Thursday, 27 January 2011

yes, it is ok

cactus kate wrote a post in response to this one of mine on the article by dr amy chua published by the wall street journal. naturally, kate disagrees with me & i wrote a pretty long comment over at her place. but i've realised i have more to say, and thought it would be better to put it in a post here rather than write another missive over there.

the thrust of kate's post appears to be that dr chua is right and that the message "it's all right if you fail" is a weak one that will inevitably lead to failure. she sees it as a fear based approach, and believes that success can only be measured economically.

the bit of her post that i want to address here is the notion that the message "it's all right if you fail" is a bad one. the chua style of parenting demands success and doesn't accept failure. this is seen as motivational for children. and it seemed to work for dr chua, even when she took it to the extreme.

however, there are downsides to the approach of "you will succeed, no matter what it takes", some of which i wrote about at kate's blog so won't repeat here. but there's another one i didn't mention, which is that this type of approach strongly discourages risk-taking. i've seen it with children who are programmed for success: they will simply not take on activities where there is a strong risk of failure.

this can actually be reduce the chances of a person being successful (using chua's and kate's definition of success, which i still don't agree with, but that would take a whole other post to deal with). i've seen an example of a young child refusing to go into a maths extension class because the problems were difficult and this child didn't want to risk failure. the child preferred to stay in a lower group where success was assured.

and this doesn't only apply to parenting. i've seen it applied in companies that invest heavily in R&D - those that allow their employees to have several failures tend to get the big successes, because those employees are more likely to take a wider range of risks which increased the likelihood of coming across something really spectacular.

the message that it's ok to fail is actually one which liberates the mind and encourages a much wider variety of experiences. not only that, it enriches the mind as we learn from our mistakes and improve our situation. i've found that it has actually improved performance, motivation and the level of happiness. successes are just as sweet and as keenly sought after, and often more easily achieved. in fact, i'd say success is more valued when you've taken a huge personal risk to achieve it.

so i'd rather ensure my kids get the message that it's ok to fail, as long as you put in a solid effort. i know they are better human beings because of it.

on another note, i mentioned in my previous post that we hadn't heard from dr chua's daughters. one has now entered the public arena, and totally supports her mother and her mother's parenting style. make of that what you will. there have some terribly sad stories coming out of this discussion from children who didn't do well in similar situations, and one could also argue that we don't know how successful this young woman might have been had she been brought up with a different style of parenting. on the other hand, here is an obviously intelligent young woman telling us how she feels, and we have to respect that.


Muerk said...

What I want for my children is that they grow up to be good people. I want them to work hard at school and have a good work ethic but for me economic success isn't worth it if it comes at the cost of them being good people with robust mental health.

I want to grow adults that will be honest, compassionate, honorable and fair. I firmly believe that happiness when it comes, and sometimes we get sadness, comes from our relationships with other people. The love of family and friends for example. And it is these loving relationships that help us with suffering and loss which is a part of life.

My greatest expectation of my children is that they will treat other people well and that we will always work together as a family to help each other through difficulties.

Economic success brings with it physical comfort and desperate poverty is an evil. However, after a point money can't bring you anymore joy and only love will do that. You can't buy love.

Psycho Milt said...

I have a lot of time for Cactus Kate as she doesn't take disagreement personally and always brings a hard-nosed realism to the discussion. But the fact is her ideology conflicts with ours. To add to that inevitable source of disagreement, she's living happily under a totalitarian dictatorship in an enclave of rich idiots who fancy themselves as Randian Supermen, based on their proven skill at mercilessly parting fools from their money (witness her support for Hotchin et al in the comments thread) - so her views are likely to diverge strongly from ours.

Under those circumstances, it's no surprise that Kate sees parenting less as a process of raising children in a loving family to become good, useful adults, and more as providing a ruthless training camp for future Randian Supermen/women.

tuitalk said...

I read rather an interesting bit in a book in Unity the other day, 21 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism (obviously a book that will never be a favourite with Kate) by Ha-Joon Chang, which extended the ideas you've outlined here to talk about the uses of a welfare state. He wrote about Korea (he works at a UK university but is of Korean descent) in the context of a system where the welfare system is extremely limited and suggested that it, too, discouraged risk-taking. He wrote that a very, very large, a disproportionate number of the most able Korean students choose to study medicine - not because they are interested, but because it is an extremely reliable career; if the worst comes to the worst, they can always set up their own small practice. This means there is a shortage of people to take financial risks, because they know there's nothing to back them up should they fail. Of course there's an extent to which that's true everywhere - medicine, engineering, law will always be popular choices of study because they provide reliable careers; but if all our extremely able students choose to go into these reliable professions instead of into research or business you see a stagnation of knowledge.

The analogy here obviously is that the absence of a welfare welfare state creates the same kind of pressure to succeed with no mistakes and no risk as this kind of pressure-cooker parenting, because there's not support to get back on your feet if something goes wrong (although obviously there's more support for children here). And, in fact, there are certain support mechanisms related to this - like the ability to declare bankruptcy - that I'm sure Kate understands well (and I want to say is perfectly in favour of but I don't actually know so I won't put words in her mouth, but it seems likely to me). Plenty of businesses and endeavours fail through no particular fault and you kind of need the failures to produce the successes.

Like Muerk I find Kate's statement that "all parents just say they want their children to be happy" a bit disingenuous or, simply, wrong - my (liberal pinko commie) mother has a few well-prepared rants on this issue, and her expectations are much more in line with Muerk's (you may fill in a Nuremburg Trials-related speech to your own satisfaction).