I recently read Amy Chua’s controversial book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and it fell right in with a train of thought I’ve been following in two recent posts, one questioning whether we always try to do our best, and the other about elements of truth to be heard from that savage inner voice. While I believe many of Ms. Chua’s methods are abusive (I can’t see any value in calling your child “garbage”), there’s a lot to be said for upholding high standards for our children, and a great deal of truth in her criticism of permissive Western parenting.
Upholding those high standards (for ourselves as well as our children) without resorting to a perfectionistic cruelty is the challenge, and one at which Ms. Chua fails. She recounts many instances where she treats her children with a contemptuous perfectionism that shows little regard for their feelings, those of her husband or of anyone else in her environment. She badgers and threatens and withholds until she gets the results that she wants. She brooks no opposition, always insisting that her demands be met. And she gets amazing results. How many families have two young daughters play Carnegie Hall?
From the anecdotes Chua tells, it’s clear that without her relentless demands, her daughters would not have reached such a high level of academic and musical excellence. In one case where her younger daughter was struggling to master a piece of music where each hand played a radically different rhythmic pattern, the daughter kept insisting she couldn’t do it; Chua forced her to continue practicing, against her will, for hours and hours, until at last, she mastered it. Without the mother’s drive and demanding nature, the daughter would not have mastered that skill, would not have done her very best. Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether such an achievement was worthwhile and at what emotional cost; the story illustrates how we often do not do our very best because it takes such an enormous effort.
My 12-year-old daughter takes an interest in my blog; when I was telling her about some reader responses to the question, Do do we always do our best?, she laughed and said, “Of course we don’t. It’s human nature to take the easy way out. I’m always trying to figure out how to get my homework done with the least amount of effort.” This seems undeniably true to me, as well, and yet many people take offense at the suggestion that someone may not have tried his hardest in the psychological/emotional realm. In response to my recent pieces about Charlie Sheen, a number of readers have written me to insist he’s doing the best he can. I think that when people make that kind of statement, they mean to express sympathy; they feel a deep compassion for Sheen’s obvious suffering. But is it so very kind to expect less of people, to believe they’re always doing the best they can when maybe they’re not?
Amy Chua believes it expresses love and confidence in them to expect the most from your children. She insisted her daughters practice their instruments four to five hours per day and as a result, they achieved a concert-level of proficiency at a very young age. And both of them love music. Lulu, the younger, may eventually have decided to pursue violin with less intensity, but she doesn’t regret having learned the instrument. In contrast, my oldest son, a sophomore in college and a talented pianist, told me with regret that he’ll never be first-rate because there are Asians who’ve been practicing six hours per day since they were five. He clearly wishes I’d driven him harder instead of following the Western method that Chua disdains: 45 minutes of practice per day, maybe an hour at most. When he was 16, my son of his own volition began to practice two-to-three hours per day and made great progress, but not every child discovers that internal drive. Should I have expected more from him at an earlier age?
When it comes to our psychological and emotional growth, should we expect more from ourselves? Can we make higher demands of ourselves without resorting to perfectionistic cruelty, and without abusing ourselves if we can’t meet those demands? For those of us with a savage inner critic, it can be difficult to form a realistic idea of our own capabilities; for people with narcissistic defenses success or failure too readily becomes a question of winning and losing, with contempt clouding the field. This is why so many people insist on the idea that “we’re all doing the best we can”; for them, the alternative is felt to be harsh judgment filled with scorn.
But maybe there’s a third alternative. Maybe we can rescue standards and expectations from the realm of perfectionistic cruelty. Without endorsing her child-rearing ideology, maybe we can take a lesson from Amy Chua and demand more of ourselves.
Finding Your Own Way:
Set a goal. I’m sure you can think of something you’d like to do better. The first challenge is to have high but realistic standards for yourself. Review your past experience, any successes or disappointments, and try to figure out what to expect. It might be helpful to begin with an area where you’ve had some success and then set the bar a little higher. Be careful not to set a goal you know in advance you can’t achieve. On the other hand, don’t insult yourself by expecting too little.
As you work toward the goal, listen for the part of you who, like my daughter, wants to figure out how to get by with the least amount of effort. As a good parent, try to expect more from yourself but at the same time, keep an eye on your inner critic. Are you demanding and abusive? Do you encourage yourself? Can you find fault in a way that doesn’t involve cruelty and contempt?
Strange as it may seem, it can actually be empowering to say to yourself, I could have done better in that instance if I’d tried a little harder. As I discussed in my post on authentic self-esteem, uncritical praise does nothing to build real self-confidence. Only by expecting ourselves to do the best we can and then by meeting those expectations can we build lasting self-esteem.