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If You Spank Him, He Will Not Die

Raising children is the grueling process of turning totally uncivilized savages into self-responsible, self-reliant, mature, human beings. There seem to be two general views about the best means of raising children. The modern view is to allow children, as much as is possible, to "develop themselves," to discover their own interests and to pursue them. This method almost always produces "grown-ups" who are as uncivilized as they were as children, only bigger, and more cunning.

The other method, scorned today, is called discipline, which means, so long as children have not yet learned how to control their own passions and wills, the parents exercise that control. As much as this method is repudiated today, this method is the only one that actually produces self-responsible, self-reliant, independent, mature human beings.

The Example

The article attributed to Amy Chua Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior is a delightful summary of the "discipline" method of raising children.

As an example of that discipline, Amy wrote: "Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin"

I know for a fact, these are slightly exaggerated, but not much. "Never" allowed to watch TV, for example, is not exactly true, but certainly TV viewing was controlled. This very strict disciplinary method is so hated, Chua has actually received death threats.

Included in the article, there is, to me, a very charming story of a "life and death" struggle between mother and daughter Louisa (Lulu). [For the literal-minded, this is also an exaggeration.]

Here's a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style. Lulu was about 7, still playing two instruments, and working on a piano piece called "The Little White Donkey" by the French composer Jacques Ibert. The piece is really cute—you can just imagine a little donkey ambling along a country road with its master—but it's also incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms.

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.

"Get back to the piano now," I ordered.

"You can't make me."

"Oh yes, I can."

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.

...

I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.

Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.

Lulu realized it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming.

"Mommy, look—it's easy!" After that, she wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn't leave the piano. That night, she came to sleep in my bed, and we snuggled and hugged, cracking each other up. When she performed "The Little White Donkey" at a recital a few weeks later, parents came up to me and said, "What a perfect piece for Lulu—it's so spunky and so her."

Of this story, one self-styled "Objectivist" academic, who has no children, and apparently little experience with them, made the remark, "Her glowing description of how she brutalized her daughter into playing a difficult piano piece that seemed simply beyond the child's capacity for two-handed coordination is just horrifying." [See her preference, "Fun, Fun, Fun," below.]

Perhaps she missed this:

"'Mommy, look—it's easy!" After that, she wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn't leave the piano. That night, she came to sleep in my bed, and we snuggled and hugged, cracking each other up."

Poor brutalized child. If she was so "brutalized" why did she want to play the piece over and over? Why was she happily snuggling and cuddling and laughing with her mother, afterward, in her bed?

Other Objectivists have made remarks suggesting that this highly disciplined method of raising children would essentially prevent them from becoming independent, self-confident, and capable of thinking for themselves.

What Discipline Produces

The original article, based on Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother , is somewhat misleading, according to Chua:

"I was very surprised," ... "The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they'd put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn't even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end -- that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model."

In her responses to readers, she says:

"I've also taught law students of all backgrounds for 17 years, and I've met countless students raised the 'tough immigrant' way ... who are thriving, independent, bold, creative, hilarious and, at least to my eyes, as happy as anyone. [Emphasis mind.]

But I thought all that discipline would thwart independence—at least that is what may Objectivists are saying. So how did Chua's tough disciplined method of raising children work?

Here's what her daughter Sophia wrote about it:

"There's one more thing: I think the desire to live a meaningful life is universal. To some people, it's working toward a goal. To others, it's enjoying every minute of every day. So what does it really mean to live life to the fullest? Maybe striving to win a Nobel Prize and going skydiving are just two sides of the same coin. To me, it's not about achievement or self-gratification. It's about knowing that you've pushed yourself, body and mind, to the limits of your own potential. You feel it when you're sprinting, and when the piano piece you've practiced for hours finally comes to life beneath your fingertips. You feel it when you encounter a life-changing idea, and when you do something on your own that you never thought you could. If I died tomorrow, I would die feeling I've lived my whole life at 110 percent.

"And for that, Tiger Mom, thank you."

Sounds a lot like this:

"Pride is the recognition of the fact that you are your own highest value and, like all of man's values, it has to be earned—that of any achievements open to you, the one that makes all others possible is the creation of your own character ... that the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit, a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection, valuing nothing higher than itself." [Atlas Shrugged, Part Three / Chapter VII, "This Is John Galt Speaking"]

There is only one way to impart the kind of character required for that kind of achievement to one's children, and that way is tough and disciplined.

Fun Fun Fun

Perhaps you would prefer the, "Really Really Fun Homeschool," method recommended by the OINO (Objectivist In Name Only) mentioned above. After all, the one she recommends would know all about such things, having been homeschooling a whole six months.

So here is that mother's teaching theory. "I didn't need to change her [daughter]. I needed to change myself." Here is a daughter who knows nothing, not even how to read and here is an adult woman who knows most things an adult needs to know, we suppose, including reading (though apparently not counting), and it's she, not the daughter, that needs to be changed?

She says, "To reach my goal I made two (sic) new teaching rules:

"1) Any failure to learn, even if it looked like goofing or distraction, was a failure in the teaching method or teacher and NOT the child.

"2) All subjects needed to be changed until they were so fun (sic) she would beg me to do them. :)

"3) I needed to carefully watch and follow the direction my daughter was leading. She knows her interests better then I do."

Oh Dear! Just look how well this is going. She wrote: "It is amazing how quickly a mental shift can make a change. With in (sic) a day reading lessons started going better."

(Hope "teacher" mom is better at math than she is at English.)

Wonder when, and how, mom is going to teach her daughter that the best things in life are not fun, but hard satisfying work; or that nothing worth having in life comes easy, and nothing of value can be achieved or produced without demanding, sometimes painful, effort. I wonder how she intends to teach her daughter how to achieve anything that is not a game, how to face any real challenge that will take determination, courage, independence, and fortitude—but will not be fun.

The purpose of rearing and teaching children is to prepare them to live in an adult world. There is something essentially wrong when the method requires the adults to adjust themselves to a child's world.

Even if fun were the objective, there is something missing in this home schooler's understanding even of what that requires. Chua said it:

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.

[Note: Any analysis of any record of how someone is rearing their children is limited to the facts recorded, and is missing the endless detail and nuance of any actual child rearing experience. Every child, like every adult is different. No two child-rearing experiences will be the same, especially in the specifics. What I've addressed here should be taken as broad general principles, the application will be unique for every combination of parents and children.]

[See also, Education and Children, and Our Prussian "Public" Schools]

—(01/19/11)