs a short break. So I let him go. If he drops to the floor after getting something wrong, then he is stalling, and I need to draw him back to his chair. If he is feeling especially squirrelly some physical contact is in order. I can hold his hand or even have him stand between my knees as we go through the lesson. Sometimes it is up to me to stop and tell him to take a moment in order to pre-empt some of the shenanigans that take place when he begins to tire.

And then there is the imperative to let him have a little fun as we go along. This usually takes the form of rocking back and forth as we are repeating some words or making silly twists with sounds as we hold them out together. One thing he has really enjoyed over the last week or so is reversing our roles. After we have completed an exercise, he will then tell me that he is going to teach me what I just taught him. I love this turn of events both because it provides extra repetition and because I can make mistakes that he has to recognize and correct. In the process he gets to pretend to be me for a little while, something he finds especially amusing.


Over the past few days Pip has had his first reading experience. The seemingly random exercises and sounds that were presented in the first few lessons of the book suddenly came together last Thursday, and Pip sounded out his first words. At first he just thought he had sounded out another combination of letters. When he realized that he had read a word, he literally buried his head in my lap. The idea that he had actually read something made him feel surprised, proud, and a little bit shocked. It was as if he understood that his world would never be the same.

I was thrilled to be able to experience that moment and even more happy that we got there in such a positive way. There were a couple of points over the past few weeks when dipping into some “coercion, Chinese-style” was tempting. This was especially true when I wasn’t sure how to get Pip to do what needed to happen next. But, ultimately, I knew this kind of badgering and intimidation would make both of us miserable. He would hate me for attacking him, and I would hate myself for the same reason. This hate might be short-lived, but it would make the next time I needed to push him that much more difficult. I would have to ratchet up the intimidation a little bit more to get the same effect. Eventually I would be like Amy Chua, screaming insults at my child in order to cower him into compliance. This is not the kind of relationship I want with my children.

Instead, the reading lessons Pip and I are doing together are having the opposite effect. That little bit that we accomplish each morning as we successfully negotiate another lesson colors everything else we do that day. It gives the rest of the morning a positive aura and makes both Pip and I more satisfied and tolerant of each other. Working together on a project of this nature is bolstering our relationship and increasing the love we have for each other. I’m not sure that Amy Chua would even believe that such a thing is even possible.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Revolutionary questions

This week’s post can be found at the Daddy Dialectic blog. The front page is here. A direct link to the post is here.

Here's a teaser paragraph:

About two weeks ago, Pip dug out from the far end of our bookshelf two children’s biographies that had belonged to me as a kid and had somehow managed to survive all my subsequent moves and book purges. One recounted the life of Thomas Jefferson. The other was about Benjamin Franklin. Re-reading these books for the first time in about two decades, while popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were toppling dictatorial governments in the background, made me very aware of the almost magical ease with which the transition from revolution to stable democratic governance occurs in America’s founding mythology. This awareness made me question whether this mythology will ultimately do my children a disservice. Will it lead them to expect at an intuitive level that any dramatic break from established patterns will resolve itself neatly and in a way that is universally good? And, as such, will this expectation lead them towards a naive embrace of revolutionary change at the expense of careful and programmatic efforts (such as happened with the Bush-Rumsfeld strategy for creating a democratic Iraq)? My own experience makes me think that this is not a totally ridiculous question.

Read the rest of the post here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

To cry or not to cry

There are a few people in the world who believe that every fundamental aspect of who we are is decided by our genetics. There is another group who contend that such things are completely the result of influences from one’s social environs. All the rest of us fall somewhere in between. We recognize at some level that any argument of biology versus culture or “nature versus nurture” is a gross simplification of the complex interweaving of physiological capacity and social experience that is at work in the making of a human being.

The parents of young children repeatedly encounter instances where they must negotiate this interweaving in direct and immediate ways. When a child starts to talk depends on the development of muscle coordination within the lips and tongue and the exposure to sounds the child can mimic. When a child starts to walk depends on the development of muscle strength in legs, hips, back, and stomach and the availability of opportunities to safely practice getting up and moving around on two feet; When a child begins to eat solid foods depends upon the development of the proper gastric chemicals (and eventually teeth) in combination with cultural expectations about what constitutes appropriate nutrition for babies. When a child begins using the toilet depends on the development of the muscles necessary for bladder control and on parental choices regarding when and how to pursue toilet training.

In each of these cases, the opaqueness of how the biological and cultural influences intersect with each other created some uncertainty in exactly how I should handle them. However, as they are all skills that are basic functions of the human repertoire, I was able to approach them with the confidence that as long as I was patient both Pip and Polly would eventually get them.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of other practices, habits, and behaviors – both ones that I wish for Pip and Polly to acquire and ones that I wish they could lose - for which I have no such confidence. Saturday brought us one of the latter.

That evening, as I was preparing to put Polly and Pip into bed, Polly whacked her head against a chair. It was one of those dumb things that happen when we’re all tired and slightly off-kilter. She was standing on the floor and pulling a blanket up over her head when she stepped on the blanket and stumbled. Turning around as she fell, she crashed her head right into the seat of a big wooden rocking chair that occupies one corner of the kids’ room. The impact was solid enough to knock her head back and make her body go limp for just a moment as it slid to the floor.

After a moment of stunned silence, Polly started crying. Then Pip did, too. Actually, I think Pip, seeing what happened and anticipating Polly’s reaction, buried his head in his bedding and began wailing even before the tears started running down Polly’s face. He kept crying in a jerky and flailing fashion even as Ava took Polly out of the room and walked her around to comfort her. He only calmed down when Polly’s cries had dissipated. Then, seeing that she was no longer upset, he too smiled and asked me to wipe away the snot that was running down from his nose.


Pip’s reaction to Polly’s distress was not unusual or unexpected. It is his normal pattern, one that has been in place since Polly was born two years ago. For the longest time, I have had trouble making sense of it because in the moment it feels very manipulative – Polly cries and gets lots of attention so Pip then cries to recapture some of that attention for himself. But in facing this situation over and over again, I have come to wonder how much control over this reaction he really has.

My uncertainty derives from two points.

First, Pip’s reaction to another’s tears is not limited to Polly. When he first started swim lessons, he was in a class with other kids who had never been in a swimming pool before. Two of these kids were terrified of being in the water, screaming and crying while the swim instructor gently moved them around the pool. The other kids in the class watched these two with quiet nervousness, but Pip burst out in tears the moment either one of them made so much as a whimper. When I would go to comfort him and try to show him that the kids were okay, he would just repeat over and over in a desperate voice, “Why are they crying?”

Pip encountered a similar situation during his time in preschool. One of the other boys in his class experienced significant separation anxiety during the first couple of weeks. This anxiety would lead to prolonged crying episodes each morning when his parents’ dropped him off. Again, while the other kids in the class seemed unnerved by this behavior, Pip would break out into full on tears. All it took was for Pip to hear this other boy start to cry and he would instantly go from happy and excited to apprehensive and crying. The whole situation made those first weeks of preschool very difficult for all of us. Fortunately, the teachers and the boy’s parents worked to find activities that would ease that moment of separation and eventually they seemed to develop a pattern that got him – and, consequently, Pip - into the classroom without undue stress.

The second reason I wonder about how much control Pip can exercise over his reaction to the tears of others is the intensely visceral nature of his crying. When he loses it, it’s a full-body experience. The crying doesn’t ramp up. It just bursts out of him. His feet kick. His face goes into his hands. Everything else shuts down. Then, after its done, he’s right back to normal.

This burst seems driven by the same pattern of feelings that I experience whenever I am dealing with a crying child. For example, when I saw Polly start to fall, my stomach involuntarily tightened and my breathing stopped. As her head hit the chair and her body flopped backward, I felt myself grimace and heard an audible groan come up from inside me. After the impact, I felt a frantic rush of worry as the worst case scenarios flashed through my head. Then, I took a deep breath to release that tension and slow down the rush of adrenaline before I picked Polly up and simultaneously tried to calm her and evaluate her (she was fine).

What I think happens for Pip is that he goes through the same internal tightening and adrenaline release as I do, but at the moment that I take a deep breath, he breaks into tears. His body seems to overwhelm whatever control his mind is trying to exercise.


At first, I was not very sympathetic to these outbursts as they usually place me in the difficult position of soothing two crying children instead of one. I would get frustrated with Pip because I needed his support in helping to calm Polly and instead his actions were just making her more upset. Over time my frustration with him in these moments has lessened. I have watched him over and over, and now I can see that the nature of his crying is very similar to what I experience when I crack from a buildup of tension, frustration, and exhaustion. When this happens to me, there is very little I can do about it. I have to let the tears come out because my body has decided that this is what it needs to do.

And all this crying feels very well be therapeutic. I have found that in the moments when I feel completely overwhelmed some crying helps clear away enough tension to make me functional again. It is a bit like vomiting when I feel nauseated; I don’t really want to do it, but I know that if I go ahead and let it happen it will make me feel better. Pip seems to be the same way. His moments of intense feeling pass quickly and are generally not followed by a period of brooding, sullenness, or morose behavior. Once he is done crying, he pops right back to being happy and energetic and usually starts laughing about all the snot that is now running out of his nose.

All of these dynamics complicate the question of what I should do with Pip in these moments when the emotions of others overwhelm him. There are basically four options, each with its own problematic elements:

- comfort him: This poses two problems. First, it is difficult to comfort both kids at once. Bringing them close together just intensifies the crying of each. Second, it reinforces the idea that crying is a guaranteed attention getting mechanism. I want both Polly and Pip to be able to cry when they are hurt or frustrated. But I also fear the power that crying gives them. I don’t want them to learn to use it as a tool of manipulation.

- tell him to stop: This is one of those unrealistic commands that people try but never works. Once the tears are flowing, you can’t order a person to stop crying, regardless of how nicely or harshly you phrase it.

- leave him alone/send him to a safe spot to work it out: This tactic is the one I tend to use. It has the advantage of separating the crying children and allowing Pip to continue crying for as long as he feels he needs to. It also avoids the extra attention dilemma that comes with the comforting tactic. However, in using this tactic it feels like I am abandoning Pip in a time of difficulty. I worry that by sending him away from me I may be undermining his trust and his willingness to come to me in future times of difficulty.

- teach him to head off the emotions before they start: I think this is the best option. Ava and I have worked with him to create ways of holding off the tears – like moving to a different room or saying a funny word. This has worked sometimes though it is difficult to tell whether the gradual decrease in crying incidents over time is the result of our tactical deployments, Pip’s physical and emotional maturation, or just fewer instances of crying by Polly. My biggest concern here is the stigmatization of crying that is implied in the process. How do we parse when it is okay to cry and when it is not?

Ultimately, what I am running up against is the fact that in all but a few, well-defined situations (e.g. funerals), public crying is not a socially acceptable practice. It makes people uncomfortable and marks the one who is crying as incapacitated or out of control. As such part of me wants to teach him never to cry except in strategically useful situations. And yet, there is something physiologically important in crying that I want Pip to be able to access. It not only provides a physical release of internal stress but in the process it also facilitates an acknowledgement of the emotional intensity of a moment. It took me thirty years to recognize that this acknowledgement is an important thing, that it helps generate the kind of positive attitude coming out of a problem moment that makes handling the next array of challenges much easier. I see no reason why he should have to follow the same pattern as me.

So for now, I am stuck in a dilemma. I want Pip to understand when he can cry and when I need him to hold it back. But the tools I have at my disposal are too crude to teach him the nuances of this pattern. Instead, Pip and I flail about in a haze of incomplete knowledge and incommunicable frustrations with one another. It is a failure that is all too human and one that we can never fully overcome. The best I am hoping for is to not do too much damage in the process.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Tiger Mothers and their cubs

Three weeks ago the Wall Street Journal published an essay written by Amy Chua, the daughter of Chinese immigrants and a law professor at Yale University, in which she presented her take on the question of why so many children of Chinese immigrants are high achievers in areas like music and math. According to Chua, the key element to the “success” of these children is the strict parenting they receive from their “Tiger Mothers” which she sets in sharp contrast to the permissive approach of “Western” parents. As it is part of a publicity campaign to sell her new memoir about parenting her own children, the essay, entitled ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,’ is written in a tone that is aggressive and intentionally bombastic. It has provoked all kinds of discussion across the internet and blogosphere, to the point where one website self-servingly labeled the essay “The Wall Street Journal’s Most Controversial Article Ever.”

In the essay, Chua lays out what she sees as three principle differences in parenting styles between “Tiger” parents and “Western” parents.

- First, typical Western parents are too concerned with a child’s self-esteem to set high standards and hold the child to them. They accept B’s and C’s on report cards whereas Tiger mothers go ballistic over anything less than A’s.

- Second, Western parents do not teach their children to respect and honor their parents. Tiger mothers demand obedience because they believe their children owe their parents everything.

- Third, Western parents allow their children to think for themselves, to have their own interests, and to have their own friends. Tiger mothers know what activities are best for their children and do not permit them to be distracted by any extracurricular endeavors.

While these three points are the intellectual meat of the essay’s argument, the real hook comes from a fourth proposition that Chua interlaces throughout the text: Tiger cubs succeed because Tiger Mothers are hard on them in ways that Western parents will not or cannot follow. To hammer home this final point, Chua concludes the essay with a story about how she browbeat her younger daughter into successfully learning a particularly difficult piece of music. She relates how she forced her daughter, Louisa, to practice her violin for hours on end – using insults and withholding food at times to keep her from quitting – until Louisa finally managed to master the piece. At the end, Chua depicts Louisa as happy and full of pride at what she was able to accomplish.

While this vignette is supposed to shock and titillate, I find it amusing that it so neatly fits into a narrative that is very familiar to anyone who follows or is involved in sports. The story of the overbearing coach who through vitriol and abuse pushes players (those that are not driven off) to greatness is a regular feature of many sporting seasons. The names are easy to come by in the major sports leagues of the US: Bobby Knight, former basketball coach at the University of Indiana and Texas Tech University; Mike Dikta, former head coach of the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints football teams; Bob Huggins, former basketball coach at the University of Cincinnati and current coach at West Virginia University; Bill Parcells, former coach of the New York Giants, New York Jets, New England Patriots, and Dallas Cowboys football teams. All these men used their position of power as coach to frighten, humiliate, and intimidate – essentially to bully - players into doing whatever was demanded of them. Those players who would not comply were run off, traded, or otherwise ostracized.

The violence of the bullying coach carries with it a strange sort of charisma. Many people, especially those who do not experience its full glare, love it. They see nothing wrong with the piles of insults, the mind games, and even the physical abuse exacted on players. They passionately defend the actions of the coach in much the same way that Amy Chua defends hers: they argue that these trials push players to do more than they ever would on their own and in the process they make them immune to the pressure that comes with performing difficult tasks in big moments.

At the same time, there are many other people who view this violence with disgust. They see a coach who is wrapped up in a messianic vision of himself that permits all in the pursuit of victory. They see a person who employs dictatorial violence to create an atmosphere of persistent insecurity and then uses this insecurity to justify and maintain their own authority. They believe that in the process these coaches wind up manipulating and goading players in cruel, unnecessary, and ultimately counterproductive ways (The parallels between these coaches and the personalities involved in promoting the use of torture by the US military and intelligence services are not coincidental).

I am one of these latter people and my answer to the supporters of coaches like Bobby Knight is that the person many consider to be the greatest coach of all time employed a motivational strategy that was the polar opposite of Knight’s bullying violence. John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach of the University of California at Los Angeles, never dipped into the pot of meanness and degradation when dealing with his players (or anyone else). He motivated his players by treating them with respect and intelligence, still demanding the necessary sacrifices of time and energy, but doing so quietly and with obvious purpose. As a result players respected him, not because he demanded it but because he earned it. And for players like Hall of Famer Bill Walton, that respect ultimately became an outright love that lasted far beyond their years playing basketball.

My point here is that I believe the kind of meanness that Amy Chua revels in and celebrates in her WSJ essay as fundamentally important to the success of Tiger cubs is really a self-aggrandizing contingency which is more about maintaining her own power over her children than about facilitating her children’s success. The threats, insults, and abuse she employed – “coercion, Chinese-style” as she puts it – are the blunt instruments of one who does not have the knowledge or confidence to motivate her children in other ways. In my opinion, not only are these tactics counterproductive over the long term – something Chua seems to have encountered with her second child – but they also perpetuate an acceptance of banal violence in society writ large. Violence at this everyday level begets violence at other levels and we become caught in a vicious spiral where dogs eat dogs and “by any means necessary” becomes the only logic anyone understands.

What I find particularly unfortunate about Chua’s gleeful recounting of her insults and abuses is that they overshadow the other significant elements at work in her parenting style. Take a look at these three quotes from her WSJ essay:

- “Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children.”

- “If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.”

- “And it's true that Chinese mothers get in the trenches, putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids.”

In Amy Chua’s characterization, the Tiger Mother spends a tremendous amount of time working with and for her children. It is extremely important to recognize this time because it – as opposed to the insults - is the necessary condition for making children successful. For example, holding kids to high standards in school is one thing, but it doesn’t really change anything until someone takes the time to get the practice tests and work through them with a child who is struggling. To take another example, banning television and video games is another ‘strict’ tactic Chua employs. What she doesn’t say is that this choice also requires extra parental time. Not only does it require the parent to avoid the TV (at least while the kids are awake) but it also means there is more time during which the parent will need to engage a child in something else. Those extra half-hours spent reading together, playing games, working on a musical instrument, or just talking add up quickly.

Ultimately, the larger argument that Chua is making in her WSJ article is one that I agree with: the prominence of Tiger cubs in areas like the performance of classical music is not a result of biology or genetics. It is also not the result of some specific cultural aptitude or advantage conveyed by some linguistic difference. This prominence is the product of very focused and determined work which is driven by focused and determined parents.

I also agree with Chua that this reflects a significant difference between Euro-American culture and many other cultures in their dominant notions of what childhood is and should be. In the US, we tend to conceptualize childhood as a time of innocence and play, a time before worry, a time of joy that should be free from the responsibilities and pressures of adulthood. “Play is a child’s work” is the mantra of many a preschool teacher. Kids who don’t get this time, who have to “grow up early,” because a parent dies or a sibling needs extra care are often treated with a kind of sympathy for the presumed bliss they were forced to give up.

As Amy Chua shows, this notion of childhood innocence is not universal. It is the product of a specific set of historical and geographical patterns (largely 19th and 20th century European thought). Recognizing these patterns is not to pass judgment on the wrongness (or rightness) of the ideas themselves. Instead, it merely brings to the fore the fact that there are other ways of thinking about childhood, what children should be doing during this time, and even what constitutes a child.