Picture perfect

(Originally published in The California Aggie)

If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to achieve perfection in anything – sports, music, math – look no further than the Tiger Mom.

She’s Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a firsthand account of how to be a “Chinese parent.” According to Chua, it involves refusing to let your children choose their own activities, get any grade less than an A or go to sleepovers. This is all in pursuit of achieving perfection in, well, everything.

When an excerpt from the book was featured on The Wall Street Journal’s website last month, readers were alternately dumbfounded, impressed and angry – and sometimes a mixture of all three. America is the land of opportunity, sure, but it’s also the land where kids are allowed to spend hours playing video games or watching TV after school and every kid in the soccer tournament goes home with a trophy because “We’re all winners.”

Demand that your kids work hard even when they don’t want to? Unheard of in many households.

Chua is an extreme case, but the rationale behind her methods is sound. No child “wants” to work really hard, but more importantly, no child wants to do anything they’re not good at. It’s up to parents, therefore, to insist that children practice their instruments or solve math problems until they become good at it and start to enjoy it.

“Once a child starts to excel at something – whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet – he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction,” Chua writes in the excerpt. “This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun.”

The rewards of truly excelling at something can’t be overstated. There is nothing like that burst of self-confidence when hard work pays off and you realize, “Hey, I’m actually pretty good at this!” If you’ve ever played a solo in a band concert, gotten an A on a difficult exam or been voted MVP, you know that the satisfaction of being “the best” makes all the hours of struggle worth it.

Chua knows this and, deep down, so do we all. No one wants to go through life being mediocre. We have to accept the simple truth that the people who excel aren’t necessarily smarter or more naturally talented than the rest of us – they just work really, really hard and accept nothing less than their absolute best.

On the other hand, the tough-love model proposed by Chua, in which a B would result in a “screaming, hair-tearing explosion” and piano practice lasts for hours, is difficult to accept. Chua’s formula seems to be missing a key ingredient: unconditional acceptance of your children, whether they are prodigies or not.

If given the choice, few would trade their laid-back, fun-loving parents for a tiger mom like Amy Chua. They just can’t be too surprised when they fully grasp the price of perfection and realize she was right all along.

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