Home > Uncategorized > Raising kids the right way

Raising kids the right way

February 1, 2016

Hey there’s finally been a New York Times column that agrees with me about how to raise kids, so I’m totally going to blog about it.

Seriously, I know that I’m 100% biased, as is anyone who tells you how to raise your kids, but I think Adam Grant has hit upon the perfect explanation of how I think about things in his recent column, How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off.

The dumbed down version goes like this: yes, we all know it take a huge amount of practice to get good at the violin. But that doesn’t mean you should force your kids to practice all the time so they’ll become musicians. That’s confusing causation with correlation, the most common of all parental crimes. Instead, ask your kids to be ethical and trust them to find their passion.

The idea is if you give them a strong education in ethics, and then set them free within that framework, they might just decide they love the violin. If they do, then as long as you support their passion, they might just practice all the time and become musicians.

I’ve written a bunch about this exact issue over the years, because although I played the piano as a child, I don’t encourage my kids to play instruments. Because they aren’t begging for it like I did.

To be fair, this isn’t because I’m nervously trying to construct creative kids and want the conditions to be perfect. Mostly it’s common sense. Said plainly, why would I pay for expensive lessons that they don’t want? Why would I set myself up to remind them to practice when they could care less? It sounds like torture for everyone involved, and I honestly don’t understand parents who do it.

I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, a hotbed of striving upperly-mobile parenthood, and I was absolutely surrounded by kids – especially second-generation Asian kids – who were being forced to display precocity in all kinds of ways. These kids were miserable, and they hated their violins and cellos. Not all the time, and not in every way, but let me say it like this: very few of them still play music. (Whereas I do, and by the way my bluegrass band has a gig, stay tuned.)

I know, it’s not a lot of evidence, but I still think I’m right, because it’s parenting and people are totally irrational when it comes to this kind of thing, so bear with me, and read the references in Adam Grant’s piece as well, maybe they’re scientific-y.

Of course, it all depends on the definition of creative, which is of course not obvious and I could easily imagine the result changing depending on how you do it. Not to mention that “creativity” isn’t the only thing you’d want from your children. In fact, it’s not my personal goal for my kids to be creative. If I had to choose, I’d say I want my kids to be generous and ethical.

Here’s a bit more background on this very question. a Harvard Education School report called THE CHILDREN WE MEAN TO RAISE: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values that found the following:

About 80% of the youth in our survey report that their parents are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others. A similar percentage of youth perceive teachers as prioritizing students’ achievements over their caring. Youth were also 3 times more likely to agree than disagree with this statement: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.” Our conversations with and observations of parents also suggest that the power and frequency of parents’ daily messages about achievement and happiness are drowning out their messages about concern for others.

When I read this report I performed an exceptionally biased poll in my own household and made sure my kids knew what’s up. And they all do, most probably because I am not forcing them to practice the piano.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. February 1, 2016 at 7:43 am

    The idea of parents being more proud of kids making good grades over how much their kids care about others is not surprising. Good grades gets your kids out of your house one day so you can do things like – plan for retirement.

    I do not force my child to take lessons in things like my parents did me as I was growing up. She’s played soccer, took horseback riding lessons, learned karate (and is quite good at is if my kidneys are any witness), took swimming lessons, and has had a lot of fun doing that stuff because she wanted to do it. I’m glad she did it all and I happily paid for it all. And it was all a good experience for her, as well.

    However, there will be a time when I tell my child the following: I want you to have a good life. I want you to have the freedom to do what you want. Do you want to travel? Do you want to buy a Harley and spend your weekends riding with the old man? Sure, go for it. But those things take a lot of money. Money no one is going to give you. So when you’re thinking about your college education, think carefully. Not every degree lands a job that pays well. And I’m only going to pay for this shit once.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark
    February 1, 2016 at 9:38 am

    I have mixed feelings about the study and its parenting suggestions. Waiting for kids (or adults) to develop a passion for something is fine. But most things that worthwhile are going to be difficult and often not fun. I find that kids (and me) will have an initial passion for something, start it, but then stop when the activity gets too difficult and the novelty wears off and you shift from the idea of you playing piano or getting good a math to you actually getting good at math or piano. Learning to work through something that really isn’t fun to get to the other side of competency and proficiency is a big part of creativity. And my sense is that this part of the process doesn’t come naturally. Sometimes it’ll occur in a group setting. For example, little kids learning to ski often learn better in groups of peers because they see the other kids falling and getting up or making their way up the hill even though it’s not fun. Or in Suzuki violin lessons, kids see the younger ones playing a piece that they had to work through and thereby, develop an appreciation for getting better. On the other hand, sometimes the same thing can occur when a parent forces or strongly encourages their kid to practice or work at something even when it is not fun or stimulating just so the kid learns the process of what I think of as “delayed competency.” So I might restrict the use of my daughters’ cell phone usage and force her to do her homework in the living room instead of her room, because I know that — even though doing Trigonometry right now is not fun or stimulating — the process or mastering something that you initially sucked at is actually valuable in and of itself.


    • February 1, 2016 at 9:43 am

      I guess the point is you don’t actually have to have a passion. It’s not a requirement of existence. It’s also not a requirement for parental love.

      I am obviously not suggesting that we don’t role model our own passions and the work ethic required to realize our goals.


    • February 1, 2016 at 11:24 am

      I think there is a fear lurking behind many parents who are struggling to get their kids to practice (or drill math facts, or similar): if my kid quits this, they are a quitter and will never learn the skill of perseverance (thus are doomed to a terrible life, etc etc).

      This is reinforced by the story of the marshmallow test, which I remember in stylized form: abstainers did better at everything for the rest of their lives.

      However, I wonder if it is actually true? Where and how do kids learn about the value of hard work, of sticking to a commitment, of medium and long term goals? What is the usual rate of quitting things in a typical life, etc?

      For the record, a partial list of the things I’ve quit: violin lessons, marching band, oboe lessons, soccer team, karate, marathon running, learning Arabic, academic mathematics. Also, guess what? Once quit, it is never too late to get back to it for the enjoyment of the activity.


      • February 1, 2016 at 11:28 am

        I agree, there seems to be an existential fear behind this. It’s speaks to a lack of trust people have in their own kids. As if, if they don’t excel at some arbitrary and adult-chosen skill, they will be homeless losers. That’s just not being generous to them, and it’s wrong and panicky.

        Along those same lines, I don’t think I need to explain explicitly to my kids that they’ll need a job someday to have a normal life. It is abundantly clear by pure observation. I’d rather spend my time talking with my kids about ideas – theirs and mine – and enjoying how playful their minds are.


        • Aaron Lercher
          February 2, 2016 at 5:43 pm

          Nearly every parent is worried about how their kids will “measure up.”
          Sometimes (I have observed) otherwise liberal parents driven by their *own* shame about not “measuring up.” This leads them to support “test and punish” education “reform” because otherwise how will they “know”?
          These are problems of amour-propre.
          Rousseau uses this concept to describe the inclination in society to judge how others judge you. This is part of the social critique leading to Rousseau’s theory of education.
          Given an increasingly unequal society, plus all kinds of ways of “measuring” whether kids “measure up,” the result is … Yikes!
          But Rousseau was already talking about this back in the 1760s.


  3. fc123
    February 1, 2016 at 9:39 am

    This is all a little too simplistic and convenient too! A proper analysis should consider many other cases e.g. at least kids who realize interest/passion too late to catch up (pick up violin at 12 is not gonna work), kids who have no passion (they exist, plenty of em), kids who have a passion and no chance of realizing it (nepotism, socio-economic conditions) but some other avenue, chance that violin/piano/math olympiad will crowd out any chance of finding another passion, values learned by doing one thing well in another maybe passion-related area, opportunities generated by success in one area. lifetime happiness which could depend on mercenary as well as competence metrics (not just passion matters, as all the political sci– adjuncts can attest, or physicists happier with a paycheck on WS).

    And color me cynical but probably realistic:l having worked in many places and in many countries, I believe true ethical/caring people willing to go to the wall is as rare as winning a Nobel prize. So focusing on teaching your kids that is as likely to yield a MLK /Mandela as is the Westinghouse talent show to yield a Nobel prize winner (Please note– this is not to be disparaging, rather, I feel it is rather presumptuous to view achieving ethical behavior as a simple matter). Nor that it can be taught and may move the needle — as the comments in the NYT article show, both do — just not to the extent it is a slam dunk.

    BTW — why did you do such a biased push poll? Seems you were forcing the kids to be ethical and caring .. hmm 🙂 And is ethical behavior really ethical if it is coming from parental pressure and approval? Guess I hope your kids never end up in a situation where they really get tested (another thing I have seen up close –how few people can go through life without ever really having to bet big)


    • February 1, 2016 at 9:43 am

      See my comments above.


      • fc123
        February 1, 2016 at 10:10 am

        I think the point is there are many ways of parenting. And ways of defining and executing responsibility for kids.

        Role-modeling and hands-off is just *one way*. Tiger parenting another. Even withholding approval or overt love is another (even military schools works for some). Requiring competence in something (whether person has passion or not) another.

        My problem is this ” I know, it’s not a lot of evidence, but I still think I’m right,”

        I think it is crazy that anyone can make these sweeping generalizations as to what “works” (if you can even define that) in a very highly context dependent situation. The current vogue amongst the intelligentsia is the scolding and high-minded lecturing of all these tiger moms whose kids are inconveniently creaming their offspring — and also taking refuge in claiming these kids fall short in hard to measure stuff like creativity and happiness.

        So I think I am right in saying “I think no one is right”


  4. February 1, 2016 at 11:11 am

    Cathy, I think it is awesome that you are proud of how you parent and that your family is having a lot of fun together. Within my own circle of direct observation, this seems rare.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. michael cuddihy
    February 1, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    Thank you for this.BTW I enjoyed Sandra Tsing Loh’s Atlantic piece commenting on Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom book…http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/04/sympathy-for-the-tiger-moms/308399/


  6. February 1, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Two comments that might (or probably not add) anything to the discussion because this is something that my wife and I have talked about a lot recently. First, my parents had a rule — which I think that we will adopt — that allows our daughters to pick what it is that they want to do. But, when they commit, they commit for the entire year/season/session (however the activity is defined). This was something that my parents did — they did not pressure me to do any activity in particular, but when I committed, I committed for the duration of what I committed to. In hind sight, I think that rule taught me a lot and allowed me to grow but also persevere.

    The second item is a book that I recommend highly: http://www.amazon.com/Unequal-Childhoods-Family-Update-Decade/dp/0520271424/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1454356305&sr=8-1&keywords=unequal+childhoods by Annette Lareau (who, in the interest of disclosure, was my postdoc advisor and is a coauthor). It studies not only parenting styles but how those styles are recognized by powerful institutions. For that reason, it seems like something that would interest Cathy and other readers here.


  7. noneya
    February 1, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    Could this post be more biased and un-self-aware? Normally kids turn out to be normal, and every parent thinks their method of parenting is the reason for that.

    And wtf at this: “From its inception in 1942 until 1994, the search recognized more than 2000 precocious teenagers as finalists. But just 1 percent ended up making the National Academy of Sciences, and just eight have won Nobel Prizes.”. Just eight.. pathetic /s

    Liked by 1 person

  8. February 1, 2016 at 6:28 pm

    I’m somewhere in between on this one. I completely agree with Adam Grant that one shouldn’t force children to become prodigies. I do want my children to be good at things, perhaps more than is healthy, but I think that pushing them too hard is counterproductive. For example, I think that with enough time and effort I could probably have taught my children (or anyone else’s children) calculus by the time they were, say, 10 or 11, but for the ones who were going to like calculus it would have killed off any chance they might have had of coming to understand things for themselves — so ultimately it would have been counterproductive — and for the ones who weren’t going to like it, what would the point have been?

    But when it comes to musical instruments, I have sat down with all my children and made them practise, even during periods when they haven’t enjoyed it. That’s not because I’ve been trying to turn them into professional musicians (though one of them had an obvious passion for it from a very early age and now seems to be going that way), but because I come from a family of musicians and am very pleased to have been forced to practise as a child, and now it’s just unthinkable for me not to do the same for my own children, even though it’s very time-consuming. However, I try to keep things as enjoyable as possible — not always successfully — and the degree to which I push is tailored to the child. It also depends a lot on the child’s age. A young child is almost never going to have the maturity to practise an instrument properly, but not starting young places an immediate limit (in 99% of cases) on how good you’ll get, and the pleasure you can get in later life increases a lot with how good you do get. So if you want your child to have a chance of that pleasure, then there is no choice but to make them practise when they are young. But at some point the child has to become self motivated, or they won’t get the pleasure for a different reason. So as they get older I back off and it’s up to them whether they want to put in the work they’ll need to put in to improve.

    I have to confess that I also think that there are significant indirect cognitive benefits from learning how music works — the notation, the conventions, the relationship between what you read and what you hear, the multiple patterns, the abstraction. That’s another part of why I put my children through it. Obviously this invites the question of why I should want those cognitive benefits for my children. Basically, what I want for my children is for their brains to be stimulated in ways that will make them curious about the world, enthusiastic to learn, etc., so rather nebulous cognitive benefits are part of that, as is having lots of interesting books around (but not forcing them to read them), and so on.


  9. Malcolm
    February 2, 2016 at 2:30 am

    Interesting (in a slightly depressing way) to see the confused responses here. Clearly it’s a foreign if not incomprehensible idea to many that there are ethical precepts that can compete with self-interest.

    I have no children and my opinions matter little, but mathbabe’s approach is one I agree with. You’re unlikely to raise your child to be a saint or win a Nobel prize but at least they will know how to care for others, individually and collectively.

    As for “passions”, they should be abolished.


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