With the end of the year crunch here, I’ve been thinking about the whole Tiger Mom thing again. Burn-out is hitting both kids hard, making it difficult to motivate them to do what they see as extra. They’ll need that last week at school (1/2 days, mostly) to really relax before their summer of music camp plus sessions of Khan Academy, Writing with Ease, and foreign language study with me. It's hard for children to work this hard when so many of their classmates don't do anything academic outside of what is required for school.
Today I came across Wesley Yang's article "Paper Tigers" in New York Magazine. Yang writes about what he calls the bamboo ceiling, the phenomenon of Asians not being well represented in top leadership positions. He attributes this partly to the cultural value of not promoting oneself in many Asian families and relates Sach Takayasu’s story of learning how to navigate a career track at IBM. Takayasu tells of her parents saying to her, “‘Don’t create problems. Don’t trouble other people.’ “and asks, “How Asian is that? It helped to explain why I don’t reach out to other people for help.”
Takayasu’s upbringing sounds familiar, and it's not restricted to Asian families. My parents, who were upper Midwesterners and grew up during the Great Depression, taught me the same thing. It’s not that they were wrong in emphasizing the acquisition of knowledge and competency over self-promotion. They just took it to the extreme, conveying the idea that people who self-promote are using over-confidence to cover up a lack of substantive qualities. What’s worse, they conveyed the idea that teachers were too important to bother. I don't want my kids to internalize the idea that to ask for help is imposing on their teacher.
As my older child approaches middle school, she’s learning firsthand that her public school classroom is not a meritocracy and that pushiness is rewarded. This is why it’s so important for kids to have sources of academic validation other than their classroom teacher and their own parents. When they work toward the kind of mastery that isn’t supported in many elementary school classrooms, they can start to see the intrinsic reward of really knowing how to do something and the extrinsic reward of seeing real effort recognized by others.