I have two children and I teach at Harvard Business School. If you ask me which of these two things is more challenging—raising children or teaching at HBS, my answer would be pretty clear. To me, raising children is far more challenging. And teaching definitely did not come easily to me. Ask my first group of students from 2002 and I’m sure they’ll remember all the struggles I had as a first-time teacher. But what made teaching less stressful was the expectation that it was okay to make a lot of mistakes as a rookie.
In parenting, it is hard to move beyond being a rookie (unless you have many, many children). I won’t get to experiment with multiple five-year olds before figuring out how to best manage a five-year old. Plus, each child is so different. This is why I love learning from others’ parenting experiences. I read with great interest Yale professor Amy Chuo’s parenting experience as outlined in the WSJ article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” Apparently, this article generated the largest number of online responses from WSJ readers, ever. Chuo writes:
“A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. 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 #1 student in every subject except gym and drama,
- play any instrument other than the piano or violin,
- not play the piano or violin.”
She goes on to describe the cultural differences between Chinese and Western parenting and offers lots of examples from her family. As I read Chuo’s article and the follow-up articles that appeared in WSJ and NY Times, I kept thinking about my parenting style and realized how many questions with which I struggle all the time. Here are just a couple:
- What is my objective as a parent?
I feel that optimizing my children’s happiness should not be my objective. My objective should be to help shape their character. There are certain traits that I would love my children to have such as kindness, generosity, responsibility, hard work, curiosity, and honesty. But shaping their character, or at least trying to shape their character at this age is not always fun; I often find myself trading off my children’s short-term happiness with discomfort and stress. As a working mom, who doesn’t get to spend all her time with her children, I sometimes wonder what I am giving up as a result of my choice.
- How high should my expectations be?
I would never want to take away the gift of high expectations from my children. I would love for them to excel at what they do. But how do I make sure that I don’t put too much pressure on them? And when setting expectations, how much weight should I give to the outcome, such as getting all A’s, or on the process, such as working X number of hours a night.
- How much should I shape my children’s interests?
On the one hand, I would love for my children to pursue what is exciting to them. I know that if they find something about which they are passionate, they will put more work into it and will be more likely to be good at it. This will improve their confidence and probably make them happy. But on the other hand, I feel that my husband and I might have a better idea of what our children can be really good at. Perhaps this is because of my own experience. I used to love basketball as a kid. I watched my father play and then coach basketball and I absolutely loved the game. So at the age of 10, when my father insisted that I play volleyball instead of basketball, I was heartbroken. According to my father, volleyball would be better for me. While I didn’t like his choice at first, I started loving volleyball after I became good at it. Should I follow my father’s parenting style?
- How busy should my children be?
A lot of kids nowadays start participating in extracurricular activities and taking private lessons at young ages, even as toddlers. And they are always busy going from this activity to that activity. My boys are 3.5 and 5 years old. The younger one goes to daycare all day long and the older one goes to pre-K. When they are not at school, my boys just hang out. During the weekdays, the four of us spend a lot of time at the dinner table (frequently with other guests) and reading books. During the weekends we run errands together, talk, play silly games, let them watch some TV and yes my husband and I go crazy watching them fight or call each other names. I am sure things will change as they get older and activities will have to be added to our calendar. But am I doing the right thing right now? Am I taking away opportunities from my kids?