Saturday, March 05, 2011

Pressure-Cooked Kids

Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I reviewed for the DNA some weeks back, is causing a sharp intake of breath among educationists everywhere. The book is about her life as a hysterical over-ambitious parent, and what disturbed me, personally, is that she is not the only one out there.

Whether it’s Ms Chua in America, or Mrs Rao in Matunga, pushing kids to ‘reach their potential’ begins much earlier these days. Moms I meet at school look at me like I just crawled in from under a particularly grimy rock when I tell them that my 6-year-old has only just begun to learn basketball and music. I can see their antennae quivering: Neglectful Mom Alert!

One lady has been ‘showing’ her kid books of maths tables from the time he was 3; put him in Abacus classes by 4; ‘piano’ or keyboard classes (yes, it’s not just the humble ‘Casio’ anymore) by 4.5; and of course, chess by 5. Another, the mom of a 7-year-old musically gifted child, takes him for Hindustani, Carnatic, and ‘piano’ classes on alternative days, after he’s done seven hours at school. Being excessively liberal, she says, ‘If he finds it too much, I have told him to tell me.’ Yeah, right. See, kids live to please the adults in their lives. Practically everything is acceptable because they don’t know of alternatives. That’s why we, as parents, need to calm the heck down.

Among the favoured classes these days are ‘phonetics’ (doesn’t matter that the term is wrongly used), grammar, tuition, dance, music, Abacus, Vedic Maths, story-telling, creativity, taekwondo and chess. Having shoved their clueless kids into strangers’ homes, mummies enjoy a bit of that precious commodity – free time. And they’ve earned it by paying to have their kids ‘build their potential’ and ‘increase their confidence’, no? It doesn’t matter that being pressurized to do too much early in life can actually lead to anxiety and diffidence in kids.

Increasingly, psychologists tell us that unstructured time – when children hang about with friends or figure out ways to engage themselves – is important. Between school hours and various classes, what about this generation’s unstructured time? Most of us grew up with time which we were allowed to cheerfully waste. Turns out, that ‘wasted’ time – when we could do what we liked – is actually an important tool to de-stress and to build creativity.

The real risk with parents who ‘work so hard’ is that they start expecting rewards. If Aryaman doesn’t make the building aunties swoon at a ‘society function’, then why did we send him to all those Hindustani Music classes, yaar? And if he does sweep ’em off their feet, then, you know, how about Indian Idol next? Alarmingly, The Guardian’s Terri Apter notes that over-parented kids often grow up to be ‘compliant and devious’, ‘obsessed with grades and lacking interest in their subjects’.

Every generation gets the sort of writing on education which reflects its beliefs and aspirations. In the last century Maria Montessori, Rabindranath Tagore, Waldorf Steiner, Aurobindo, Gijubhai Badheka and others propagated a humanistic, benevolent approach to learning. The 70s had John Holt, who advocated homeschooling. It would be truly sad but telling if Amy Chua – who slaps and stresses-out her kids – were to write our generation’s educational classic!

A longer and duller version of this article appeared in the DNA of Sunday Mar 6. They printed an earlier version by mistake :( and they also used a different title!

That lovely pic was drawn by Yuko Shimizu for the Time mag. See more of his brilliant work here.


Sadhana Ramchander said...

Hi Anita...definitely agree with you. This is exactly what happened when my children were growing up. I was alarmed at how many things my children's friends were doing. But, you know what? By the time they were in high school, they dropped out of activities one by one, and finally, were doing nothing! My children steadily went to just one class...Hindustani vocal, and today they are still at it, and passionate about it. It is a part of their lives, and they give performances on and off.

Priya said...

Thanks Ani for your assessment of Amy Chua's techniques. My only comment is BALANCE - if only all of us could achieve that with our kids we'd make a better world. Of course that is not everybody's perspective.

I heard an interview today with Andrew Ferguson who's written "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College" who said that there are parents out there who save all kinds of things from when their kids are in elementary school (video clips of performances, articles in local newspapers...) to submit the college application!!

The world is only going to get more competitive for these kids and balance is the only way we are going to be able to help them get through it all.

Anita and Amit Vachharajani said...

sadhana, got you wonderful card with the photo and poem by your girls! delightful it was. your grown up kids are proof of my instinctive feelings - thank you!
yes priya, balance and the middle path are all. structure of a kind, with lots of room to fulfill YOUR specific thirsts (and the time and space to find them) - THAT is the ideal!

Chtr Kmth said...

I try really hard that my child does not grow up and hate me, now that she is 11. I know of so many parents who have non-necessary expectations from their children, push them to the edge but still don't realize the harm they are causing them permanently.
Anita, its been ages since we last spoke, I hope you remember me, my email id is, drop me a mail and lets re-connect.
Chitra :)

Anita and Amit Vachharajani said...

hey chitra! how long it's been - how did you find me - how did you remember the lamba surname! will write you asap! love to baby tukulla who is now a big girl of 11 :)

Komal Somani-Lahoty said...

Hi Anita,

Read your article and I do kinda agree with your views but what should the approach be in 2day's times where you have the idiot box, wii, facebook, ipad, itouch et al. Not all the parents are after getting praises in the society/ neighborhood functions or annual day at the school. The idea of introducing as many activities at a young age is to help the child choose what he/she is really passionate about and develop that skill as a hobby. And this means going to 'x' classes 'x' number of times.

I would like to know your views...


Anita and Amit Vachharajani said...

hi komal, i usually write from experience, and mine, unfortunately, is limited to my interactions with my 6-yr-old and her friends / classmates, their parents; and of course, the older kids i meet and interact with during writing workshops.
i feel the only way to reduce use of things like fb and ipad and wii is to reduce the exposure to them at home. sometimes, rules about use and access to tech make a lot of sense.
this urge we have to engage the kid in some activity or the other sometimes leaves them unable to engage themselves in anything that is not generated by the world outside. so the 'teacher' and the game machine both stand at risk of becoming a way to pass time.

that said, i would still want my kid to learn a sport - for fun and strength. i would like her to learn music as well - for fun and beauty. the minute i start wanting to push her unusually hard to shine at these activities, i would worry.

as she grows, if my kid can't herself thru art, craft, reading or playing, i would really worry! and if i got too ambitious for her, i would worry too. i would have liked to add more on this too in the article, but i work with a solid word-limit, and so i end up leaving out some issues.

also, this way of 'introducing as many activities at a young age is to help the child choose what he/she is really passionate about and develop that skill as a hobby' is one of the things i have problems with. i feel there is the rush to load kids with skills in different 'hobbies' rather than letting their passions unfold and be discovered slowly. doing things with them to stimulate their interests in various activities is one thing; but taking them from class to class to give them skills so that they can discover a passion for the subject is just not on - as far as i'm concerned at least.
i dont know if i have answered your questions. what i try to do through this column is share the thoughts i live with... i may not have all the answers for you at all!

Anita and Amit Vachharajani said...

* typo alert:
as she grows, if my kid can't ENGAGE herself thru art, craft, reading or playing, i would really worry!