Finding yourself

WSJ Column: Young children’s classes: Too much pressure too soon?

Joy-Chen-in-时尚健康-Trends-Health

Feature on Joy Chen in the May 2013 issue of Trends Health magazine

Greetings from sunny L.A.!  Spring is here, and I’ve been having such fun playing with Dave and our girls. Lila  now is 2.5, and it’s such fun to see her gaining new words in Chinese and English every day.

Playing tennis makes me feel fit and strong

The May issue of Trends Health is on the newsstands, and I was glad to be included in this month’s feature on sporty women.  Until I saw these photos, I’d not realized that tennis has given me Michelle Obama arms!

It was less than two years ago that I was carrying an extra 20 kg from my pregnancies and was feeling exhausted from the previous four continuous years of pregnancies and breast-feeding.  That was when my dear mother-in-law Lennie admonished me to make time for myself.  At age 75, she keeps herself in amazing shape through daily exercise. Lennie pushed me toward tennis.

Now at age 43, I commit to working out several times a week. I have to stay in shape in order to to chase my mother-in-law around the courts!

Playing tennis makes me feel fit and strong, and I love that feeling.  After all, I work hard for other people. Tennis is me-time.  And me-time is something that we all need.

TEDx talk and returning to China end of May

In April, I gave my first TEDx talk, in Chinese, called “A chat among women (men allowed to eavesdrop).”   You can watch it here.

I’m delighted to let you know that I’ll be back in China later in May until the end of July. I’ll be seeing friends and expanding my work with several outstanding companies whose products help women be freer, happier and more confident. During this time, Dave and our girls will be joining me for a few weeks. If you’re a member of the media and would like to interview me or us, please click the CONTACT  button on my website here.

My latest WSJ China column is my first one on parenting. It is re-published below, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:

WSJ China Column: Young children’s classes: Too much pressure too soon?

As parents we all want to give our kids every advantage, and in our hypercompetitive world, it’s easy to get caught up in what’s become an arms race of ever-more classes at ever younger ages.

And as in any arms race, it’s easy to get so caught up in escalating for the sake of escalating that we lose sight of our goals.

At some point we should ask: is all this investment of time and money really benefiting our children?

‘Don’t you feel it’s important to give kids a good start?’

My husband and I are not experts in parenting. To the contrary, we’re just like every other set of parents on Earth, just trying to do the best with the resources that we have.

We have two daughters: Pip is now four and Lila is two-and-a-half. Recently, a friend dropped by to visit us, and promptly was welcomed into an imaginary tea party that they were having.

Delighted, my friend exclaimed: ‘Your girls are so happy! So friendly! Not at all like other Chinese kids!’

My daughters, age 4 and 2.5

My daughters, age 4 and 2.5

She asked what activities they do. Well, Pip just started a Tae Kwon Do class, I said, and tennis. Lila has yet to start any formal activities.

My friend’s delight turned to concern.

‘Your girls don’t play piano yet? But haven’t you heard that piano lessons should start by age four?

‘They haven’t started ballet? Chess? No academic tutoring at all?’

No, no, and no.

Actually we avoid packing our girls’ schedules too full, I explained. When they’re awake and not in school, our girls love to play together, swinging in the playground, pretending with their dolls, cutting and gluing paper together in (very) abstract art projects.

When their favorite songs play on the radio, they love to sing and dance along, but they just don’t seem ready yet for more formal music training.

My friend was quiet. Then: ‘Don’t you feel it’s important to give kids a good start when they’re young?’

Emotional development and creative play

It’s not that we don’t focus on our kids’ development. But at this stage in their lives, we’re focusing on the skills that we consider most important to their future success. And happily for our girls and for us, our approach to parenting emphasizing emotional development and creative play — involves less pressure and more fun for everyone.

In his intriguing book Brain Rules for Baby, neurologist John Medina describes the physiological changes occurring in a child’s brain between the ages of zero and five. During this time, a child’s brain is developing rapidly, he says, and parenting that helps a child’s emotional development actually helps his neural architecture develop toward lifelong emotional stability.

A child parented this way will become an adult with better self-control, fewer incidences of depression and anxiety disorders, greater empathy, deeper and richer friendships, and many more friends.

Dr. Medina’s conclusions feel right to me. Having been a political leader and a CEO headhunter, by now I’ve met tens of thousands of people in many countries, and it seems to me that the happiest and most successful people are not those who are best at following the rules.

The happiest and most successful people are the ones who understand the rules, but then choose how to live their own lives. They have self-confidence and creativity and they understand keenly how to relate to others.

Pip is learning to be more assertive

Our approach to parenting is embraced by the school we chose, and recently we went there to discuss Pip’s development.

The teacher started off by assuring us that Pip’s schoolwork is progressing well. Every time they start a new project, she said, the other kids crowd around to see how Pip solves the problem.

Then she said: ‘What we’re working on with Pip is her assertiveness. Especially around boys.’

She gave an example:

‘Just yesterday, Pip was playing next to a sandbox where two boys were throwing sand around, and some sand flew in Pip’s direction. She got up, found me and asked me to tell the boys to be more careful. I asked if she had said anything to them herself. She said no. I asked her if she wanted me help her address the boys, and she said yes.

So we went over, and I suggested some words she could use: ‘I was sitting here and felt some of your sand hit me. Please stop throwing sand in my direction.’ Pip repeated these words. The boys apologized and promised to be more careful.

I asked Pip if she was happy with the outcome and she said yes. Then I asked her if the next time something like this happened, she felt she could resolve the problem herself, and she agreed to try.’

Self-confidence, creativity and the ability to relate to others.

When the teacher shared this example, I felt especially moved, because as I’ve written before in this column, I’ve always had trouble saying no to other people. Once I got stuck in a destructive boyfriend relationship precisely because as an adult I didn’t know how to protect myself in the way that my four-year-old now is learning to do.

Maybe if we get this parenting thing right, our kids will struggle less with the things I’ve struggled with, and perhaps then their lives will be better.

In our hypercompetitive, hurry-up world, we always assume that fast beats slow, but what do we risk if we pressure our kids to do too much too soon?

Self-confidence, creativity, the ability to relate to others: these are the skills and brain development processes that we’re trying to nurture in our kids and that may remain undeveloped if formal learning monopolizes their time and attention.

Are my husband and I parenting our kids well? At this point, it’s impossible to know. They certainly seem to be enjoying a more fun childhood than some of their peers.

But is our way of parenting the right way to help them reach their potential as happy and successful future young women? We hope and believe the answer is yes. But only time will tell for sure.

*This column was originally written by the author in English. Hear the author read this English column aloud by clicking here. To read this column in Chinese, click on the red button above.

Joy Chen is a Chinese-American former Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles and author of the best-seller ‘Do Not Marry Before Age 30.’ She also is a wife and mother of two young daughters. Visit her at www.joychenyu.com. The opinion is her own.