Friday, March 14th, 2014
By now you’ve heard that Amy Chua (best known as Tiger Mom) is back with another controversial book, The Triple Package. Co-written with her husband, Jed, the premise of the new book focuses on how eight cultural and minority groups in America (among them East Asians, Indians, Jews, and Mormons) have three traits that make them better than other groups: a strong sense of self-worth, an uncertainty about their status in society, and an ability to avoid temptation and short-term gratification.
Although the book isn’t a parenting memoir or handbook, the refocus on success and superiority has made the book quick fodder in the news. Fellow Parents.com blogger Richard Rende of Red-Hot Parenting kickstarted a series of posts based on the benchmarks of success outlined in the book. I haven’t read The Triple Package yet, but both Slate and The Washington Post have already pointed out the flaws and holes in the thesis that only certain groups are the most likely to succeed (like ignoring historical and statistical data that don’t fit the book’s thesis and disregarding the impact of immigration and social class).
Just the superlative “most likely to succeed” reminds me of the school superlatives and stereotypes surrounding kids as they grow up, which inadvertently influence how they view and define success. But here’s the thing: labels and traits are never as pat as we want them to be. And who’s to say that having every single trait for success (even by Amy and Jed’s standards) will actually determine success? Being Chinese-American seems to predetermine me for Triple Package success, and I remember growing up with the pressure to be successful in school and in my job — not so much from my parents, believe it or not, but from myself. (Maybe it had something to do with being an only child.) But what does success really mean? By society’s standards, the traditional ideas of success center on prestige, wealth, and marriage: school success means graduating with honors, work success means having a high-paying job, romantic success means finding your true love…you get the idea.
But by defining success narrowly and by traditional measures, we risk limiting a child’s potential growth and feelings of self-esteem or self-worth. Kids are particularly susceptible to adults’ ideas of success, so it’s important for parents to emphasize that success is subjective; kids should define their own personal markers of success. These markers can change through the years, but one marker should stay constant: happiness. One of my favorite quotes is by Margaret Lee Runbeck, “Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.” For me, the word “success” can be substituted for “happiness” — the journey toward achieving an outcome should be its own success. And this journey often means having determination and perseverance and being dedicated to an outcome that makes me happy. And to determine my level of personal success or happiness, I ask myself questions that kids can also ask themselves: Am I happy with my decision(s)? Am I happy with what I’ve accomplished? Does XYZ make me happy?
I know, I know, the idea of happiness sounds like a cliché, but it doesn’t make it any less true. After all, one could achieve the standard checklist of success and still be unhappy or, on the flip side, one could achieve none (or a few) and have a happy life. And without happiness, it’s hard to stay positive and motivated to keep moving forward in life. So instead of trying to live up to society’s standards for success, help kids focus on what makes them happy and praise them for the time and effort they put into the journey toward personal success — however they define it, and whatever it may be.
Share in the comments below: How will you help your child define and determine success?
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Image: Chalkboard with text, Success It Depends on You, via Shutterstock
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Wednesday, February 19th, 2014
We’ve all heard countless “jokes” about the sleeplessness of parenthood, whines about never seeing a movie, pleas for a glass of wine. If you’ve ever thought that being around us parents is enough to scare off the young from having children, here is the Slate essayist Ruth Graham saying just that and decrying the “pissed-parent genre”:
“My Facebook feed goes wild for this stuff… because apparently parents never get their houses clean, never have sex, never read books or have adult conversations, never shower, and never, ever have a moment to themselves,” Graham writes. “But for me, a childless woman, the cumulative effect of all of this ‘honesty’ is a growing sense of dread.”
Graham’s piece—subtitled “Why do parents make parenting sound so God-awful”—stuck with me, for its level-headed analysis of this constant drumbeat of unhappiness and the pathos of her terrified reaction. “It’s not your responsibility to promote the parenting brand,” she concludes, speaking to parents directly. “But if you can manage it, consider occasionally sparing a thought for the nonparents among you who are eavesdropping on your online conversations.”
Graham was motived to write her piece in part by the publication of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, by the journalist Jennifer Senior. Building on research that shows parents are no happier, and may be less happy, than non-parents, she suggests that the realities of modern parenting conspire to make this the case. We’re having children later in life (and are therefore more aware of what we’re giving up) and working more (and therefore struggling to carve out time for our children).
And, Senior argues, the very institution of parenthood has transformed: In the past, children served an economic purpose, helping in the fields or learning a trade as early as they can. Today’s parents are more focused on their children’s psychological and emotional developments, goals that are murkier and harder to define. “Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard,” Senior writes. “Children went from being our employees to our bosses.”
We parents are in a bind when it comes to discussing the realities of parenthood. Focus on the negative too much, and you’re scaring the young folks, like Graham, not to mention becoming what we tell our children to avoid being–constant whiners. Focus on the positive too much and you’re accused of being unrealistic, sugarcoating the difficulties, and making other parents feel they are alone in their challenges.
Years ago, when my wife and I started to tell people she was pregnant with our first child, we were struck by how many friends responded with that now-trite, “Get all the sleep you can now!” or some variation thereof. Hearing these exhortations one time too many, I committed to having a different reaction when friends broke their pregnancy news to me. Instead of launching into the obvious warnings and complaints, I tell them honestly that, despite what they’ve heard, parenthood is incredible, and assure them they will make fantastic parents. Still, there’s no escaping the negativity.
The issue seems to have struck a chord with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who likewise connects Senior’s book and Graham’s essay. He issues something of a mea culpa—admitting that parenthood has made him a “whiner”–and pledges to do better. He calls on parents to be “cheerful warriors, to emphasize the joy rather than the misery, while also extending tolerance and understanding–rather than judgment infused with envy–to friends and neighbors who choose a different path.”
Douthat picks up on a fascinating part of Senior’s argument about why so many parents are unhappy, contrasting the parent-child relationship to virtually every other connection we have in our lives today. Being a parent is in some ways counter-cultural. In a society where so many of our connections are fleeting—where we switch partners and careers more easily than ever, where we expect instant gratification and endless personalization—the unbreakable nature of the parent-child relationship is unique.
“It isn’t necessarily that family life has changed that dramatically in the last few generations,” Douthat comments. “Rather, it’s stayed the same in crucial ways–because babies still need what babies need–while outside the domestic sphere there’s been an expansion of opportunities, a proliferation of choices and entertainments and immediately available gratifications, that make child rearing seem much more burdensome by comparison.”
That can be scary for many people, and the sacrifices it entails can be daunting, leading to greater unhappiness among parents and even lower birthrates.
Ultimately, comparing the happiness level of parents and non-parents seems to me to be an apples-oranges question and one for which much depends on what definition you have in mind for “happiness.” Defined by our culture’s insatiable desire for instant gratification, we parents probably are not very happy. But that’s not all there is to life.
Though the comparison is imperfect, there are parallels between parenthood and the life of an Olympic athlete. Are Olympic hopefuls happy? Are they having fun? After all, they’ve sacrificed greatly, choosing a difficult, risky path often from a very early age and forgoing much of the normal rhythms and activities of childhood and their teenage years. Those countless hours on the ice or the slopes must be at times monotonous, frustrating, disappointing, grueling, even crushing—and at times joyful, hopeful, inspiring, fun, and deeply fulfilling. Kind of like parenthood.
It’s their choice, sure, and unlike us parents Olympians can walk away. But why don’t they? It’s something deep inside them, like it is with us parents. That’s not to say we parents should be miserable today in order to be happy later on—anyone who is truly “all joy and no fun” is doing something wrong, for sure—but it does mean that parenting is a mixed bag, and its reward is deeper and different than anything else we experience. It’s indescribable. Like love. Like life.
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Image: Kids fighting and crying with desperate mother in the background via Shutterstock
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