i know what you mean!

“work harder”

Posted on: February 19, 2011

Lately I have been saying this line a lot. It’s a given, but I still find it very interesting how one’s culture and values and upbringing is so embedded in one’s language. I think if I had made the decision to speak English to May, my response to her “I can’t do it” “it’s not possible” would be have been “You can do it! It’s possible! Try again!” But in Vietnamese, I find myself using statements with different implications. I say to her “It’s done.” “Work harder.”

I finally had time to read Amy Chua’s excerpt from her book in the WSJ that people were referring to last month. It actually didn’t rub me the wrong way. I don’t believe in yelling and berating children, and I felt that it wasn’t the message of the author. I also felt that imposing the parents’ absolute will onto the children wasn’t the take-away message neither. Two lines that struck a chord with me in the initial article was
1) “nothing is fun until you’re good at it”
2) “there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t”

The first line makes me think about my lack of passion for things vs. An’s enjoyment in her work, operas, dancing, etc.. It puts my lifestyle in perspective and helps me gain insight into the course of my future. It’s laziness, the laziness that I have professed all of my life, not wanting to do so much work and always giving up too soon, calling it “boredom.” Now that I think about it, it’s because I gave up many things before I became good at them. Things that I persisted and became good at have all been highly enjoyable and I can still remember my passion and the thrills I felt at the time I was mastering them. I have always enjoyed knowing just “enough” of things, but now I need to invest more time into focusing my energy instead of dispersing them all around, doing a little of everything and not much of anything.

The second line is very true with May at this stage in her development. May is not particularly tenacious, and I recognize in her the tendency to good naturally give up so soon. She would give things about 2 seconds’ worth of effort before declaring them “impossible.” And the reason why she does that, in part, is because, like me, she has access to verbal expressions. Had she not been able to say the words so readily, I think she would have given it 2 more seconds. But because she has words at her disposal, and because she knows she is good at communicating, she opts to reach for the comfort of her expertise, labelling the situation. It’s her way of trying to overcome the obstacle, if that makes sense to you. (it’s like when your computer gets the blue screen of death, if you are really good at cussing, you would promptly cuss before you begin to find some other way to solve the problem – cussing is comforting and helps you cope with the stress).

Therefore, I think as contradictory as it sounds, in saying “I can’t do it” and “it’s impossible,” May is still trying to build her sense of self confidence. It’s not possible to do it, but at least I can say it’s not possible. Being so close to her 24/7, I pick up these things rather intuitively. At this age, she loves acquiring language and practicing it, so I have come to recognize her declarations of “can’t do” as yet another practice/test drive session. She’s asking me, is it true that it’s not possible? Is it true that I can’t do it? And here, I take the same stance as Ms. Chua’s. It’s not “it might or might not be true.” It’s done. The word “được” in Vietnamese sometimes get translated into English as “possible” in the case of “không được” = “not possible.” But in itself, the word is not flexible the way “possible” implies. Possible is an open ended word, it yields and springs; được is a one way street, it only allows forward movement. (come to think of it, May’s name meaning as intended by me translates into VNese as được – to be able to). By telling May “it’s done” instead of “it’s possible,” “work harder” instead of “try harder,” and no form of “you can do it” to place her sense of self into the picture, I’m moulding her world significantly. Instead of using words to build her self-confidence before she accomplishes anything, the emphasis is placed on getting her (by commanding) to accomplish it. Then once it’s done, I praise her specifically, “you did it!” “you worked hard!” and “it can be done” – some flexibility added on purpose, so that she knows now that she has done it, she can choose to or not to do it the next time.

Of course I didn’t sit down and wrote a lesson plan about this. This is all written in hindsight, analysing how the way I communicate with May reflects my view of the world, my view of her and her life, my expectations, values… Perhaps I’m a bit more aware of my diction most of time time, because I’m a strong believer in language as the active dynamic shaper of reality. I make conscious decisions to say to May, “wow that dog is noisy” when a very big dog barks instead of “wow that is a big dog,” but there are other things that I say, things like “it’s done!” “work harder” that comes straight out of my subconsciousness…

Anyway, back to Ms Chua’s quotes. Each time May says she can’t do something and I prove otherwise, I could see so tangibly how her confidence increases. And with my assertion each time, I can also see how readily May’s willing to work harder and follow my instructions the next time she is challenged. There are parenting philosophies that would give the child the flexible option of either meeting the challenge when faced with one, or backing out and confronting it on her own terms. But because I wasn’t raised that way, and because my personality isn’t like that, it would cost me all my energy to pursue that path and leaves nothing left for fun and creativity. It will just end up with me in a foul mood and impatient. I was raised in a rather unconventional household, with much much less structure and rigid rules than Ms. Chua’s, but I’m still imbued with a culture that expects achievement and does not tolerate failure. Personally I’m also someone who believes that there’s always a way to do things, so it’s no wonder I’m passing this view onto May without even trying.

I’m familiar with the tongue-in-cheek style, so one of the dead give-a-ways was the infamous list of things the children in the Chua household could never do. After that list, I didn’t pay attention much to the outrageous statements and anecdotes as much as the more quiet and sincere lines. All in all, I think Ms. Chua’s take away message is this “the best way to protect […] children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away,” and I agree (with all those things, plus tons more, not just those things alone).

Coincidentally, my first impulse after reading her initial article on WSJ was to find the book and read the rest of it. So I looked around some more and found this link, I think if you have read her Tiger Mom article, the one that stirred up public opinion, you might want to read this one too.


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