Teaching Children to be Innovative Requires the Both/And

February 4, 2011


Ever since Amy Chua published an excerpt from her new book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” in The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, there has been much chatter among Western parents and Chinese parents alike about the best way to raise their kids.

“What Chinese parents understand,” she said, “is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”

See, Chua believes Chinese mothers are superior to Western mothers because they “can order their kids to get straight As,” thus “producing so many math whizzes and music prodigies.” Western parents, on the other hand, “can only ask their kids to try their best.”

Apparently, this is all why Chua forbid her two daughters from attending sleepovers, having playdates, performing in school plays, choosing their own extracurricular activities, playing any instrument other than the piano or violin, and not playing the piano or violin.

Ignoring stereotypes and kneejerk reactions, I wanted to explore whether kids can learn to be innovative under the Tiger Mom's tutelage. Being innovative requires the ability to collaborate, ideate, implement and create value. Kids have to learn trial and error, that it's OK to fail, to keep going, practice, diligence and passion.

Chua's technique, while rough, will arm her kids with some of these skills. They will be able to break down barriers and move forward through the tough challenges associated with implementation. After all, innovation is about more than creating the big idea. It requires a lot of discipline and strong emotional self-control.

But, Chua's method lacks essential collaboration and ideation skills. As New York Times Op-Ed Columnists David Brooks said in his response to the book, denying children playtime with friends prevents children from learning the social skills necessary for success as adults.

And, in fact, Brooks said group work is more successful that individual work. Groups are more efficient at solving problem but their performance does not correlate with the average I.Q. if the group or the I.Q.'s of the smartest members, he said. Groups have a “high collective intelligence when members of a group are good at reading each others' emotions – when they take turns speaking, when the inputs from each member are managed fluidly, when they detect each others' inclinations and strengths.

“Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.

“This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experience. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.”

Additionally, while piano and violin certainly teach kids creativity, without permission to fail, improvise and explore other creative outlets, children miss out on critical ideation skills such as combining different concepts, envisioning ideal solutions and learning from mistakes.

Therefore, it's important to find your own both/and approach. Doing well in school is important and kids should be pushed to do so. But doing well in school doesn't mean ditching social activities and creative outlets. Kids need the right blend of both spectrums of learning.

Some kids have special talents that schools don't bring out. These days, we're facing complex new challenges. Our kids will be forced to solve problems that we have never faced before. Trying different activities, learning a variety of skills and empowering them to find their passion for learning and solving problems is also important.

My high school's motto was “Challenge you child. The world will.” This school transformed my ability to meet my potential and pushed me to achieve. I would love for every child to have that kind of experience.

Every parent has to be conscious that every child has unique gifts that have to be activates. This requires a blend of discipline and exposure to a broader world. Ultimately, children should shift from having their parents define success for them to defining success for themselves and powering their achievement with self-discipline, curiosity, determination, continued hunger for learning and finding joy through their passion for contributing to the world in meaningful ways.