Our Push for ‘Passion,’ and Why It Harms Kids

The New York Times, Motherlode


Standing on the sidelines of my son’s soccer game I chatted with the younger sibling of one of his teammates. “I don’t really have a passion like my brother yet,” he explained, glancing over at the field. “But my parents are helping me look for one.” I waited for the note of irony that never came.

At some point in the last 20 years the notion of passion, as applied to children and teenagers, took hold. By the time a child rounds the corner into high school and certainly before he sets up an account with the Common App, the conventional wisdom is that he needs to have a passion that is deep, easy to articulate, well documented and makes him stand out from the crowd.

This passion, which he will either stumble upon or be led to by the caring adults in his life, must be pursued at the highest level his time and talent, and his parent’s finances, will allow. It is understood that this will offer him fulfillment and afford him and his family bragging rights that a mere dabbler would never earn. This is madness.

Our parental obsession with passion is encouraged by the college admissions process and fed by our own fears. Anyone making the rounds of college visits and sitting through the endless parade of information sessions will have heard the word “passion” uttered dozens of times. Every school, we are told, is brimming with qualified applicants, students who have the numbers. But the distinguishing factor is the student who shows passion, the proverbial oboe player, who stands out by standing alone in the devotion to her true love.

When The Washington Post disabused parents of the top 10 college admissions myths, No. 1 was that colleges want well-rounded students. Instead, it explained, “The word they most often use is passion.” When U.S. News & World Report offered suggestions on how to create a “killer college application,” it too listed passion in the top spot.

We have come to believe that only those who have passion find fulfillment and success professionally. It’s as if passion is life’s magic pixie dust. We want success for our children and believe that only passion can lead them there. We hold on to this myth despite considerable evidence that millions of people have lived long, happy, useful lives filled with joy and contentment and devoid of a defining passion.

And if passion is what makes our children look as special to colleges as they are to us, it’s also what lets us off the pushy parent hook. If a child has a “passion,” we’re not overdoing it in our zeal, or pursuing our own agenda. We’re just making their dream possible. Really, it has nothing to do with us.

If passion were just a matter of semantics, a word heedlessly thrown around in place of interest or pastime, this might not be a problem. But seeking a passion in childhood or adolescence has become an obsession in itself, and it is not without costs.

When children can’t find their elusive passions, yet feel compelled to proclaim one, they grab onto an interest, label it a passion and buy the requisite instrument or equipment. This is not a harmless charade, because fake passions crowd out real ones. When you are busy playing on the lacrosse field six days a week because in seventh grade you liked going to practices with your friends and your coach once mentioned you might have some talent, you may never discover that computer graphic design is your calling. When you take every opportunity to play piano daily in a band, orchestra and private lessons, you could easily miss the once-in-a-lifetime joy of being a member of a field hockey team. Pseudo passions can eat up our days and lay waste to any chance of finding a real ones.

Children don’t miss the message that they are supposed to find their laser focus early, and that dilettantes don’t earn accolades. They feel lost and unnecessarily pressured when they hear the relentless stories of classmates who have found their calling. Parents’ Facebook postings up the ante with quips like “Dance competition triumph. #Upatdawn #Passion” The drum beat gets louder in middle school and deafening in high school, when they know they will have to commit passion to paper in the form of the Common App, reporting accomplishments on a school, state and, yes, national level. It is hard not to feel that their chance to reach that level lessens every day.

And what becomes of us, the passion pushers, as we try to make something out of nothing every time our children show the slightest interest in an activity that does not involve a game console? Just look in your garage. O.K., I’ll go first. There are skates for the child who joined a team and went to two practices before realizing that he was not well suited for hockey. There are drum sticks and one of those funny little practice pads (thank goodness they play on those for months!) for the child who soon lost interest in percussion. There are easels and badminton sets and there was even a squash racket, but it has had a resurgence with another son.

I’d like to think of it as evidence that we let our children try new things; instead, I think it’s proof that we ran to the music, art, book, or sporting goods stores at every opportunity, lest a passing interest fail to bloom into a passion because it lacked parental money or dedication.

For most children, childhood isn’t about passion, but rather about exploration. Our job as parents is to nurture that exploration, not put an end to it. When we create an expectation that children must find their one true interest so early in life, we cut short a process of discovery that may easily take a lifetime.

Gossip: The Best Gift Your Teenager Can Give You

NY Times Motherlode Blog


CreditIllustration by Allison Steen

“Hey Mom, you know Josh, the junior I played basketball with last summer? He’s selling Adderall to ninth graders.”

The sudden appearance of controversial “news” mid-conversation is standard teenage behavior. You can substitute the revelation of any number of transgressions, from dangerous drinking to precocious sexual behavior, for the drug sales, but the result is the same: one speechless parent, one teenager waiting for a reaction. Get it right, and what started off as a dropped bombshell becomes an opportunity.

Option one: Hit the ceiling.

This would be the knee-jerk reaction for many of us. Understandably, because the news and its delivery signal at least two problems. First, we’ve learned that a local teenager is trafficking in a controlled substance. Second, we’re getting the impression that our own teenager thinks this is no big deal. A forceful response – launching into a lecture, threatening to call the cops or at least Josh’s parents – might serve to hammer home the message that the sale of drugs, prescription or otherwise, actually is a huge deal.

But here’s the problem. Most healthy teens have knee-jerk reactions of their own when a parent voices a strong opinion: they feel compelled to take up the opposing side. In fact, I’ve had teens in my practice explain to me that they will refuse to do something they were about to do, such as put away a backpack or take the dog for a walk, if a parent tells them to do it. Blowing a gasket all but invites a teen to retort that “lots of kids take Adderall, why are you freaking out?” even when the teen has his own doubts about Josh’s behavior.

Option two: Let it slide.

Your teen is actually talking to you and telling you about what’s going on at school. A tirade will certainly ruin the moment and might shut down the possibility of valuable future communiqués. Perhaps it’s best to follow your teen’s lead; be cool and leave the line open should other concerns arise, especially ones closer to home.

This isn’t good, either. In my experience, adolescents run other teenager’s behavior past their parents when they’re bothered by it. They usually know that their peer is out of bounds, and they’re confused by his or her apparent comfort with the misconduct, and maybe the fact that other teenagers seem to be too. So adolescents take a flat, even supportive, tone and float these scenarios by adults to gauge their reaction. When parents don’t respond appropriately — when grown-ups don’t act like grown-ups — adolescents feel uneasy.

Option three: Unwrap your present.

Your teen just gave you an opening to have a valuable conversation. Go ahead and accept that gift. Imagine that you’re a journalist who has just been handed a scoop, and begin your evenhanded investigation.

Consider starting with a head tilt and a, “Huh, really?” or gently inquire, “What do you think about that?” (Your child will feel less uneasy already.) Or invite your teenager to join you on a fact-finding mission. Hop online together and research the dangers of taking un-prescribed stimulants, and the legal implications of selling them. If it becomes clear that someone needs to do something, engage your teenager in helping to decide who should do it, and how.

What if it’s too late? You’ve already gone through the roof or taken the alarming news in stride, and the moment has passed. This is still an opening. My favorite parent-teenager interaction is one where the adult finds an opportunity to apologize to the adolescent. It makes the parent more real and imbues the adolescent with dignity, two essential components of any effective parental relationship with a teenager.

Find the moment to say: “It wasn’t helpful when I freaked out. We got distracted from the serious risks that those ninth graders, or Josh, might face if he’s selling his Adderall.” Or “I wasn’t tuned in when you told me about Josh. I understand that you’re not involved in this situation, but there’s some stuff I want you to know.”

Even when they aren’t in the mood for a discussion, there’s value in treating teenagers as the thoughtful young people we want them to be. One longitudinal study asked parents of seventh graders to share their opinions on teenagers in general, then examined how the parents’ views linked to their children’s late-adolescent behavior. Parents who believed teenagers to be difficult, and immune to adult influence, went on to have twelfth graders who were involved in more troubling behavior than those whose parents held a generally positive view of adolescence. In short, teenagers live both up, and down, to expectations.

When we engage earnestly with adolescents around provocative hearsay we are allowed to have critical conversations, communicate high standards and make it clear that we’re available to offer help when needed. Sometimes with teenagers, the best moments start off in the worst way.

Dear Parent: If Your Child Left It Home, Don’t Bring It In


Here’s an interesting article…reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “Never do for kids what they can do for themselves, and never do for kids what they can almost do for themselves.”  What do you think about this school’s policy?

A school in Seminole County, Fla., has a rule, clearly posted in the front office: “Attention students and parents: We do not accept items for dropoff such as lunches, backpacks, homework, sports equipment. Please plan accordingly.”

Lake Mary High School is bucking what it saw as a trend: parents coming to the rescue when their children (as children do) forgot what they needed for the day, and didn’t want to deal with the consequences. That sign caught the eye of Leslie Postal, an Orlando Sentinel reporter. “I’d just been at another high school and watched several parents come in with items their kids had forgotten,” she told me, via email, “and, to be honest, I’d recently run a notebook that my son had left in his room over to his high school. So the sign (and the policy behind it) struck me as interesting — and story worthy.” (Read High school cracks down on drop-offs of forgotten items for the principal’s rationale—and the initial reaction of parents to the no-rescue policy.)

Is the school micromanaging parents, or spot on? Motherlode readers (and writers) have long disagreed about whether a parent should deliver that which has been forgotten. Jessica Lahey, who writes the Parent-Teacher Conference here and is the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” rather famously left her son’s forgotten homework on the table even though she was going to the school later that morning anyway.

“We had just been talking about how doing the work wasn’t enough,” she says. “It was his job to get it in his backpack and get it to school.” To her, that was a turning point for her son: He made a list that’s still on the fridge to remind him to take the things he needed in the morning.

In ‘Not Rescuing’ Our Kids Shouldn’t Mean Letting Them Flounder, Catherine Newman argued for a different approach — one that wouldn’t fly at Lake Mary High School. “The basic premise sounds right,” she writes of the idea (although not this specific policy). “Teach your children to take responsibility for themselves by letting them experience the natural consequences of their actions.”

But, “I’m thinking about the pound of flour I spilled on the floor recently, of Ben [her son] rushing in with a broom and his good nature. I picture him saying, instead, ‘Maybe next time you’ll be more careful’ and cringe.” Her proposed middle ground: “Not dependence, not independence, but something more like interdependence, where we acknowledge our mutual reliance, count on cooperation, and nurture generosity, compassion and charity.”

In our family, we straddle a line on this one. The odds are high that we wouldn’t be able or willing to deliver a forgotten item (two working parents, two different schools, one a half-hour away). Only one of the four children even has a phone to text a request. But if the stars align, as they do once in a while, we’ll help you out (and we’ll certainly remind you to grab whatever it is if we can see that you’ve forgotten it). Interdependence. Our children do sometimes point out that it is “not fair” that other people’s parents can drop things off, and perhaps that is part of the point of ruling it out all together (although it’s worth asking whether it’s the children whose parents save them every time who have the advantage, or the ones whose parents do not).

But it would be easy to say you won’t do it unless it’s convenient, and then somehow end up doing it an awful lot, unless (as in our family) circumstances make it all but impossible most of the time. A no-rescue policy would certainly simplify the whole thing. I would welcome it. Would you?

Follow KJ Dell’Antonia on Twitter at @KJDellAntonia or find her on Facebook and Google+.

Are We Helping Our Kids or Nagging Them?

The New York Times Motherlode Blog

It’s a parent’s job to teach our children: to do the right thing, use the right words, learn and practice the skills they’ll need to handle life at school and out in the world. But some mornings — after a seemingly endless stream of corrections intended to help my daughter — I end up feeling as if I am sending my unlucky child off to school with the extra burden of never getting anything right.

For parents of a child with any kind of “special need,” reminders and corrections are especially complicated. Prodding a child to pronounce the “s” at the end of the word or to look into someone’s face when they’re speaking or to finish a task or use a developing physical skill — can dominate the relationship between parent and child and become the focus of every interaction.

Striking a balance between the help that seems necessary and the loving, nonjudgmental relationship you want to have is harder than it sounds. Parents of children in various therapies are often coached by professionals on how to support their work — to encourage a correct pronunciation or redirect an interaction with a friend. But parents rarely receive guidance on when to step back and be parents, not teachers.

I live this dilemma daily, which is why a friend sent me “Being Mindful Of Our Nice To Nag Ratio” by Andrea Nair. My ratio I thought, surveying the headline, was singularly unimpressive.

I was clearly in a pattern where the “bulk of communication” to my child was corrective. “It can be hard to be nice to a child who, in your mind, is always blowing it,” Ms. Nair wrote.

“Blowing it?” That’s not the language I would ever use, but I suspect that is effectively what my child hears when the drumbeat of correction becomes louder than anything else.

I emailed Ms. Nair to ask for some ideas for parents on how to balance “corrective communication” with support. “How often do you correct,” I asked her, “and how often do you let it go?”

“I like to reframe ‘nagging’ as ‘redirection,’” she wrote. “We can still guide our children, even often if necessary, without making the child feel like we’re being hard on them.” Try wording directions neutrally, she suggested, like catching a child’s gaze and using a single word “eyes” to encourage eye contact.

Children, she said, do need a break from being redirected. “They need opportunities to feel they are doing something well.” With special needs, redirection can be tricky. Too much can start to be interpreted by the child as an inherent fault in who they are. Ms. Nair suggests using words focused on growth, and watching carefully for any language that may suggest that a child is incapable of getting it right.

“Parents can use the child’s behavior as an indicator when there have been too many redirections. Children might start snapping at parents, friends or siblings if they feel too hounded. Some kids even get absorbed in video games because that’s a world their parents can’t correct them in. ”

I still wish I knew precisely how often I need to help my child read social cues in order to help her grow. And I struggle with how often I can let things slide to make sure she knows that I love her even when she walks up to her third-grade teacher in the middle of the onstage presentation to the classroom parent and demands to be given a drink. (I let the teacher handle that one.) For now, I’ll mind my “nice to nag ratio” with all of my children.

How do you find the balance between correcting and lovingly allowing, for children with special needs and without?

Raising Teenagers: Protect When You Must, Permit When You Can

The New York Times Motherlode Blog

CreditJessica Lahey

I don’t think this comes as news to anyone here, but it can be a real challenge to parent and to educate adolescents. My own specimens (boys, 11 and 15) spend their days vacillating between energetic and catatonic, optimistic and morose, ebullient and apathetic. Some days, I doubt that they will be able to forge a safe and successful path into adulthood without my constant help and intervention.

Fortunately, Dr. Laurence Steinberg says this is not the case. In his new book, “Age of Opportunity: Lesson From the New Science of Adolescence” Dr. Steinberg explains that sure, adolescence is challenging, but it is also a time of great opportunity. I loved the book, so I reached out to him and asked for advice on how to best parent and to teach adolescents. His take? Given some information about how the adolescent brain is wired, and a few tips on how to parent children who can have trouble accessing their reserves of self-control and motivation, the children will be all right.

First, a primer on the adolescent brain. While human brains reach their full size by age 10, that brain is far from fully cooked, neurologically speaking. Adolescence is a time of an extraordinary reorganization of resources in the brain, particularly with respect to the prefrontal cortex, the center of self-regulation, and the limbic system, the seat of emotion. Dr. Steinberg suggests that we view adolescent brain development in three overlapping stages:

1. Starting the engines: When puberty first hits, the limbic system becomes more easily aroused, and young teenagers can shift between extreme, euphoric highs and unpredictable, precipitous lows.

2. Developing a better braking system: During middle adolescence, the prefrontal cortex slowly inches toward maturity, which will eventually allow teenagers to master self-control, and yes, they will return to a more reasonable and mature cognitive and emotional state.

3. Putting a skilled driver behind the wheel: Once the brakes of self-control are functional, it’s a matter of fine-tuning, of practicing until those brakes work every time, in all conditions.

There is not much we can do to rush this process of neurological maturation along, but what parents and teachers can do is to help children practice their burgeoning skills of self-control as they emerge. The children who are most likely to emerge from adolescence with a strong sense of self-control, motivation and competence, Dr. Steinberg writes, are those who have been parented according to three goals: warmth, firmness and support. Children raised by warm, firm and supportive parents – what Dr. Steinberg refers to as “authoritative” parenting – emerge from adolescence with more well-honed skills of self-regulation, and are much less likely to fall victim to delinquency, addiction, obesity and premarital pregnancy.

Dr. Steinberg provides the following prescription for helping children navigate adolescence and figure out how regulate their feelings, thoughts and behaviors:

Be Warm. Warm parents react to children’s emotional needs so they can muster the bravery required to function away from parents, under their own initiative. Warm parents are affectionate. They show their children that they not only understand their emotional needs, but also will respond to them. They provide a safe haven and are involved in their child’s life.

Be Firm. Firm parents establish clear rules, even clearer expectations, and predictable consequences. Most importantly, they follow through with those consequences when expectations are not met. “Children acquire self-control by taking the rules that their parents have imposed on them and imposing them on themselves,” Dr. Steinberg writes. Firm parents are consistent and fair, explain their rules and decisions, and avoid harsh punishment that is out of scale with the wrongs committed.

Be Supportive. The best way to support children is by “scaffolding,” Dr. Steinberg writes. Scaffolding is just what it sounds like; the supports parents erect around our children should support them only as much as they require, and as they become better at managing themselves, those external controls should come down. Parents who set children up to succeed, praise efforts rather than outcomes, help them think through their own decisions rather than making decisions for them, and refrain from being overly intrusive, will be able to dismantle those parenting supports gradually, and as they do so, their children will find that they are capable of standing tall on their own without crumbling when the world shakes them up a little bit.

I don’t think adolescence will ever be easy, either for my boys or for me, but I am trying to keep up my end of the deal by removing one piece of their scaffolding, every day. When my older son violates curfew, or my younger son takes off into the woods with my saw and his knife to whittle a staff out of a sapling, I look to my favorite piece of advice from Dr. Steinberg’s book, propped up in the back of my desk: “Protect when you must, but permit when you can.” Because that, I can do.

5 Ways To Help Your Kid Not Stink At Math


CreditPhoto illustration by Andrew B. Myers. Prop stylist: Randi Brookman Harris.

In “Why Do Americans Stink at Math” for this week’s edition of the magazine, I wrote about the latest wave of math reforms, which are both the best chance we have of curing our national “innumeracy” (the mathematical equivalent of not being able to read), and a near guarantee at driving children and their parents understandably insane. As I write in the story, the problem is not the new approach itself. The problem is our widespread failure to help teachers figure out how to teach in the new way.

While we wait for teachers to get the help they need, though, families will still be left with the frustrating task of monitoring homework time. What can parents do to help their children extract all the best from the new math — and minimize suffering from the worst? With the right attitude, and these tips, it might just be possible for you and your children to not only survive, but thrive.

1. Listen to What’s Going Wrong

Teaching children math requires first figuring out what they don’t understand. Instead of getting to the heart of a misunderstanding, we are far more likely to tell children something like, “No, that’s not right, try it this way instead.” The better response to a wrong answer begins with asking the child to explain her thinking.

For example, take a simple problem like 49 x 5. Many children will incorrectly write the answer as 405, and great math teachers know why. They have used the correct algorithm, lining up the numbers, carrying the 4, etc. But they have them in the wrong order, first adding 4 to 4 to get 8 and then multiplying the product by 5 to get 40, instead of multiplying 5 x 4 to get 20 and then adding 4 to get 24. Seeing this deeper misunderstanding in a child’s wrong answer allows you to combat it, showing the child not only the right steps, but why the wrong ones don’t make sense.

2. Do Everyday Math Out Loud

Many people use math in their jobs without realizing it. Dairy factory workers use it to figure out how to pack quarts of milk efficiently onto trucks; cashiers use it to make change and calculate prices; even those of us who are customers have to think about how to calculate a tip, compare prices and confirm we’ve gotten the right amount of change.

Math is not a disconnected process but a manipulation of real numbers that exist in the real world and make real sense. If you open up these everyday problems for your kids to think through with you, you won’t just be helping them to see how math makes sense in the real world. You can also get some help figuring out the tip.

3. Reclaim the Dreaded Dots.

One of the math exercises giving parents indigestion these days is the idea of asking children to draw and count dots in order to solve addition and multiplication problems. Motoko Rich recently reported for the Times on a couple vexed by “the pictures, dots and sheer number of steps needed to solve some problems.” Without any sense of why these exercises matter, they can be tedious.

But drawing dots can also help children think more deeply about math. The trick is not just to have them draw, but to think. In aresponse to Ms. Rich’s piece, Christopher Danielson, a math teacher as well as a parent, described how he used “arrays,” the structure the dots are supposed to get kids thinking about, to help his 7-year-old daughter understand multiplication.

First he asked her to draw three rows of five dots, paying attention to how she counted out the total — probably counting by fives, he realized. Then he asked, “What if it had been 3 rows of 6?” After what Mr. Danielson described as a “long, thoughtful pause,” his daughter announced her answer: “Eighteen!” He followed up with the key question parents should marshal as much as possible: “How did you know that?” As Mr. Danielson describes, the resulting conversation took only a minute, but helped his daughter see some key ideas about multiplication and math in general:

The three rows of five she drew gave us a jumping off point for imagining the three rows of six we discussed. Three groups of five now has a relationship for her to three groups of six.

More importantly, the strategy of finding new facts based on old facts (here that 3 groups of 6 is 18 based on knowing that 3 groups of 5 is 15), has been introduced explicitly. It is something we will talk about in the future, and something she will know to consider.

4. Combine Memorization With Understanding

When I was in 3rd grade, my father was horrified to go to a meeting with my elementary school’s new principal and hear her announce that our school would no longer be teaching “math facts.” To promote understanding, my dad recalls the principal saying, she’d ask teachers to focus only on concepts, not memorization.

My old principal’s idea is a common misunderstanding of math reforms. Back then, in the early 1990s, just as today with the Common Core, the idea is not to replace memorization with “understanding” but to make each one stronger by teaching both at once. (In addition to arrays, the Common Core mandates that students demonstrate fluency with basic times tables and addition facts.)

My dad’s response to my principal was good, but could have been even better. He decided that if the school wasn’t going to teach me math facts, he was. As a result, we spent our car trips with my dad grilling me on times tables. 3 x 3? 6 x 7? Like many children, I didn’t hate this exercise; I liked memorizing, and I liked the rock-music math-for-kids audiotapes my mom bought to supplement our drills.

But my math facts knowledge only took me so far. I still mostly think about multiplication as pure memorization, rather than an operation on numbers that really makes sense. Magdalene Lampert, a former math teacher who now teaches educators how to train teachers, taught me an activity my dad might have added to his repertoire to combat this phenomenon: choral counting — that is, counting by 3s, 4s, 3/4s, (think Schoolhouse Rock) or even larger numbers, or getting more complicated by going backward instead of forward, for example. The exercise helps children see that multiplication is truly only repeated addition, and it also helps them see patterns in numbers, making multiplication something to memorize and to understand.

5. Introduce Big Ideas Early

After coming across so many great ideas about math teaching in research papers, I started to wonder whether parents could take them up on their own with their kids. So I decided to give one set of books — including “Children’s Mathematics” by the education professor Thomas Carpenter — to a friend with a young son.

I wasn’t sure how useful the books would be; they are written more for teachers than for parents. Also, the books aim to do something very ambitious: help elementary school children begin to learn algebra’s building blocks, starting with addition and multiplication problems. For example, instead of simply asking a child what 3 + 4 equals, Carpenter encourages teachers to ask them 3 + what number equals 7. “What number,” of course, is the first step to imagining variables like “x.”

The same idea exists in the Common Core, which replaces “what number” with empty boxes that children are supposed to fill in.

It’s a great idea, but hard to carry out in practice. So I wasn’t sure what my friend would make of it, not to mention what his 4-year-old would think. Then he sent me this email:

I tried the first lesson in the book out on him tonight at dinner: combining arithmetic with algebra. I said, OK, 2 plus 2 equals 1 plus what? At first he got confused, like what does *what* mean? But then he got it and thought for a while and said, 3! (Actually, “free.” He has trouble pronouncing “th.”) We got all the way up to 3 plus 3 equals 2 plus what. Nailed that one too. So proud.

Taking that next step deeper into understanding is one of the most underappreciated goals of the Common Core. When that kind of teaching becomes standard in the classroom, we’ll see real gains in math understanding. In the meantime, parents will have to do our best to embrace the best of the “new math” at home.

Read more about math and education on Motherlode: Goodnight, Moon. Goodnight, Math Problem., and In Defense of Algebra.

Parents Should Coach Academics as Seriously as They Do Sports

The New York Times, Motherlode Blog



Monica Almeida/The New York Times

It sometimes seems that the American success ethic stops at the schoolhouse door. We encourage ambition in youth sports and entrepreneurial enterprise, but our families are often suspicious of the value of scholastic competition.

If you told your neighbors you had little Seymour in gymnastics with an eye to the 2028 Summer Olympics, they’d likely laugh but agree it was important to start early with a lofty goal like that. Were you to tell the neighbors that Sofia was doing abacus training as preparation for the 2028 International Math Olympiad, conversation might simply stop, because, well, who does that?

We should. Quanyu Huang, a professor at Miami University of Ohio and the author of the new book “The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-American Kids,” argues that a subtle shift in mind-set transforms the study hall from a demoralizing workhouse to sweaty training gym, where hours of toil pay off during the big fight. If to be a student is to be a warrior (not a prisoner or a victim), suddenly a million familiar sports metaphors apply: free throws and math problems become interchangeable signifiers of a rigorous and inherently worthy training regimen. And a great coach, either at home or at school, is a beloved ally rather than an suspect adversary.

Dr. Huang’s book asserts that Asian families begin with the end in mind, that the progression from preschool to graduate school is perceived as not dissimilar to the hero’s journey of monomyth, and that culturewide certainty of purpose is fundamental: “Education is a life-or-death struggle,” he writes. “Education is a battle of elimination won through selection and competition. … For Chinese and Chinese-American children, their introduction to education is the beginning of a lifelong battle that they must win at any and all costs.”

“Can you think of the last time someone told you a story that made studying long and hard seem heroic?” 

Practically, “Hybrid Tiger” suggests that Chinese-American families are structured so that the children are considered star academic competitors and the parents have a significant but clearly secondary role as their devoted trainers.

Dr. Huang describes touring colleges with his son and observing unencumbered Chinese kids trailed by parents “loaded up like pack mules … allowing [the kids] to wander about entirely unburdened.” (One is reminded of Rocky Balboa in the ring, shrugging off his robe and handing it back to Mickey.)

Amanda Ripley’s book “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way” had a similar observation about the role of parents in promoting academic success:

Coach parents … spent less time attending school events and more time training their children at home: reading to them, quizzing them on their multiplication tables while they were cooking dinner, and pushing them to try harder. They saw education as one of their jobs. This kind of parenting was typical in much of Asia — and among Asian immigrant parents living in the United States. Contrary to the stereotype, it did not necessarily make children miserable. In fact, children raised in this way in the United States tended not only to do better in school but to actually enjoy reading and school more than their Caucasian peers enrolled in the same schools.

Khan Academy’s founder, Salman Khan, writing in One World Schoolhouse, also found power in the idea of coaches:

Have you ever noticed that some kids tend to loathe and detest their teachers but worship and adore their coaches? … I believe that a big part of the reason kids revere and obey their coaches is that the coaches are specifically and explicitly on the student’s side. Coaches are helping them be the best they can be, so that they can experience the thrill of winning. In team sports, coaches inculcate the atavistic spirit and focus of a hunting clan. In individual sports, the coach stands tall as the main if not the only ally. When kids win, coaches celebrate along with them; when they lose, the coach is there to comfort and find a lesson in defeat.

“Hybrid Tiger” itself is shot through with the kind of inspirational aphorism familiar to anyone who follows Dwayne Johnson, better known as the Rock, on Facebook: “Happiness is always connected to competition,” and “In order to win, one must be able to withstand suffering.” Dr. Huang also lays this on us: “Here are two ancient stories all Chinese children know: A man, whose name was Sun Jing, tied his hair on the beam that ran through his house when he studied, so that he would wake painfully if he began to fall asleep while studying. Another man, whose name was Su Qin, jabbed his hip with a needle to keep himself awake while he studied.”

Can you think of the last time someone told you a story that made studying long and hard seem heroic?

Dr. Huang’s thoughtful book makes a persuasive argument that, in light of the demands of our current cutthroat global economy, American parents may do well to think of themselves as cognitive coaches for their kids. We should look at the homework spread across the dining room table playing field and say with all appropriate gusto: “Game on.”

Jennifer Arrow is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer who blogs about preschooling, afterschooling and children’s literature at Post-Apocalyptic

Far From My Tree

Motherlode - Adventures in Parenting


My eldest son is 20 years old, lives in a house crammed with seven scrabbly roommates, works part time in a restaurant kitchen, doesn’t drive, is a vegetarian, and has homemade tattoos etched into his thighs.

He’s firmly a musician – a drummer in a loud punk band, and he loves nothing more than to tour across North America, playing gigs in sketchy houses in Oakland, Calif., and south Chicago.

He appears to have only one pair of pants – dirty, black cutoff jeans, and his shirts are also of the ripped-off-arms variety. I’m not sure who has been ripping up all his clothes. Maybe there’s a wild dog living in his house.

I’m both proud of and horrified for my boy. His jaw is squarely set, and he’s acutely committed to what he wants to do. And that is to tour with his band in their black-panel van, crisscrossing borders, dodging death in dubious neighborhoods, sleeping on strangers’ couches, and eating vegetarian burritos.

As my children traveled through their teenage years, I emphasized to them: Find your passion and follow it. What I really meant was: Find your passion, but do it in the way I did it. That is, go to college first, get a liberal arts degree, meander through your 20s, and then supplement your undergraduate degree with graduate studies. All while wearing clean, intact clothing.

But what if, as Andrew Solomon so eloquently addresses in his masterpiece, “Far From the Tree,” your child ends up so very different from you? I read “Far From the Tree” because it speaks of children with disabilities (and my youngest son has Down syndrome), but I gained a deeper knowledge of all children who stray from their parents. If we face reality squarely, and give our children the space to be who they want to be, every single child should be different from his parents, and should be allowed and even encouraged to fall far from our trees.

My oldest boy does not show up to family events in his collared shirt and pressed pants. In fact, he rarely shows up at all. He doesn’t respond to calls from grandparents, although he will send thank you texts for birthday gifts, so he still has a sliver of decorum. He’s proudly anti-establishment, and my current lifestyle with my husband (and his stepfather) – living in the suburbs and driving a BMW – clearly disgusts him.

I watch my friends’ children embarking on their second year of college, most of them still living at home with their parents. They are clean-cut, unfailingly polite, sit quietly at dinner parties and patiently dole out answers to questions from adults. Inevitably, someone asks me, “What’s your son doing?” and then I feel a strange mix of pride and apology. “He’s living his life,” I say. “But what graduate program? What path is he taking?” “He’s not in a program,” I say. “He’s working and playing in a band.” They take a deep gulp of wine and look down at their expensive shoes.

I read a biography of Dave Grohl, the former drummer for Nirvana. In it, Mr. Grohl’s mother – a teacher herself – agreed to let him drop out of high school so he could tour with his band. She said that he was good at a lot of things, but school was not one of them. Clearly Mr. Grohl’s path did not include the traditional, go-to-college-get-a-job trajectory.

My son is teaching me that there isn’t just one way to live life. Yes, I wish he would go to college so he doesn’t live below the poverty line and reside in a house of squalor.

But that’s what I want for him. That’s not what he wants for himself. He is not the male version of me. He’s a musician, and the creative life means a guaranteed amount of struggle and heartache. Every time we meet for lunch, I tell him that I love him, and that I’m proud of him.

Even if my boy’s path never rises out of moshing in the basements of America, that’s got to be O.K., too. There are no conditions placed on unconditional love.

12 New Year’s Resolutions For Happier Families

From The New York Times, Motherlode Blog


As I wrote around this time a year ago, I love making New Year’s resolutions. For me, it’s a moment to take stock of where I am, and where I want to be, and of all the things I’ve said I hoped to do and have or haven’t done — and why. The resolutions I fail at are always the ones I didn’t really want to keep.

This year, for the first time, I hope to gather my family and persuade them to talk about what we did and didn’t do well as a family this year, and to make a family resolution: Who do we want to be together in 2013? (My husband will say that he wants us to be a family that does not make New Year’s resolutions.)

In that spirit, I asked authors I admire to offer one single resolution to help shape a happier family life in the year ahead.
Brené Brown, author of “Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection”: One intention our family is setting for 2013 is to make more art. It doesn’t matter if it’s more photography, more painting, experimenting in the kitchen, or building the LEGO Death Star (which is our family project right now). I want to create together. It keeps us connected and spiritually grounded.

Andrew and Caitlin Friedman, authors of “Family, Inc.: Take a meeting with your partner or family. Spending just 30 minutes a week on our to-do list, schedule and brainstorming bigger decisions really helped us take control of the chaos that is working parenthood.

Po Bronson, co-author of “NurtureShock” and the forthcoming “Top Dog” (January 2013): Our resolution in our family is pretty simple: argue less, talk more. Even though in “NurtureShock” we wrote that arguing is the opposite of lying, and it is, there’s a lot of arguing that’s just about arguing, and we hope for less of it.

Ashley Merryman, co-author of “NurtureShock” and the forthcoming “Top Dog” (January 2013): This year, I want to sit less. You can read that as “need to exercise” – true enough – but sitting also means I’m spending too much time online, watching too much TV, and so on. Instead, I want to do more meaningful things with people I care about.

Bruce Feiler, “This Life” columnist for Sunday Styles and author of “Walking the Bible”, “Abraham” and “The Secrets of Happy Families” (coming in February): Bribe more creatively (fewer direct rewards for good behavior; more unanticipated praise and surprise adventures). Celebrate more fully (worry less about bad moments; make more of the good). Play more often.

Madeline Levine, author of “Teach Your Children Well”: I resolve to lead with my ears and not my mouth. I’ve yet to meet a child who feels like they’ve been listened to too much.

Asha Dornfest, founder of Parent Hacks and co-author of “Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less”: Embrace the idea of course correction. When faced with a parenting decision, briefly survey your options then make the best choice you can, knowing you can recalculate your route to the destination as the situation — and your family — changes.

Christine Koh, founder of Boston Mamas and co-author of “Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less”: Strive for a less frantic family calendar in 2013 by finding your “Goldilocks level of busy.” Review the last couple of months of your family calendar and identify how many events or activities made your weeks feel too crazy, too slow or just right. Shoot for the “just right” number each week.

Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home”: It’s easy to fall into the bad habit of barely looking up from games, homework, books or devices when family members come and go. For that reason, in my family, we made a group resolution to “give warm greetings and farewells.” This habit is surprisingly easy to acquire — it doesn’t take any extra time, energy or money — and it makes a real difference to the atmosphere of home.

Rivka Caroline, author of “From Frazzled to Focused” (@SoBeOrganized): Keep adding to your “to-don’t” list. As frustrating as it is, there just isn’t time for everything. Every “to-don’t” makes room for a “to-do.”

Laura Vanderkam, author of “What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend”: Think about how you want to spend your downtime. Weekends, evenings and vacations can be opportunities for adventure, but we often lose them in front of the TV because we fail to plan. In 2013, make a bucket list of the fun you want to have as a family — then get those ideas on the calendar.

Michelle Cove, author of “I Love Mondays, and Other Confessions from Devoted Working Moms”: The next time you’re about to apologize to anyone — children, colleagues — ask yourself if you’ve really done anything wrong. Too often, we moms apologize by default.