Can You Motivate Your Child To Achieve Greatness?

Can you motivate your child to achieve greatness?

Amy Chua thinks you can and you must, and her methods are drawing a lot of attention. An excerpt from her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, recently appeared in the online version of the Wall Street Journal. It’s been the site’s #1 most visited page for weeks, and already has over 7,500 comments (most articles there get a few hundred comments at most). It’s also sparked debate among parents all over the country. (Note: Ms. Chua has accused the Wall Street Journal of taking the most shocking parts of her book out of context, but read on and see what you think.)

Ms. Chua’s daughters are high achievers; one even played piano at Carnegie Hall. Ms. Chua credits their achievements in part to not letting them go on sleepovers, be in school plays, have play dates, watch television or use computers. She required that both girls learn to play the piano and violin (no other instruments allowed). Here’s her description of one daughter’s attempts to learn to play piano with both hands:

Lulu couldn’t do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off.

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, “I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?” I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.

“Get back to the piano now,” I ordered.

“You can’t make me.”

“Oh yes, I can.”

The girl did end up mastering the technique, and according to her mother, was thrilled about it. But was it her achievement, or her mother’s?

I found this statement by Ms. Chua particularly disturbing:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.

Nothing is fun until you’re good at it? I remember the crooked little quilts my girls made when they were young. They loved making them, and I didn’t force them to do so. Now they can crank out lovely quilts much faster than I can. But the point is, they had fun making crooked quilts and now they have fun making straight ones, and it was their idea to make quilts in the first place. I merely taught them the basics and helped them when they asked for it.

Recently I read The Element: How Finding your Passion Changes Everything, by Sir Ken Robinson. This noted creativity expert studies very successful creative people. In his book, he cites the experiences of many creative types who didn’t know what they were good at until they heard or saw something that struck a chord within them.

For instance, Robinson interviewed drummer Mick Fleetwood of the band Fleetwood Mac, who, as a young boy, struggled in school but loved to tap on things. What Fleetwood called “this tapping business” really came to life when he went to a live musical performance for the first time and realized that he wanted to be in that kind of environment:

“One day, I walked out of school and I sat under a large tree in the grounds. I’m not religious, but with tears pouring down my face, I prayed to God that I wouldn’t be in this place anymore. I wanted to be in London and play in a jazz club. It was totally naïve and ridiculous, but I made a firm commitment to myself that I was going to be a drummer.”

What came next was a series of “breaks” that might never have occurred if Mick had stayed in school.

Mick’s parents understood that school was not a place for someone with Mick’s kind of intelligence. At sixteen, he approached them about leaving school, and rather than insisting that he press on until graduation, they put him on a train to London with a drum kit and allowed him to pursue his inspiration.

Note that Fleetwood’s parents didn’t force him to play the drums, nor did they dissuade him from following his dream in order to follow one of theirs. Robinson’s book is full of stories of people who successfully followed their own interests, or passions as Robinson calls them. Not one of them achieved greatness by following their parents’ passions. In fact, in most cases the parents, if mentioned at all, either encouraged their children to find their own passions, or at the very least did not get in their way.

So who do you think is on the right track, Chua or Robinson? I’m with Robinson. I’ve watched my own kids pursue and master subjects that I had nothing to do with, or that I’m weak in. I think we help our kids achieve greatness by removing obstacles and giving help when asked.  I don’t believe in forcing kids to study specific instruments, or threatening to take away their belongings if they don’t practice.

I love watching my children enjoy becoming good at something they love. Why turn it into something negative?

10 thoughts on “Can You Motivate Your Child To Achieve Greatness?

  1. I agree completely – I want my children find greatness in themselves, not in what I or my husband thinks is great. And in whatever they do, I want them to be kind and loving, which is taught by example, not by the terroring Chua describes!

  2. I love how you juxtapose Sir Ken’s wonderful book against the principles touted by Ms. Chua. I have seen so many arguments and discussions about this excerpt, including the fact that the book itself traces her journey toward becoming more of a “Rabbit Mom” (She was broken down by the youngest. It figures!)

    What troubles me is the defense of Chua’s methods because many think that kids need or are supposed to have a well rounded education. Sir Ken does a better job at showing how following your passion results in a well rounded person. I prefer his style.

    Peace and Laughter!

  3. Good point, Diana. They learn by our example, don’t they? Thanks for weighing in.

    So you know that book, Cristina. Glad you liked it too!

  4. Chua’s version of mothering frightens and saddens me. There is no love exhibited here, and certainly no concern for the individual child’s unique gifts or personality. As a homeschooling mom, I know I’ve left some Mack truck-sized gaps, but I’ve seen some truly beautiful things come from encouraging my children to find their own ways (with some judicious parameter-setting and mandatory subjects–whether they liked math, or not!). My husband and I think that, after raising our children in a household of faith,(and giving them their physical needs, etc.) our best gift is to help them discover who God made them to be. And so, we have a 27y.o. who has (finally!) gone back to school to study radiology (and is top of his class), a 26y.o. fledgling homeschool mom who sells Mary Kay and is an EMT/volunteer firefighter (we joke about a business card that combines all that), an 18y.o. who is studying Fire Science, has finished his EMT coursework, and creates websites for fun (he’s also a volunteer fire fighter & Eagle Scout). Our 16y.o. is currently following his dream of becoming a real-life cowboy–minimal class time and bookwork, but he’s “apprenticing” by working at a local ranch (and getting paid!); he’s also in our local V.F.D. Our 13 & 10y.o. daughters are into…well, anything and everything, including piano (often played badly!), playing with and caring for our menagerie, singing in the choir, dabbling with science kits, and recipes, and mountains of craft supplies…and moaning a lot over Saxon math lessons *g*.

    Two favorite quotes that I claim for our homeschooling endeavors are:
    “If a thing’s worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”
    (G.K. Chesterton)

    “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
    (W.B. Yeats, attrib.)

    God’s design and my children’s dreams come up with far more wonderful results than I could ever plan!

  5. Julia, thanks for sharing about your children. They sound awesome….your family is a great model for homeschooling families further back on the path to look up to. And I love those quotes!

  6. Just because you push your kids to tears, forcing them do school work doesn’t mean they will achieve more. I have 4 children and much of our school consisted of me curled up on the couch reading for hours while the kids colored or played around me. “Another chapter, Mom!” I think our record was 6 hours! They did some “work” but due to many issues and times, school was very laid back and delight directed, often self taught.

    In our home school group, there was a family with the same sex and aged kids who pushed pushed pushed, often I would hear of tears. One day a comment from the mom was passed to me that she didn’t think my kids would do well in college because of our minimal structured academics.

    Funny thing was – when each pair of the two oldest took their ACT tests, their scores were the same. My oldest was almost at the top of her class at the medical college she attended as well and was way more mature and capable then the other students her age plus most that were way older. In the college she is now attending she is a straight A honor student. On all but a handful of tests she was the first one done with almost straight A’s. The next child is excelling in his job and school. The next one graduated at 16 and is exploring life.

    And the youngest – I had to put her into public school last semester where she excelled, but is thankfully back home again. The teachers loved her because she actually enjoyed learning. She was at the top of the top English class, and well up there in the top science class. Most people think she is at least 18 or 19, not 16. And for the most part, she has schooled herself (all the kids actually) since 2006.

    I share with people when I was encouraging them in their new home schooling endeavors. “You WILL miss something important, get over it!”

    Fuel their sparks. If those sparks or fires go out, let them start on another. Support them, love them, don’t force them. I tried for 2 years to get my 4 yo daughter to read with “teach your child to read in 100 easy lessons” I waited until my son begged me to teach him to read – we breezed through it.

    Have fun! Enjoy your kids! Enjoy the journey! Don’t be a slave to school. It snowed? Have a snow day and send them out to the neighbors to make their own money. Or just let them play! Make some hot chocolate and go join them in a snow battle!

  7. Thanks Babara! And on a bit of a tangent, but in response to Ms. Chua’s idea of cutting “non-essentials”, I’ll offer anther quote I really like:

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

    Robert Heinlein (1907 – 1988)

  8. Her paradigm leaves no room for the child as a person and an image bearer. It saddens me greatly. I am reminded of a quote from Charlotte Mason:

    vol 3 pg 75

    –– What, then, have we to do for the child? Plainly we have not to develop the person; he is there already, with, possibly, every power that will serve him in his passage through life. Some day we shall be told that the very word education is a misnomer belonging to the stage of thought when the drawing forth of ‘faculties’ was supposed to be a teacher’s business.

    Thank you for sharing your perspective on Ms. Chua.

    Ring true,

  9. Christine, I know your family has been through a lot; so glad you’ve shared about their homeschooling experiences here so other parents can benefit.

    Julia, that quote is the perfect antidote to the type of parent Ms. Chua represents.

    It is a sad thing, Nancy, and I think many people feel sorry for children who are pushed so relentlessly by their parents.

    Thank you for weighing in, everyone. Awesome feedback on this post! 🙂

  10. I’m with Robinson too. In fact, I can think of quite a few things that I find fun, but I am not particularly good at- tennis, dancing, making music- I enjoy all of these things, but I don’t exactly excel at any of them. I think it’s actually more of a challenge to make sure kids know that it’s fine to keep doing things, even if they just are not gifted at them- the main thing is to enjoy life and all the wonderful blessings we have in it.

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