kitchen table math, the sequel: Chinese moms, part 2

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Chinese moms, part 2

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that "stressing academic success is not good for children" or that "parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun." By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way.

Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior
JANUARY 8, 2011
By Amy Chua
So true!

Love it!

And I say that as a Real American who thinks learning should be fun, or at least interesting, as often as possible.

Ed hadn't heard about the article, and when he read it over the breakfast table this morning, he laughed all the way through. He guffawed when he got to this part:
Third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences. That's why Chinese daughters can't have boyfriends in high school and why Chinese kids can't go to sleepaway camp. It's also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, "I got a part in the school play! I'm Villager Number Six. I'll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I'll also need a ride on weekends." God help any Chinese kid who tried that one.

Ed said, "That's pretty much how I feel about C. throwing shot put."

Back story:

This winter C. decided to join the track team & throw the shot put. He has never thrown the shot put before, and he's not good at throwing the shot put. But he's on the team.

Being on the team means getting up at 5am to catch the train to his school for practice -- this during junior year, when "grades count," AND in the wake of a slide in his grades last fall.*

C's original idea, naturally, was that either Ed or I would rise with him at 5am and drive him to the Bronx. Who wants to walk to the station at 5am in the winter?

Hah.

I may be an abject failure as a Chinese mom, but I am not a fool.

Ed, on the other hand, after returning from 2 1/2 weeks in Paris, during which time I had full responsibility for the morning wrestling match with Andrew, told C. he would drive him to school, leaving me to carry on shouldering full responsibility for the morning wrestling match with Andrew.

I put the kibosh on that one.


unconditional support

Like all American teenagers, it seems, C. is well aware of his right to unconditional parental support in all things. At some point while Ed was away, C. gave me a reproachful look and said: "I feel bad that you and Daddy don't support me throwing the shot put."

"Too bad," I said. "I have no interest in shot put."

C.: "But you supported me playing tennis."

Me: "I have no interest in tennis, either."**

C.: "That's true."

At this point, where school and school activities are concerned, I am interested in one thing.

Two things, actually.

Good grades and high SAT scores.


* His grades have now come back up. If they hadn't, he wouldn't be throwing the shot put.
** By which I mean to say I have no interest in C. winning tennis matches, although I spent years forcing him to take tennis lessons. I am sooooo not a Chinese mom. A Chinese mom forces her kids to do stuff so they can excel. I forced my kid to take tennis because "a boy needs a sport" and "you can play tennis when you're old."

72 comments:

Anonymous said...

"At this point, where school and school activities are concerned, I am interested in one thing.

Two things, actually.

Good grades and high SAT scores."


Three things, I hope. It would be nice if you also were concerned that C *learn* stuff at school.

-Mark Roulo

P.S. Queue the Monty Python Spanish Inquisition sketch ... our chief weapon is surprise, surprise and fear. Our two weapons are ...

Catherine Johnson said...

You can't get high grades at C's school without learning stuff.

Ditto for SAT in my opinion.

After spending a summer test-prepping myself for the SAT, I dispute the idea that a person can be a "good test taker."

Maybe that's true for low scores (though I tend to doubt it); it's definitely not true for high scores.

Catherine Johnson said...

There's been a funny conflict running through the household on the subject of tennis, which Ed does care about very much. Ed is addicted to tennis; he plays constantly, and is constantly trying to improve.

So...he's invested in C. being a good tennis player, which he is, mostly thanks to our pushing. We made him play.

C. says he doesn't want to go out for tennis; he wants to throw the shot put. He's good at tennis & not at all good at shot put, so Ed has been disgruntled.

Finally Ed got C. a pair of shot put shoes for Christmas, and C. said he would go out for tennis this spring.

I'm staying out of it.

But I'm not driving him to shot-put practice at 5 in the morning.

PhysicistDave said...

Catherine wrote:
> After spending a summer test-prepping myself for the SAT, I dispute the idea that a person can be a "good test taker."

Actually, I got a 4 out of 5 on AP history just by winging it: I didn’t really know anything about most of the questions, so I used common sense to figure out what probably did happen. Either my common sense was pretty good or everyone else was doing the same thing and they couldn’t flunk all of us.

And I was co-winner in a metropolitan-wide high-school chem contest (actually won money both for myself and my chem teacher!) largely by using clever test-taking strategies to guess the right answer.

So… you can do okay just by being a good test-taker.

On the other hand, I got 800 on the math SAT because I actually knew the stuff: being a good test-taker would not have been enough.

Dave

P.S. I never took any test-prep classes; I just always viewed tests as a chance to psych out whoever designed the test.

PhysicistDave said...

Reviews of Chua’s book are popping up by people who have read the whole book: it seems Lulu “rebels” by the end of the book. I use quotes because her “rebellion” is pretty mild by American standards – she quits piano and takes up tennis, cuts her hair, and throws a glass in anger. Apparently, no drug ODs, unplanned pregnancies, or run-ins with the cops. But then she is half-Chinese.

Dave

Allison said...

I wasn't going to keep commenting on this story, but I've got to say it : if the whole book demonstrates that Amy Chua accurately described her behavior (not just her *mindset*) in what she said in the excerpt, then she's committing emotional and verbal abuse of her children. I don't care how she points to anyone's success as the outcome, it's morally wrong. The end does not justify these means.

This isn't just an issue of "when is pushing going to work and when isn't it." She's crossed the line, and so strongly so that the rest of her advice is totally suspect.

I am willing to believe that in general, to the extent that the stereotype holds, Chinese mothers are abusers of their children. Cultures aren't all equally good; Polish families as a rule practice a form of parenting that is fundamentally neglectful and prevents babies and toddlers from forming healthy attachment. Not all families do this of course, but enough that personality disorders are the national character trait.

But worse, her throwing this up as if it's a choice between raising our children to be happy but not driven or driven to brokenness is a false choice. It isn't okay even if everyone in China does it.

ChemProf said...

Having read a few reviews, I'd say Allison is right. Of course it is never clear when an author is being honest or not, but events I've seen referenced included throwing back birthday cards her kids made (rejected as "not good enough") and threatening to burn her oldest's stuffed animals because her piano playing was sub par. There were a couple vague references to leaving them to the elements as well.

I will say, I set a pretty high bar for when threats convert to verbal abuse. My mother's favorite response to talking back, say by saying "I'll do it later" when asked to do a chore, was to respond "I'll later you with a brick/stick." (you can insert any word for later) I was told she would kill me on a regular basis, but it was clearly never serious. But I don't get the feeling that Amy Chua was making over the top threats that she didn't intend her kids to take seriously.

PhysicistDave said...

Allison wrote:
> I am willing to believe that in general, to the extent that the stereotype holds, Chinese mothers are abusers of their children.

As Glen and I have written on Catherine’s earlier thread (and lots of other folks all over the Web), what Chua describes as her behavior is not typical of Chinese in general. The underlying attitudes she describes, however, are.

I continue to believe that Chua somewhat exaggerated the more lurid aspects of her behavior. For example, she wrote:
> We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom.

That sounds as if she prevented Lulu from using the restroom for most of the night. I doubt that is true, unless Lulu has better bladder control than any grade-school kids I know! More likely, Chua simply yelled “You can’t even take a bathroom break!” but not really meaning it. (All parents I know learn rather early the consequence of ignoring a kid who needs a bathroom break!)

Amy and Lulu are clearly “oil and water,” hardly the first such mother-daughter pair in history (I can think of at least two from my own family).

Unfortunately, Chua’s tabloid style of writing obscured some legitimate questions:
1) Should intellectual/academic goals be rated much higher than most Americans rate them?
2) Should non-academic distractions such as TV, video games, sleepovers, etc. simply be banned?
3) Is “pushing” the best way to achieve academic/intellectual goals?
4) Was Chua’s behavior, as she reports it, appropriate?

My own answers are:
1) Yes
2) Maybe
3) Sometimes, but usually not
4) Obviously not

These are separate questions, but Chua’s incendiary writing style tends to conflate them.

Dave

Allison said...

Dave, I've read your and Glen's comments several times and on exactly NONE of those occasions did I read either of you to say her behavior was not typical. Even after you've told me that's what you said, it ain't what I could glean.

You said over and over that there was strong support for the stereotype, that her attitude was definitely the attitude you saw most prevalent.

You said (somewhat tongue in cheek I assumed) the article would bring out these tendencies in your wife. Glen said one of married-into family members wouldn't have condoned this behavior-setting apart that one.

Maybe you thought you were clearly articulating a difference between attitude and behavior, but what I took away was that *her attitude toward her behavior of abuse* was completely absorbed into the rest of these attitudes, and you were saying these behaviors were condoned.

I can't really see how those are separable. Maybe that's another cultural difference, but if you're going to believe that such abuse is acceptable for a good outcome, why wouldn't you do it?

PhysicistDave said...

Allison wrote to me:
>I've read your and Glen's comments several times and on exactly NONE of those occasions did I read either of you to say her behavior was not typical. Even after you've told me that's what you said, it ain't what I could glean.

Well, for example, on the earlier thread, I gave the example of my wife’s parents:
> In the case of my wife’s family, while my wife’s personality is pretty close to Chua’s, her own immigrant mom was in fact somewhat different. I know of no case where anything like the “piano incident” occurred involving my mother-in-law, and, in fact, superficially, my parents-in-law took a somewhat laissez-faire approach towards their daughters’ education.
> On the other hand, my parents-in-law did somehow inculcate in their kids an underlying attitude that not only they, but their entire ancestral lines on both sides of the family, would be deeply disgraced if their daughters did not excel academically. So, the result was much the same as Chua’s, although there was less micromanaging and certainly less yelling!

I think that is fairly clear. Their behavior was radically different from Chua’s: nothing like the piano incident or the threats to burn the stuffed animals or whatever. However, their underlying attitude – excel superbly or the family will be shamed – was essentially the same as Chua’s.

I’m not sure how I could have made that much clearer.

Obviously, my parent-in-laws’ approach was superior to Chua’s. On the other hand, I do honestly believe that Chua’s real behavior was usually perceived by herself and her kids much as ChemProf perceived his mom’s behavior – more as venting than as serious threats. Lulu’s crack to Amy about why hadn’t Amy left already for the Salvation Army pretty much indicates as much.

Of course, Amy should not have behaved as she indicates she behaves, but most people do blow their top, give way to venting, etc. from time to time, and I think that was what she was doing.

I think the more important question relates to my parent-in-laws’ approach, which was much, much calmer, but perhaps even more effective at running a guilt trip on their kids, than Chua’s approach. I’m told by many Chinese that that approach really is typical of Chinese.

Is my parent-in-laws’ approach right? I’ve always had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, kids do owe something to their parents, and kids should try to develop their potential to the fullest. On the other hand, doing so simply to satisfy Mom and Dad (and the last ten generations of ancestors!) seems to me to miss the point. A person should develop his potential out of loyalty to himself, not out of duty to his forebears.

I actually do believe that, and, as far as I can tell, I always have believed that since I was a pre-schooler: Aristotle’s point from “The Nicomachean Ethics” – “Happiness is the development of all of one’s potential in the pursuit of excellence.”

I suppose Chua (and perhaps my wife) would respond that this just shows my (and Aristotle’s) commitment to Western individualism. I think I can accept that accusation.

Dave

Crimson Wife said...

1) Should intellectual/academic goals be rated much higher than most Americans rate them?
2) Should non-academic distractions such as TV, video games, sleepovers, etc. simply be banned?
3) Is “pushing” the best way to achieve academic/intellectual goals?
4) Was Chua’s behavior, as she reports it, appropriate?


My $0.02:

(1) True intellectual development needs to be much more valued in this society. The kinds of external markers of achievement over which Ms. Chua obsessed (and so many families of all ethnicities in my neck of the woods do) need to be given much lower priority. I don't care how my children compare with their peers- I only care whether they are challenging themselves and pushing the limits in order to grow academically.

(2) Everything in moderation. I want my children to be "well-rounded" and would absolutely encourage involvement in sports and other extracurriculars. The people I know who are most successful in the business world were not typically the ones with the highest GPA's but rather the ones who showed leadership in their extracurriculars (the varsity team captains, the debate team captains, the fraternity/sorority presidents, etc.)

(3) Yes, but in a healthy way. The parent should hold high but reasonable expectations.

(4) Not in the slightest.

Allison said...

Wow, Dave, I just don't read very well I guess. Even now, I interpret it wrongly--I read it as your wife was like Chua, but your mother in law wasn't--and it was mother in law that you made the point of saying was the weird one, the one that was uncommon, not the other way round. I keep reading it as you pointed out the exception to emphasize the rule. "less micromanaging and less yelling" I interpreted as "her family was more effective with the shame and threats than Chua and didn't need to be so violent."

I think this comes down to your familiarity with the personality archtypes here. You say you are reading Chua as unserious in her threats--which I still can only comprehend if she knows they were unserious, which I can only comprehend her then writing a book about if the whole thing is supposed to be a farce in the first place. Of course we make mistakes and blow our top, but we don't hold those examples up as our superiority.

PhysicistDave said...

Allison wrote to me:
>Wow, Dave, I just don't read very well I guess. Even now, I interpret it wrongly--I read it as your wife was like Chua, but your mother in law wasn't--and it was mother in law that you made the point of saying was the weird one, the one that was uncommon, not the other way round.

Well… my wife is kind of like Chua – my wife does allow bathroom breaks, though! Yes, my mother-in-law was very different in her actual behavior, though similar in her underlying values: my mother-in-law of course had her annoying side (what human being doesn’t?), but had a very different personality from Chua.

As to who was, as you say, “weird” and “uncommon,” I don’t think I said or meant to answer that one way or another. I think it is probably true that most Chinese would find Chua’s behavior a bit weird, at least unless they dismissed it as simple venting that neither Chua nor her kids took seriously (my mother-in-law vented too, but quite differently than Chua did). But maybe they would dismiss my mother-in-law as “weird” in a different way, too. There are of course as many personality types among Chinese as any other group of humans – every human being is weird in his or her own way!

What does seem to be true is that the “Excel or you have disgraced the family” norm is very widespread among Chinese, even though how individuals express that norm varies depending on their individual personalities. As I indicated above, like almost all Westerners, I do not share that norm, although I do share, for different reasons, the view that each individual should try to develop his or her potential to the fullest.

I think that what is going on here is that Chua opened this huge can of worms and conflated a huge variety of various issues in her essay (and, presumably, her book). Neither you nor I nor Catherine nor Glen can possibly express all of our own views on all of these issues fully in a forum like this. So, perhaps there is a tendency to assume that we said or meant something we did not actually say. I think all of us who have “defended” Chua (i.e., agreed with some aspect of her views) have tried to make clear that we do not agree with her on everything. Surely, she would not expect us to! I feel Chua had some good intentions, but that she obviously did some things wrong. I think the same thing about Chinese culture and attitudes in general and, for that matter, about Western culture and attitudes in general.

I suppose about all I can say is that I did not mean something I did not say.

All the best,

Dave

PhysicistDave said...

Hi, Crimson Wife!

I think the main point on which I would differ from you is
>I want my children to be "well-rounded" and would absolutely encourage involvement in sports and other extracurriculars. The people I know who are most successful in the business world were not typically the ones with the highest GPA's but rather the ones who showed leadership in their extracurriculars (the varsity team captains, the debate team captains, the fraternity/sorority presidents, etc.)

I think you are factually correct about people who succeed in the business world, although I suspect the causation may run the other way: i.e., certain personality types make one likely both to be frat prez, team captain, etc. and also a titan of business. There is actually a literature on this, I believe: One theory is that people whose grades are not good enough to guarantee a surefire career as a physician, lawyer, engineer, etc. go ahead and roll the dice and see what they can do in business: some luck out and become CEOs; others fail.

In any case, I don’t care about my kids being stunning successes in the business world: few people are, after all.

I do want my kids to at least have the option of being successful at a STEM career, which I think can be attained by any reasonably bright person who bothers to study. I think that is a better bet than shooting for being a captain of industry. If they end up becoming a filthy rich captain of industry anyway, cool.

You also wrote:
>.The kinds of external markers of achievement over which Ms. Chua obsessed (and so many families of all ethnicities in my neck of the woods do) need to be given much lower priority. I don't care how my children compare with their peers- I only care whether they are challenging themselves and pushing the limits in order to grow academically.

You’re illuminating the point on which I really differ from so many Chinese, and, indeed, so many upper-middle-class Americans. If my kids end up making $300K a year, swell. If they don’t, swell. I don’t really care whether they are “successful” by normal status criteria, whether they get into a prestigious university, etc.

I do think that my kids are bright enough that they would enjoy a reasonably good university better than a community college, and a reasonably challenging white-collar job.

But, if my kids don’t get into Harvard? Well, I turned down Harvard when I was admitted. Harvard does not impress me. Harvard may be a good tool for some kids to advance their education, but it is only a tool, not a goal in itself.

I want my kids to have a deep understanding of what humans now know about the natural world and about the nature of human beings. I think that is worthwhile in itself, and I think it also helps protect them against being deceived and manipulated by all of those who prey on human ignorance to distort human lives and wreck human societies.

I hope I can help my kids achieve such an understanding. Beyond that, well, it’s their lives – they’re gonna have to work out the next stage for themselves.

All the best,

Dave

Glen said...

Allison wrote: Dave, I've read your and Glen's comments several times and on exactly NONE of those occasions did I read either of you to say her behavior was not typical.

That's true; I didn't comment on this specifically. I'll try to do so here, but the truth is a bit of "on the one hand, on the other hand."

In my experience, Amy Chua's behavior is not typical of Chinese mothers, because it is too extreme. A less extreme version, having similar goals, constantly emphasizing hard work and sacrifice of "what those American kids do," one that is more focused on certain achievements and less on others than most Americans, IS typical. Amy Chua with the aspirations, hard work, and sacrifice, but without the arrogance, insults, and drama. Not so different from most KTMers, in most ways: more concerned about keeping up with Asians in math than most Americans, more likely to believe in "just do the work, it doesn't have to be fun" than in engaging projects, etc., not proud if they occasionally insult their kids.

My wife, born and raised in China, sets up play dates. Often the other kids are Chinese, because our neighborhood school is full of Chinese kids whose mothers also clearly allow play dates. My wife signs the kids up for community center drama programs, sports programs, etc., while blue-eyed Dad drills & kills them in math and other academics. Many (not all) of our neighborhood Chinese moms seem to do similar things; our cousins in China would if they could.

Even so, I don't think an extreme case like Amy Chua is rare among Chinese (or Korean) mothers, unfortunately. Not typical, but not rare. Unlike KTMers, these Asian moms are more inclined to focus on the same few achievements. If everyone wants to be #1 in the exact same thing, you get an arms race, which can lead to Amy Chua-like behaviors. Also, most Chinese mothers seem to hate to praise and love to scold. Scolding is so fundamental to Chinese culture that the legal penalty for some infractions is to be scolded by a professional.

It seems to me that these behaviors have slightly different drivers in Asia and the US, too. In Asia, the kids don't have all the electives, sports programs, etc., that American kids have, so they don't compare themselves to other kids who get to have fun. They're doing what all their friends are doing. But that's the bad news, too, since all of society puts them in an arms race that most will lose, and there's no escape. Often they're so miserable they kill themselves. Many parents hate this system but can't drop out if nobody else does, so they make their kids stay and fight.

In the US, the kids see their friends having fun and know they can escape by rebelling. Sometimes that results in Chua-like "we're superior people surrounded by barbarians, and I'll kill you before I'll let you shame me and become like THEM" behaviors that you see in other immigrant communities regarding issues such as dating.

Again, Chua's behavior is extreme, and for that reason not typical, but not rare, either. A less extreme version that would be uncomfortable to most Americans but less so to KTMers, is typical. And some Asians in Asia aren't comfortable, either, and would dial it back if they felt they could, while Amy Chua talks as if this is the ultimate in good parenting. In my experience, that's a minority opinion, though few Chinese mothers would approve of dialing it back to the "laziness" of American families.

SteveH said...

I agree with Dave and Glen. There are too many angles with with to approach the article/book. The question is not whether to push or not, but how much and how (and whether) you adapt the pushing for each child. My wife and I have been trying to find this balance since our son was born. With him, positive pushing works much better than negative pushing, but sometimes that doesn't work. How we push is as important as how much we expect.

Also, we set much higher expectations than other parents. As I have said, I've been more surprised about the low standards of many Western parents than I am about the high standards of Asian parents. Some comments talk as if pushing is wrong by definition; as if what Amy Chua is doing defines pushing. This eliminates any benefit of discussing the problem, especially if the point of too much pushing is not defined.

This brings up another of my favorite topics. Exactly what sort of pushing do schools expect from parents? Many of us have gotten letters from schools telling us to work on math facts with our kids. Is that pushing or teaching? (The schools are trying to push parents to do their work.) If we work with out kids, then that is teaching, but if we tell them just to do something independently, then that is pushing? I know that my son's K-8 schools love to point to him as an example of their success. He is an example of our teaching and pushing.

There is also the question of how you define success or expectations. My wife and I care very much about grades and success in school, but that's is just a reflection of our underlying expectation; to know the value of hard work; to know that if you work really hard (at anything), you will have much more fun "up here". Unfortunately, discussions over pushing tend to reduce things to simple black and white questions.

I think the best benefit of the article would be a discussion of exactly what parents expect and what goes on at home. By the way, we only expect one hour of practice per day from our son, and some days, practice is skipped due to homework. We don't make him stay up late at night.

Anonymous said...

One of my kids was friends (to the extent his parents permitted) with a Chinese kid whose parents came here when he was about 6. An only child, unfortunately, he lived under this kind of pressure, in a top HS with many other Asians and many high-achieving whites. Fearing a B in one class, he asked several of his friends if he could stay with one of them for a few days until he found a place to live; his parents had told him not to come home if he received a B. Maybe they didn't mean literal disowning, but he thought they did and that assumption fit with what my son knew about his home life.

Hainish said...

Like all American teenagers, it seems, C. is well aware of his right to unconditional parental support in all things.

Actually, this is only the case for teenagers of middle and upper-middle class, Americanized families.

It doesn't describe the upbringing of myself or many of the people I grew up with.

In a way, Amy Chua's parenting style resembles my parents', although I didn't have the benefit of music lessons.

Catherine Johnson said...

Actually, this is only the case for teenagers of middle and upper-middle class, Americanized families.

Oh, boy. I sure didn't get to guilt-trip my folks. WOW.

This is something I've picked up on only lately, talking to other parents around here.

A lot of the kids I know have figured out that they are owed unconditional support no matter how they are doing in school. They've also learned to 'threaten' their parents with things as scary as cutting and anorexia.

I don't know whether I'm being clear....

Basically, a lot of teens seem to have picked up on parent fears (cutting, anorexia, even suicide) - AND they manipulate these fears to gain advantage.

The message is: If you pressure me, I will hurt myself.

I want to be extra clear that I **don't** feel C. has done this. C. has engaged in simple guilt-tripping (or attempted guilt-tripping, I should say. I have zero interest in being guilt-tripped by my KID).

But I've now seen teens essentially threaten their parents-----whether or not they consciously know that's what they're doing or not.

Catherine Johnson said...

I guess what I'm saying is: American culture (middle & upper-middle?) believes in unconditional love, support, and admiration for our kids.

THE KIDS KNOW THIS.

They know it, and they use it.

They also know what we're afraid of.

SteveH said...

"They've also learned to 'threaten' their parents with things as scary as cutting and anorexia."

This is only a peer thing if parents let it get to that point in the first place. My son would never get away with that crap. Besides, he would never think to do that in the first place.

Catherine Johnson said...

Yeah, but plenty of kids DO think of doing it.

Suppose your adolescent daughter starts cutting herself? They're just little scratches, but....there they are.

Do you have the nerve to call her bluff?

Catherine Johnson said...

Years ago, a dad I know sat down his young adolescent daughter and read her the riot act about the fact that she had stopped eating.

At the time, I was shocked and semi-scandalized.

Anorexia is a disease, not a bad behavior.

The dad was divorced from the mom, which meant he wasn't even in the house with this girl who had stopped eating.

Turned out he read the situation right. He told her in no uncertain terms that she was going down the wrong path and that she needed to turn around and get back on the right path.

She did.

Catherine Johnson said...

When and where have you ever read that a parent can successfully order a teenage girl not to have an eating disorder?

Anonymous said...

"The question is not whether to push or not, but how much and how (and whether) you adapt the pushing for each child."

Also *WHERE* you push your child.

My wife and I homeschool our child and this kinda forced the issue of, "what do we teach and to what level or mastery?" We *can't* do everything and we can't do everything to mastery. So we have to prioritize.

My basic bins are:

1) You have to master this (often, with the idea that this will be mastered at a fairly high level, eventually).

2) You have to have basic competency. "Master" it if you wish.

3) We're going to expose you to this. Keep going if you want to.

4) Stuff the kid wants to do. Keep going as long as he wants. Stop when he wants. Hey, this is his choice for "fun."

The level of pushing in each category is different. For example, I've got a fairly good idea of where I want him to finish in math. We push this. He doesn't get to vote.

Cooking is something that he has to become competent at, but after that he can stop trying to get better. Or he can keep going if he wants to. We'll pay for cooking lessons just like we are willing to pay for little league.

I'm going to make him take a sailing course one of these summers. He doesn't have to take any more.

Baseball he picked on his own. He can quit any time he wants *JUST NOT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SEASON*. The lesson here is "you don't walk out on your team." Because he wants to play well, we are (Lord help us!) taking him to lessons to get better. He understands that he will get better (and thus have more fun, plus get to play the more desirable positions more often) if he practices and takes lessons.

One of the things that comes across in the article is that Mom seems to be picking *all* the activities for her kids ... and every activity not required is forbidden [this may not be true, but she makes it sound that way...]. This very much assumes that children are arbitrarily moldeable blank canvases (hey, I mixed metaphors) ... which I *VERY* much do not believe.

-Mark Roulo

Cranberry said...

Forgive me, Catherine, but your town sounds like a very competitive place, from your description. In such a large gathering of intense families, some children will show signs of conditions often associated with (searching for a term) competitive upper-class families, such as anorexia and cutting. I'd throw in comparatively high rates of drug and alcohol use by (some, certainly not all) teens.

Even if your friend's children don't suffer from such conditions, they certainly know kids who do. I'd ask, then, if it's a threat on the part of the child ("Let me go to the party, or I'll start cutting myself"), or is it a child expressing her fear that she might start cutting ("I remind myself very much of Sara Doe, who did cut, so please help me avoid that.")

The kids all know of such conditions, because they have friends and classmates who suffer from such conditions.

cranberry said...

You should check out Harriet Brown's blog, http://harrietbrown.blogspot.com/. She writes about eating disorders in American society, spurred by her daughter's anorexia. She is a fan of the Maudsley approach, http://www.maudsleyparents.org/, which involves the entire family in treating children's anorexia.

Catherine Johnson said...

The kids all know of such conditions, because they have friends and classmates who suffer from such conditions.

Right.

So how does the parent deal with it?

The child's answer is: give me back my cell phone & let me go to parties on weekends.

Catherine Johnson said...

The child's answer is: Be happy when I get Bs, Cs, & Ds.

How should the parent respond?

Catherine Johnson said...

which involves the entire family in treating children's anorexia

But suppose it's not really anorexia?

Here's what I'm getting at.

In our culture - at least, in the culture I live in - anorexic behaviors are always and everywhere assumed to mean anorexia.

Nowhere have I seen anyone suggest that anorexic behaviors might be a teen gaining the upper hand over a frightened parent.

I don't know whether that was the case with my friend's daughter, but I **do** know that he nipped her behaviors in the bud with one stern talking-to.

I have now seen the same thing occur with cutting behaviors.

Cranberry said...

Does the child have the capacity to get As? I think that's the hard question to answer. If it's unrealistic to expect the child to earn As, then the parent has to adjust.

IF the child could get As, but is too busy partying to earn them, that's a different discussion. Then, I wouldn't hesitate to call the bluff. At the least, the cell phone should be off limits without good grades.

I regard high school parties as dangerous in themselves. There are some friends of my daughter with whom I'd have no concern, because I know the parents well, I know their goals for their children, and I know that the minor children would be adequately supervised. For many, many other acquaintances, though, the answer would be, "not on your life." -- and this would not be subject to a grade/party exchange.

Cutting and anorexia are a sign of mental illness because "normal" people find them painful.

SteveH said...

"Suppose your adolescent daughter starts cutting herself?"

I would have her whole lifetime of knowledge to determine the potential cause and solution.

SteveH said...

"The child's answer is: Be happy when I get Bs, Cs, & Ds. How should the parent respond?"

By then, it's a little late. Parents should see that coming. There should be signs. Amy Chua talks about that. If you don't establish the expectations and boundaries early, any sort of natural development could go off track and you have no way to impose a new order.

Our son knows that we set higher expectations and stricter boundaries than his friends. This started when he was little. It is nothing new and not open to negotiation. However, we don't micromanage, and now that he is in high school, we can back off quite a bit. However, we pay very careful attention to every little thing.

One thing that has helped this it that he never spends time in his room. There is no TV or computer there. The computer is in a common room. A friend of his once wanted to go up to his room, but he asked what for? There is nothing there. This means that he spends every evening with my wife and I, and not hidden away in his room. However, email and IM is a big issue and distraction. Then again, we are right there and can look over his shoulder.

"Natural" can go very wrong, and there is not much you can do to fix it.

cranberry said...

Catherine, is it the same child?

I know my children's peers have had far more exposure to counseling and mental health treatment than our generation did. I think the health curriculum also includes units on eating disorders and other psychiatric issues, so these kids are more knowledgeable about different conditions. That isn't including the children who have been in therapy and/or on medication.

Some children are also very, very good at manipulating adults. And yet, the late teenage years are a time in life when serious psychiatric issues, such as schizophrenia, are known to become visible. Even if you know your child from birth, your child's brain is still changing.

Threatening to cut or starve yourself is extreme. If a child in a divorced family experiments with limiting food, or cutting herself, I wouldn't conclude that it's just a ploy to extract luxuries from the parents. I think I would take that as a sign to arrange for the child to talk with someone who's trained to deal with adolescent psychiatric issues--even if the behavior stopped at a word from the father.

In our area, there have been teen suicides. I would not assume that everything's hunky-dory, when a teen is showing physical signs of distress. With a rational person, you can make rational deals--cell phone for an improvement in (realistic) grades. You can't make such deals with someone who is going through an irrational phase.

PhysicistDave said...

Mark Roulo wrote:
>The level of pushing in each category is different. For example, I've got a fairly good idea of where I want him to finish in math. We push this. He doesn't get to vote.

That of course is the central point. As much as possible, give them freedom with a bit of guidance and encouragement and hope they will do what they need to do. Sometimes, they won’t. Then, “push” as kindly as possible, and try to not to blow your top without very good reason (I emphasize “try”: all of us are, alas, all too human!).

Mark also wrote:
>One of the things that comes across in the article is that Mom seems to be picking *all* the activities for her kids ... and every activity not required is forbidden [this may not be true, but she makes it sound that way...].

Oh, I think Amy made that pretty explicit!

At some level, that is inevitable: especially for young kids, parents pretty much have to suggest activities, and it has to depend largely on what parents can afford financially, on the logistics of getting kids to the activities, etc.

On the other hand, Amy Chua clearly get too wrapped up herself in the idea of her girls’ doing the particular activities that fit Amy’s own ideas. Some of that is probably inevitable, (i.e., parents do project their own hopes onto their kids), but it clearly got out of control. We’ve focused a lot on the “piano incident” because that after all is the telling case: no one really has to do piano to have a happy and productive adult life. In fact, Amy did learn this in the end, and apparently that is a big part of the theme of the book, even though it did not appear in the WSJ article. I’ll post a link and comments illustrating that on Catherine’s “part 3” thread.”

Dave

Glen said...

Mark, I really like your explicit binning approach. I think that's something I'm going to try, to bring more order to my approach to my kids' educations. Thanks for mentioning it.

Allison said...

Wow, Catherine,

Your peers need to spend a lot more time with shrinks and their patients. The things you say no one in your community realizes are things every competent psychologist and psychiatrist knows.

OF COURSE anorexia is about control, and that control is over self AND others, including its use as a way of getting back at people who have hurt you, a way of demonstrating you've got power when you've felt yourself suffering a complete lack of power. Heck, even 20 years ago, the show My So-Called Life had a line in it where the main girl said something like "it matters SO MUCH to my mother that I eat. So I don't."

And of course a father can threaten a child to knock it off, whatever "it" is, and at some times and instances in life, his threat may do what prior threats did--but that by no means fix the problem.

OF COURSE teenagers use whatever rebellious behavior they can to manipulate their parents, and of course some of those actions are by choice. Some of them stop being by choice though as the subculture you've joined or pathology you're participating in becomes the norm.
Drug use is just one of the obvious behaviors in this category.

I suggest you do some reading about maladptive schema.

http://www.schematherapy.com/id30.htm

is a great place to start. Children learn maladaptive coping mechanisms early in life, and switch between schema modes rather rapidly in adolescence. A child may learn to not behave in one schema mode with one parent while still doing so in other places and times. It doesn't mean the child is healthy.

Allison said...

--When and where have you ever read that a parent can successfully order a teenage girl not to have an eating disorder?

When I was in high school, a girl we knew was abusing amphetamines. Her friends didn't like her doing that, so every time she was around them and high, they beat the c*** out of her. And if she had drugs on her, they stole them and flushed them down the toilet. Literally, until she was black and blue and in pain for weeks. Eventually she quit--it simply wasn't worth it.

It did nothing to fix what was wrong with her. That behavior was a symptom of a much larger problem. She found new ways to obliterate herself.

Crimson Wife said...

If I had to choose between the two, I'd rather my child be a "B" student with very strong extracurriculars, than valedictorian with no life. I don't mean partying and being voted Homecoming King/Queen but real leadership. I may be rather biased because my dad was triple varsity in high school and ran Division I varsity track in college, I competed in figure skating growing up & then VP of my sorority in college, and my DH was quarterback of his high school football team and VP of his fraternity in college. We were all strong students but not academic standouts. You don't have to be the smartest person in the room- you just need to be smart enough plus have strong leadership skills. That's what leads to success.

The "Baker Scholars" (top 5% as determined by GPA) in my DH's MBA class are not the ones who have been the most successful in the 5 years since graduation. Rather it's been the ones with unusually strong leadership skills and a penchant for "thinking outside the box" as the saying goes.

Catherine Johnson said...

Forgive me, Catherine, but your town sounds like a very competitive place, from your description.

Actually, the issue of competitiveness is interesting here because Irvington is a place people move to specifically to **escape** from the competitive pressures of a place like Scarsdale.

But we're-not-Scarsdale brings all kinds of problems of its own.

For one thing, it allows the administration to exploit parents' ambivalence about achievement.

Our PTSA just sponsored a showing of Race to Nowhere, which was hosted by the high school principal.

The high school principal and vice principal both believe it's much more important for students to be socially happy than academically successful.

That attitude, of course, means they are under no pressure to raise achievement (although they receive generous raises every year - some numbers are going up around here!)

Catherine Johnson said...

Your peers need to spend a lot more time with shrinks and their patients.

My peers are spending countless hours with and many thousands of dollars on shrinks.

No "competent psychologist" or shrink around here that I know of has ever suggested to a parent that a child might be engaging in adolescent drama or manipulation.

No psychologist or psychiatrist that I know of has ever suggested to a peer that his or her child needed less psychiatric treatment rather than more.

Catherine Johnson said...

Another scandal (in my view): I have now heard of at least 3 (maybe 4) different child psychiatrists who have told parents they should not attempt to limit their teen's drug use.

The reasons vary but seem often to be connected to the idea that teens need to "separate" from their parents, and if you don't allow a teen to separate -- by, say, grounding him for life 'cause you caught him sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night to smoke pot -- you are causing developmental damage.

Allison said...

Actual MDs saying this? bona fide MDs?

Catherine Johnson said...

Does the child have the capacity to get As? I think that's the hard question to answer. If it's unrealistic to expect the child to earn As, then the parent has to adjust.

IF the child could get As, but is too busy partying to earn them, that's a different discussion. Then, I wouldn't hesitate to call the bluff. At the least, the cell phone should be off limits without good grades.


Great way of putting it.

That's really what it comes down to -- is the child doing his best?

Of course, given what I know about deliberate practice, I believe my own child is not doing the best he is capable of doing in math/science (although he's doing well enough to suit me, at least in science).

This is where cultural values come in. I see myself as a 'core American' in the sense that I have a characteristic American 'insouciance' about academic achievement at some point---and I speak as a mother who taught the entire 6-8 math curriculum to her child. Here in my town, I **am** a Chinese mom!

Even so, I have a 'good enough is good enough' point that a mother like Amy Chua does not seem to have.

I would never, ever do what Amy Chua did (or what less intense Chinese moms do) -- but not because I see Chinese moms as abusive or wrong.

I see them as culturally different, and I admire their focus and stamina.

I'm just not "Chinese."

Allison said...

It takes about ten second to search Medline for "cannabis use adolescence psychosis" and pull up a dozen articles from last year connecting the two. No competent MD in psychiatry or pharmacology doesn't know that.

(pubmed is a public internet version of Medline that gives citations and abstracts. pubmed.gov gets you there.)

Catherine Johnson said...

Actual MDs saying this? bona fide MDs?

Yes.

There is tremendous pressure on parents here to "let go."

Tremendous.

So think about how that plays out when you have a child with real depression, whose school work is suffering tremendously, whose psychologist or psychiatrist tells the parents that their protective instincts are in fact a danger to their child.

I don't know that much about the child psychology/psychiatry world, so I don't want everyone to draw too many conclusions from my comments...but given what I **have** seen, I'm 'not comfortable.' Let me put it that way.

There is an astonishingly powerful cultural 'demand' in my neck of the woods that parents 'let go,' 'back off,' etc.

That demand comes from the 'authorities': school administrators and mental health professionals.

It doesn't make **any** sense to me ALTHOUGH it's possible that I'm also not understanding the culture of parents who are receiving this advice. (For passersby: I grew up on a farm in central IL & live in Westchester County.)

In the WSJ book review of Chua's book, there is a quote about how lonely it is to be a "Chinese mother": a "Chinese mother" has set herself against the entire history of Englightenment culture, or some such.

I relate to that because I'm at odds with the culture of raising a teenager here.

I think that probably has a lot to do with why my son is attending a Jesuit school.

Catherine Johnson said...

It takes about ten second to search Medline for "cannabis use adolescence psychosis" and pull up a dozen articles from last year connecting the two.

Believe me, I've done it.

Ideology trumps Medline.

That's the only explanation I can come up with.

Catherine Johnson said...

fyi: there are plenty of parents here who are 'strict' in the modest sense in which Ed and I are strict.

"Authoritative" is the word, actually. After Laurence Steinberg's work.

Those kids do just as well as Steinberg says.

Allison said...

--I would never, ever do what Amy Chua did...not because I see Chinese moms as abusive or wrong...I see them as culturally different, and I admire their focus and stamina.

I am reminded of Charles James Napier (below is from wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_James_Napier)

A story for which Napier was noted involved a delegation of Hindu locals approaching him and complaining about prohibition of Sati, often referred to at the time as suttee, by British authorities. This was the custom of burning a widow alive on the funeral pyre of her husband. The exact wording of his response varies somewhat in different reports, but the following version captures its essence:
"You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; [then] beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."

PhysicistDave said...

Crimson Wife wrote:
>If I had to choose between the two, I'd rather my child be a "B" student with very strong extracurriculars, than valedictorian with no life. I don't mean partying and being voted Homecoming King/Queen but real leadership. I may be rather biased because my dad was triple varsity in high school and ran Division I varsity track in college, I competed in figure skating growing up & then VP of my sorority in college, and my DH was quarterback of his high school football team and VP of his fraternity in college.

The problem, CW, is that it looks like you are assuming that someone can choose, or be trained, to be the sort of person your dad, your husband, and you were and thereby succeed at “leadership.”

I have several close family members who have MBAs. Only one has been as successful as bright people in STEM careers are: he’s the guy in the family who was clearly the go-getter from the get-go, so to speak – high energy and assertive even when he was a toddler.

And, logically speaking, most people who aspire to “leadership” pretty much have to fail: after all, not everyone can be quarterback. Most people who strive for leadership positions will fail just by the numbers.

Furthermore, most people just are not the right personality type.

I was on the Student Council Executive Committee all three years of high school, got re-elected twice, obviously. As a good friend said when I was applying to college, “Dave, you look great on paper.” Part of his joke was that he knew perfectly well that I was not the “student leader” type. I did not particularly enjoy being on the ExComm, although there were no onerous duties attached to it. I’m just not that kind of person.

Occasionally over the decades I’ve had to take a leadership role in some organization. I’ve always found it a distasteful experience. (My wife was Student Body President in high school: she hated the experience, though I suppose that it looked good on her college applications.)

Do you know Judith Rich Harris’ book The Nurture Assumption? She makes a rather convincing case that you just cannot shape your kid’s personality type. I like people well enough, one-on-one. I do not much like large groups, and I abhor being a “leader.” I’ve always been that way, and the high-school “leadership experience” merely convinced me that I prefer being who I am.

Judith Harris does say that parents can very significantly mold their kids’ moral character (which is good news). And, obviously, parents can help their kids learn various skills, whether piano, cooking, car repair, or STEM .

You want your kids to have leadership personalities? They probably will, since you and your husband do.

Do you think my kids should have leadership personalities? Maybe they should, but Harris makes a good case that there is nothing much I can do about that, one way or another. And, if they inherited my tendencies… well, I’m afraid that then we’d better just forget about all that and concentrate on STEM careers!

People are different.

All the best,

Dave

PhysicistDave said...

Allison,

One of the things I find disturbing vis a vis the mental-health area is the obvious intergenerational comparisons:

My great-grandmother was born in 1883 and died in her nineties during my senior year of college, so I knew her throughout my entire childhood. In fact, I knew her better than any other member of our extended family (excluding my own parents and sibs).

I never heard from her or anyone in her or the next generation of any of the “problems” that we now hear so much of – depression, anorexia, etc. Reading about that period in the US gives the same impression. (From reading, I get the impression that Europe – at least, the upper and upper-middle classes in Europe – may have been different: Freud after all got his start in Vienna.)

Were those problems also rampant way back then in the States but no one talked of them? Were people just too busy chopping wood, running the wringer washing machines, etc. to have time to be depressed or anorexic? Or were there differences in the culture that simply caused people not to develop behaviors that they so often develop now?

I’m not sure. America is a “graded” society in a way it was not then: Great Grandma dropped out of school after fourth grade (of course, she already had acquired basic literacy and numeracy by then), and no one seemed to think the worse of her for it. Certainly, people in her generation were aware of dramatic differences in wealth, but I suspect that in some other ways the US may actually have been more egalitarian back then: obviously, most people did not go to school primarily for status reasons – few people could afford it. (Ironic that our age that is so obsessed with the ideology of egalitarianism is, in many ways, rather inegalitarian: have you ever looked at Michael Young’s classic satirical essay Rise of the Meritocracy?)

You and I have both gone to very elite schools and seen very bright people feel inferior because they were not quite at the top. Our society seems structured to provide this sort of experience to almost everyone at some level: competition in the sense of a linear order, which, I think is rather different than nineteenth-century dog-eat-dog competition, where if you “failed” in New York, you could chuck it all and head out to California.

Chinese society has had that sort of linear grading for a thousand years or so. Maybe one of the reasons Chua has touched such a nerve (notably among Chinese Americans, who are venting across the Web on this!) is not that they are alien to American culture but that, in a way, Chinese culture is an extreme version of what American culture has become – a linearly ordered society.

Just a thought.

I think I prefer partial orders over linear orders, in the technical mathematical sense of the terms.

Dave

cranberry said...

Dave, I think the past had its own problems. We think nothing of someone taking on a 40 mile daily commute. No one could do that before cars. Our "village" is much larger than our ancestors. Look at traditional European villages. The houses are very close together, and the villages are small. A villager would have known everyone in the village, and seen them everyday while taking care of crops and meeting daily needs.

In the agrarian past, it was easier to give people with issues a role. Farming without machines is very labor-intensive. Think of all the small farms which had "farmhands." Think of all the spinster aunts and bachelor uncles. Lastly, think of the "holy fool," and the foolish third son in fairy tales and stories. I'm not arguing that an agrarian society is better, just that the same conditions may exist in both societies, but we don't recognize the form they took in earlier times, because we've forgotten so much.

Now, a "small" town might have 2,000 people. Many townspeople will never have met each other. On the other hand, a case of anorexia in a regional high school will scare the parents of all her classmates. When something appears on the national news, it's as if we were close neighbors to every event.

We also have multiple industries which thrive off of encouraging people to diagnose themselves with problems, and then to seek out solutions. The self-help industry is massive. The pharmaceutical industry offers a wide array of medication to treat problems. Depression must be a money-maker, as it's so widely advertised.

Allison said...

--I never heard from her or anyone in her or the next generation of any of the “problems” that we now hear so much of – depression, anorexia, etc.

Sounds like selection bias to me. Perhaps you come from a long line of healthy genes with no trauma activating any epigenes coupled with decent parenting. And maybe the US' relative security for the North in the era between the Civil War and the Depression (WWI was not traumatic for civilians here) plays a big part in that.

My family and my husband's family has psychopathology in every single generation for as far back as we have done the geneology. That's Old Country Europe--Poland, Bohemia, Ireland, Northern Italy, parts of Germany. My mother arrived here at 10 (her family is Polish and Bohemian), my father's family arrived during the potato famine, husband's family arrived in the 19th c. I'll talk about their psychopathologies in a minute.

Certainly, social norms of behavior have changed--being gay is not now considered deviant; beating your children now is. There's still controversy over the notion of what's an illness, and in the past, more was considered character or morality. And the names used by clinicians change every decade or so too. But the underlying psychopathologies haven't changed.

Read Angela's Ashes? It's the story of Frank McCourt's Irish family in the early 20th c. His mother, Angela, and father arrived here and
subsequently destroyed every single opportunity they had to create a better life, then choosing to go back to Ireland where things were an order of magnitude worse. His father was an alcoholic all his life who wouldn't hold down a job. His mother was a narcissistic depressive, who switched between child neglect and child abuse depending on her mood.
Several of her children died of starvation, cold and illness. IIRC, family members raped her mother, or made her oblige to an ongoing sexual abuse relationship. Frank became the family caretaker, with all of the psychopathologies associated with that. The alcoholism traversed generations, too.

That book is typical of Irish home life for many. The British brutalized the Irish for over a century, and Ireland in the 20th c. wasn't any better off than it was in the 19th c. Millions died, and those who didn't get out had it worse. Would anyone have called their suffering depression? Or labelled their alcoholism a disease or a coping mechanism for a psychopathology? No. But the whole culture was one psychopathology and trauma after another for every child that lived to be an adult.
(cont)

Allison said...

Poland was maybe worse. I come from peasant stock on all sides, and every Polish family member we know of was a disaster. The men were belligerent drunks, some prone to aggressive violence, others to long periods of isolation where no work was done and people starved. We'd call that depression today probably. The level of trauma in each generation was overhwelming. People died in childhood from sickness, from war, from starvation. I have a g-g-g grandfather who lost 5 children before they reached 10, two wives, all of his siblings and his parents before he reached 30. He didn't make it to 40. You think he was free of depression? You think he saw joy?

Life in a small Polish farm town reads as miserable as Russian literature says. Everyone was paranoid, terribly afraid of what others would do with the smallest piece of gossip, trying to destroy each other to gain what little advantage money or power had in the town. Everyone was narcissistic, and deeply mistrustful because no one could trust anyone, certainly not family.

Another family member, my gr-gr-grandmother was a goose girl. Starting as soon as she could basically walk and talk, her job, every day, was to follow the geese around the farm. She had no friends, no childhood playmates, no contact with siblings, no family paying any attention to her. She was terribly lonely all of her life. Then she was married against her will when her father couldn't afford to pay off a debt. Her children all had issues, and several of her grandchildren would now be considered agoraphobics, shut ins, women who never left the house and were incapable of handling the smallest stresses without panicking. Everyone in all of these families drank heavily, thought nothing of beating up women or children, and were basically awful.

I could continue with the craziness in the Italian family, or the Samoan, but there's no point. Suffice to say, depression, anxiety, rampant drug abuse, violence, and occasionally horror characterized life.

I'm going to bracket anorexia. Women mutilating themselves for perceived standards of beauty has been around for millenia.

Allison said...

Cranberry's right about the various roles--the court jester or circus performer of the past that's now a BMX biker or professional skateboarder might work, but the slightly asperger's young man who then became a monk but now struggles with his boss and marketing as an engineer is worse off. The agoraphobe who needed never leave their town and everyone in it was already a family member now is at sea in our modern world. Certainly now, smaller families more spread out over the country or world don't unite to bear the burdens of those who don't fit a "successful" life.

But I don't think small town life was really conducive to those who didn't fit. I think the weird and unstable were rejected moreso than now, burned at the stake or otherwise persecuted in ways that doesn't happen now.

To the issue of linearity--I guess I'm not sure how much that's the issue. Europe didn't have it, and still had the psychopathologies I listed; they just didn't come from the pushing the meritocratic society created. Nothing would get you out of your lot in life there, save the randomness of cataclysmic war.

Does the US really have more linearity now than a century ago? Or is it just that the upper middle class who want their kids to go to Ivy League caliber schools feel that way? Here in MN, there's a lot of success in those partial orderings, and a lot of people who are happy. They never compare themselves to those on the coasts. I don't know.

PhysicistDave said...

Allison wrote to me:
>Perhaps you come from a long line of healthy genes with no trauma activating any epigenes coupled with decent parenting.

Oh, I’d like to think my family is just as crazy as normal folks! We’ve had our share of weirdos, eccentrics, and socially undesirable personality types – but no cases of anorexia, self-mutilation, etc. that I have ever heard of.

Allison also said:
>The British brutalized the Irish for over a century, and Ireland in the 20th c. wasn't any better off than it was in the 19th c. Millions died, and those who didn't get out had it worse. Would anyone have called their suffering depression? Or labelled their alcoholism a disease or a coping mechanism for a psychopathology? No. But the whole culture was one psychopathology and trauma after another for every child that lived to be an adult.

And, I take it that there is a historical consensus that the US had a very severe problem with alcoholism in the nineteenth century. So, is there a “conservation of mental disturbance” principle? We get alcoholism somewhat under control and we necessarily face new problems with anorexia, self-mutilation, etc.?

I guess I am naïve enough to hope that a sane society is actually possible!

Allison also asked:
>Does the US really have more linearity now than a century ago? Or is it just that the upper middle class who want their kids to go to Ivy League caliber schools feel that way? Here in MN, there's a lot of success in those partial orderings, and a lot of people who are happy. They never compare themselves to those on the coasts. I don't know.

I’m not sure. I think that at least one segment of contemporary society (the upper middle class) has accepted a bureaucratically-based linear ordering that does not make a great deal of sense. As Steve suggested, the point should be not “Did you go to Harvard?” but “What have you learned that is of value?”

America has become, in some ways, a Mandarinate society, at least for the upper-middle-class. Part of the reason Amy Chua has provoked such a firestorm is that so many Americans really do not see her as alien: they can see themselves in her, albeit in a distorted form.

America, in some (undesirable) ways, has become China.

Dave

ChemProf said...

I was trying to find a reference on this, without any luck, but anorexia/bulimia/cutting are tricky to deal with. In their early stages, they can respond to "tough love," before they really become compulsive. I've also definitely seen college students who are manipulative (I'm thinking in particular of one student who was a cutter who would insist that her friends stay with her "or else I'll kill myself" right before they had exams, but never before she had a big test). We've also had discussions, lead by the counseling staff, that having "awareness" sessions for these phenomena isn't a good idea, because for some students, learning about anorexia, etc. just gives them the idea. So I do think that the "therapeutic culture" that Catherine describes can make the problem worse. And in my part of the country, a lot of therapists are pro-drug. Why? No idea.

There also seems to be a geographical divide here. I've had lots of anorexic/cutting/etc. students from the East and West coast, but very rarely from the Midwest.

Allison said...

Dave and ChemProf,

I think yes, the "conservation" principle has some truth to it. The psychopathologies underlying destructive behaviors remain the same, though the destructive behaviors themselves change with the times, because cultural norms--what's "shocking" to adults changes, what's available as an outlet changes. In a culture that has decided binge drinking or smoking a joint by its youth is normal, say, you've got to up the ante on rebellion and self damage. Cutting still gets you there.

ChemProf, the manipulative college student is mentally ill--yes, she's intentionally manipulating, but because her damaged head has needs and this is how she learned to meet them. It's brokenness through and through even though there's some elements of control--just as any another abuser has some control. And yes, the therapeutic culture does make some of it worse. Theodore Dalrymple has entire books about how the therapeutic culture is invested treating deviant behaviors as if the patients can't control them--they'd all be out of jobs if people were cured. But for someone really deeply in trouble, you don't coerce someone out of cutting or starving themselves. You just drive them to find new ways to hide the behavior or change it--so the starver chooses to cut, instead, or worse.
Suicide in young adults --which is different than in clinically depressed people, say, over 35--often comes because they've gotten the idea from someone else--and it wouldn't have occurred to them otherwise.

Bluntly, *culture matters*. And subcultures determine what's acceptable behavior. If your subculture is 3 sigma away from the mean, you DO NOT KNOW THAT. Modern college life--where adolescents are put together with adolescents en masse with basically no adult supervision--is a complete disaster for growing healthy adults for this reason. Stick a bunch of needy, dysfunctional adolescents together with infinite access to drinking/drugging/whoring, have no adults ever step in to stop the aggressive violent behavior that naturally comes out when such people are altered, and you've got a recipe for teaching adolescents that craziness is normal. So they learn from each other how to cut or starve, the same way they learn from each other how to fill that bong or cut lines with credit cards. Students would be better off living on their own, learning how to function in the real world. They would have to keep dealing on a daily basis with people who have saner social norms than students do, and that would keep them aware of how far they were moving from the mean.

Anonymous said...

Anorexia was not an unknown quantity in some of the affluent Twin Cities suburbs when I lived there a decade ago. When a classmate had a birthday party at the local pool, some of her friends from the state championship (both HS and USS) swim team didn't even bring a suit because they didn't look "thin enough" in a bikini. I had attended many meets and all swimmers at that level had beautiful bodies but they had the lean musculature that enabled them to swim 10,000 meters a day, plus an hour's strength training, and make regional/national qualifying times. There's something wrong when kids like that are defined as "too big."

Catherine Johnson said...

I was trying to find a reference on this, without any luck, but anorexia/bulimia/cutting are tricky to deal with. In their early stages, they can respond to "tough love," before they really become compulsive.

That's it!

That's exactly the point I've been endlessly working on in a new book project...

Behaviors **become** compulsive; they don't generally start out compulsive.

Compulsion & addiction are flip sides of the coin, and in both cases they develop.

Thank you!

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, we had to deal with 'therapeutic culture' issues from the get-go because we have 2 autistic children and 1 typical child.

At a very young age, C. would act up and would say, "My brain made me do it." He was maybe 7 years old at the time.

This occurred in spite of the fact that we're fairly 'strict' with our two autistic kids.

C. would not agree with that characterization; he thinks Andrew gets away with murder. But that's what I thought about my 3 siblings when I was growing up, too.

Point is: from a VERY young age, C. had the idea that he could lawyer his way out of bad behavior by invoking biology.

I wonder how many parents have conversations like: "Then tell you brain to knock it off."

Catherine Johnson said...

With their 7-year olds.

Catherine Johnson said...

I come from peasant stock on all sides, and every Polish family member we know of was a disaster. The men were belligerent drunks, some prone to aggressive violence, others to long periods of isolation where no work was done and people starved.

Oh my gosh!

That reminds me of a hilarious moment back in Studio City, which probably won't translate to prose...

We were building on a 4th bedroom, and the contractors, who the whole neighborhood had hired at various points & knew well, were all Polish. One day Adam (the contractor) & Tom (my neighbor) and I were talking about....what? Maybe another neighbor (a woman) who was giving Adam a hard time.

I don't remember.

In any case, the idea that women can be difficult to work for and difficult to live with inevitably arose, and Tom (who was a second-generation immigrant himself) told us that the problems Adam was having probably had to do with his employer having her period. His own wife, Tom said, was impossible when she was about to get hers.

Adam was scandalized. He had a thick Polish accent, and he said, "Her period! I don't understand that! How can you act like that because of a period!? In Poland, we don't have periods!"

cranberry said...

Anorexia is tricky, though. A friend's daughter had an eating disorder. Everyone knew, or suspected that it was a problem. And yet, she was able to hide from the watchful adults how very little she was eating. Anorectics are apparently known to be deceptive. A non-custodial parent may think he's ordered his daughter to keep eating, and she may seem to comply. Unless he's living in the house, and he's measuring out all her food, and sitting with her while she eats it, I wouldn't assume that the girl was only making a threat.

I am horrified that you know of child psychiatrists who would place independence from the parents at such a high premium as to encourage recreational drug use. On the other hand, could the side effects from marijuana be less than the side effects from the antipsychotics I read doctors are happy to prescribe these days?

I think our towns are similar. Very, very few children don't manage to fledge. They all leave the nest, either for college or the armed forces. In my cousin's town, many more children live with their parents into their twenties. It seems to correlate with economic status. The children who grow up in more affluent families are more likely to be independent adults. Why is attentive parenting seen as such a threat? (Attentive, not "Chua Chinese mother" parenting.)

Catherine Johnson said...

My great-grandmother was born in 1883 and died in her nineties during my senior year of college, so I knew her throughout my entire childhood. In fact, I knew her better than any other member of our extended family (excluding my own parents and sibs).

I never heard from her or anyone in her or the next generation of any of the “problems” that we now hear so much of – depression, anorexia, etc. Reading about that period in the US gives the same impression.


That reminds me:

Years ago, I interviewed Jeffrey Schwartz for John Ratey's and my book SHADOW SYNDROMES.

Schwartz told me that when he interviewed his patients with OCD about their family members it was clear that many of their Depression-era grandparents had had mild forms of OCD.

The difference between the grandparents and the grandchildren was that the grandparents were not incapacitated, while the grandchildren were.

Schwartz said the grandparents had to work, had to survive. As a result, they did not progress to the full-blown disorder.

The environment is an essential element in all of this. Many (most) genes have to be triggered by the environment; genetic expression is also modulated by the environment.

Catherine Johnson said...

competition in the sense of a linear order, which, I think is rather different than nineteenth-century dog-eat-dog competition, where if you “failed” in New York, you could chuck it all and head out to California

Have I mentioned how much I dislike credentialism?

Catherine Johnson said...

I am horrified that you know of child psychiatrists who would place independence from the parents at such a high premium as to encourage recreational drug use.

I have heard this repeatedly -- including from **other** psychiatrists who were themselves horrified.

As C. was going into the high-risk years for drugs, we were serious outliers. We told C. that if we found out about drug use he would be spending his teen years in our house. When I mentioned this to a parent who was allowing her child to use drugs (advised to do so by the therapist), she didn't approve.

There is an intense feeling around here that parents should 'let go.'

Pathology attaches to parents like Ed & me, not to parents who "allow" their children to "make their own mistakes."

fyi: I think I'm probably overstating that --- but maybe not. In essence, I'm talking about the difference between authoritative & permissive parenting. I'm not sure which group is more common here, but it often seems as if permissive parenting is dominant.

The high school is permissive rather than authoritative, which makes me feel that that permissive parent dominates.

C's Jesuit high school has an authoritative culture.

SOOOOOO much better.

Catherine Johnson said...

re: the bathroom incident

When I was a child, we weren't allowed to go to the bathroom during class.

Today, everyone can go to the bathroom during class (I gather) and the result is that you see kids roaming the halls in our high school while class is in session.

This fall, teaching English composition at my local college, I let everyone leave for bathroom breaks whenever he or she wanted to.

The result: there were students who spent more time in the bathroom than in class.

I also had students who were popping up and down every few minutes to leave for a bathroom break.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm thinking in particular of one student who was a cutter who would insist that her friends stay with her "or else I'll kill myself" right before they had exams, but never before she had a big test.

oh, man

that would royally tick me off

lgm said...

Similar culture here...w/the threatening and manipulation too. I was surprised that sixth graders were already into rec drugs and private psychologists...but I guess I should have expected it since full inclusion drives intelligent students batty if their parents aren't afterschooling or they haven't developed a passion for something.

The admin here doesn't bat an eye about drug or alcohol use on campus; violence is what they are concerned about.


>>The child's answer is: Be happy when I get Bs, Cs, & Ds.

How should the parent respond?

Trick question.

To child:
First response: is this your best effort?

Second response: "How does that fit into your plans for the future? Guidance is saying you need 90-95 for a state school, and 95-100 for a private school.

From there, one can go into the study skill improvement needed or hire a tutor.

The trick of course is that your child may have been politically eliminated and can't get the grade. In which case, you might get lucky and force a section change; otherwise use a private provider and let the PSAT and SATs speak for themselves...

Catherine Johnson said...

>>The child's answer is: Be happy when I get Bs, Cs, & Ds.

How should the parent respond?

Trick question.


lollll---

ChemProf said...

I followed the links back to the authoritative/permissive divide. It was interesting to read them from a different point of view, since when that discussion was happening, I wasn't the mother of a toddler.

One thing I've noticed about "philosophically permissive" parents (as opposed to those who gave up) is that they really start early. Read the one-star Amazon reviews of any book on sleep training or potty training, and you will find parents (mothers, mostly) who genuinely believe that it is immoral and cruel to try and impact your child's behavior. I'm not talking about saying "this didn't work for my kid," I'm talking about people who are appalled by anything not child-led, be it weaning or potty-training. I did wonder how this philosophy could possibly work with teenagers, much less toddlers.

I also live in an area where permissive parenting seems to dominate. This will be interesting...