Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Therapist

In her book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua outlined her methods for raising her two daughters, and they were extreme.  She never allowed them to watch television or go on sleepovers or playdates, drilled them incessantly on their academics, forced them to spend hours and hours practicing their musical instruments, locked them outside in the middle of winter for disobeying her, rejected handmade gifts that didn't  show sufficient effort, and threatened to break or give away their toys when they couldn't master their music lessons.

She wrote the book in hindsight, not to show the world how much better  Chinese methods of child rearing work in comparison to ours in the West, but as an apology to her children.

  One of her daughters knuckled under, became a concert level pianist, and was accepted to Harvard.  The other rebelled furiously at every step, eventually forcing Chua to reexamine her methods.

Much of what she recounts is disturbing; she really was over the top, and she knows it.  But here's where I think Chua gets it much, much righter than many of us do:  she starts from the assumption that her children are strong, smart, capable and resilient, and so expects and demands nothing less than their absolute best effort, always.  And they usually deliver.  In the end, her two daughters both grow up to be disciplined, intelligent, highly accomplished, articulate, and successful.

I once met an Aikido teacher from Australia who told me about an ongoing conflict at the martial arts school where he taught.  One of the other teachers was a former ballerina who had a different style than his.  She made it a point of pride to flip and throw her students very, very gently and never to hurt them or leave a mark.  He, on the other hand, sparred strongly, without apology.  

The ballerina scolded him that his students were getting bruised in his classes, but he didn't see that as a problem.  He knew that that his boys, who loved to feel and appear tough, would point to their black and blue marks proudly and brag to everyone who would listen, "I got this in Aikido!"

 I have no doubt that this man was a very popular and sought after teacher.  By not coddling or babying his students, he was giving them the message that they were tough, skilled martial artists, able to compete with him at his level.  

Who were your favorite teachers in school?  I had a few I adored.  They expected us to be bold, smart, persistent, and creative, forced us to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones, and held us to extremely high standards. They saw only the best in us, and by getting us to believe that we were capable of great things, got us to see it, too.

How do you want the world to view you?  As someone who is strong, resourceful, and resilient, or someone who needs pity and protection?

We want to think of ourselves, and to be thought of by others, as strong and capable, able to handle with ease and grace whatever life sends our way.

Being able to cope well with adversity is a critical life skill.  In order for a child to be able to navigate his life successfully,  he needs to have the opportunity to develop his strengths and learn to rely on himself along the way.

Little lessons learned early add up to big problems avoided later on.  When parents continually intervene between their child and the world, give in to the child's every whim, constantly make the child the center of attention, jump in and solve his problems for him, and never teach  the child how to cope with frustration, loss, and disappointment, when it's time for him to manage on his own, he will have no experiences or inner resources from which he can draw.

I recently watched a video of one of my teachers, Sheila Frick, treating a little boy with neurological delays.  She wanted to trigger his protective extension responses, which were absent, so she rocked him forward and back over a large ball. He hit his head on the mat over and over until he finally figured out that if he didn't want to get hurt, he'd better get his arms out in front of him.  One of the students in the class was horrified at her methods.  Sheila explained that it was far better  for him to bump his head with her and learn how to protect himself in the controlled atmosphere of the sensory gym than have a big fall on the playground later on and get a head injury.

Doesn't this make total sense?  This could be applied to life in general.  Learn how to cope early with the small things, and be prepared later on when you are inevitably faced with the big ones.

I worry about what we are teaching our children {and how we are shortchanging them} when we passively stroll and carry them everywhere instead of expecting them to walk, let them watch hours and hours of badly written television every day, give them toys that don't encourage any creativity or imagination, dumb down their literature, stop requiring them to learn cursive handwriting, don't insist that they write legibly or learn the rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling,  give them calculators instead of drilling them in the basics of arithmetic, inflate their grades, pad them up with protective equipment for every outdoor activity, remove the merry go rounds, teeter totters, and monkey bars from the playground, eliminate recess and physical education, dismiss the teaching of art, music, and theater in schools as a frill, give them shoes with velcro closures instead of teaching them to tie their laces, make all their food "fun" {while draining it of any nutrition}  don't insist on good manners and respect for elders, don't set clear limits or impose consequences for bad behavior, ignore them while we are absorbed in our Ipads and cell phones, and tell every child in the entire soccer league that they are all the winner.

I see children who can't struggle with the simplest obstacle without giving up almost instantly.  They immediately look to someone else to solve their problems.  They can't advocate for themselves, or resolve conflicts, because they have been so passive and so coddled and protected their whole lives that they have never learned how to rely on or assert themselves.   Many of my little acquaintances have no empathy for others, because no one has ever demanded it of them.  They can't negotiate, come to consensus, or defend themselves effectively, because the adults have generally stepped in and handled things before they have had an opportunity to try.

One of the biggest jobs I have with many of the children I treat is retooling their self images. I'm not talking about employing verbal techniques for building the child's self esteem, which I think is a bad idea, anyway.   Imagine what a rude shock it is to always be told as a child that you are so very special and wonderful, and then to go out in the world as a young adult and discover that you are actually quite ordinary!  And that your boss and colleagues are most decidedly not aware of the deferential treatment that your elevated status confers!

Instead of telling the child he is strong, I have to show the child what he can do. When I give a child ample opportunities to prove to himself, over and over, that he can move past his small comfort zone, stretch himself, do something a little scary, tackle a challenge or obstacle and succeed, when he is confronted with something unfamiliar, he doesn't always think to himself, "I can't do that."

The more he understands that he can rely on himself to figure out a problem and come up with a successful solution, the stronger and more capable he will feel, and his behavior and performance will reflect that.

In my next post, I will outline some suggestions for helping a child grow up to be resilient, self reliant, capable, creative, and strong.


Anonymous said...


I agree entirely with this post!

As the mother of a 3 1/2 little boy, I do some of this spontaneously (I have let go of the stroller as soon as I could), but I find myself very often tempted to intervene needlessly, just to go faster or to simplify my own life (cooking pasta ensures a calm meal, dressing him myself is quicker...).

And there is a big instant gratification in just pleasing a child, that is sometimes difficult to resist.

I have noticed my husband tends to intervene in the playground when the kids interact. I have a hands off policy as long as no one is hurt. Very often the conflicts pass as quickly as they had appeared!

I am waiting for your next post impatiently!

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate what you post. You have a new subscriber now.