Wednesday, February 09, 2011

What Is Childhood For?

Amy Chua made headlines — and earned herself some death threats — when she released her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Some vehemently expressed their displeasure with Ms. Chua's intensely disciplined approach to child rearing, which she details in her book.

The Chinese born Chua, a super achiever that is a law professor at Yale, wants her daughters to be as accomplished as she is, or even more so. She views their childhood as training for such a future. But she admits that trying to micromanage the development of her children is an uphill battle when they are surrounded by American culture.

Americans have a long history in taking a more relaxed approach to childhood than Ms. Chua's Chinese culture. For one thing, individualism is much more deeply rooted in the American psyche. Americans pride themselves on being more than cog in a wheel; more than a playing piece whose personal desires are expendable for the "greater good" of society.

James Bernard Murphy of Dartmouth writes in this WSJ op-ed:
"Children are not merely adults in training. They are also people with distinctive powers and joys. A happy childhood is measured not only by the standards of adult success, but also by the enjoyment of the gifts given to children alone."
Murphy lists three "unique blessings of childhood."
  • The gift of moral innocence.
  • The gift of openness to the future.
  • Freedom from the grim economy of time.
"We parents," writes Murphy "are so focused on adult superiority that we forget that most of us produced our best art, asked our deepest philosophical questions, and most readily mastered new gadgets when we were mere children." So there is value in childhood in and of itself.

Murphy then launches into a discussion about longstanding deep philosophical differences on the purposes of childhood. Aristotle considered childhood a necessary evil. "By contrast," says Murphy, "Jesus frequently praised children, welcomed their company, and even commanded adults to emulate them."

After noting that parents try to straddle the paradox between preparing children for adulthood and protecting them from it, Murphy goes on to suggest that parents would benefit from "taking a reflective time-out from teaching our children to discover how much we might learn from them."

Childhood for me was preparation for adulthood. But it was also filled with periods of joy, pain, boredom, innocence, and learning. While too much free time can lead to unhealthy pursuits, I believe that too little unstructured time is also counterproductive.

All parents have hopes for their children. Most do what they can to realize those dreams. But some parents go overboard, living vicariously through their children, attempting to force the child to become what they want them to be. They have too little appreciation for what their child is right now.

I have frequently seen high achieving kids whose parents have stepped over the line from being their support system to being dictators that give their kids little room to learn to think and act for themselves. For years my Dad was in a position to interact with a number of youth and their parents. He quickly learned to see the difference between kids that were good because they chose to be good and kids that were good simply because they had never been permitted an opportunity to choose otherwise.

I'd be the last one to tell Ms. Chua how she ought to raise her kids. Each of her daughters will likely grow to be the kind of fine person their mother is. My kids, on the other hand, will have to be satisfied with being the kind of person each has chosen to become.

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