Monday, 20 February 2012

Guest Post: Jeff's review of Amy's Devotions for Lent

The traditional festivals and calendar of the church are not things that I generally put much thought towards. The particular protestant traditions I have been part of threw some (small) babies out with the bathwater when they split from the more established traditions, and Lent is was one of those. But I must admit that somewhere deep down inside I have a desire to continue on with some of the more traditional practices. As such, I find it quite useful to stand on the shoulders of someone who is a step or two ahead of me. Amy’s family devotions for Lent fall within that category.

I don’t usually use devotional material, and so having a go at this one was a bit of a new experience for me. I like the fact that Amy has put thought into what passages to look at, questions with answers that the kids at different ages can handle, and answers in case I haven’t done any preparation and am not sure which direction she is going over the study. Sometimes the kids and I get caught up in the study and head off on our own direction, but it has been a good experience to be working through a devotion together.

The focus on Jesus, on different responses to Him from the Gospels, and an engagement with what each passage tells us about Him – and how we should respond to Him – has been very much appreciated. I also really appreciate that Amy jumps around in the devotions (without giving the impression of randomness) including some narrative passages about Jesus, some of Jesus’ teaching, and some testimony about Jesus (from John the Baptist). This helps to build a more rounded picture rather than a narrow focus on a preferred topic.

As we’ve worked through the devotions I’ve loved it when the kids remember a story from their Sunday School classes and want to tell the story before it has finished being read, and are able to engage with the material and explore their knowledge of Jesus in more depth as a result.

Well worth getting and working through with your family.
Amy's book is available in paperback (for $US9.99) and kindle ($US2.99) versions from

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother appears to be a fairly honest selective autobiography, focussed on Amy Chua's mothering of her two daughters under very strict expectations. Frankly, I think the mother was too strict and demanding, and I'm not surprised it backfired on her in a culture which doesn't 100% back up submission to parental authority.

I was extremely disappointed to continually read of Chua's unwillingness to follow or submit to her husband's direction in parenting. Towards the end of the book she recalled many arguments she had with her husband over her mothering. And despite the fact that they had earlier made an agreement to follow her parent-raising method of choice, I was very disappointed to read that she never considered reassessing this earlier choice, and her husband never required her to either, despite clear problems with the chosen method. For me, Chua's unwillingness to submit to her husband was an even bigger problem than the way she dealt with her daughter.

I did find some of the author's reflections and explanations helpful in thinking about the height of my own expectations for our kids. This is what I was looking to get out of the book. I know I'll never be a "Tiger Mother" and I don't want to be one, but I can use some inspiration to reach higher than I do at present. In particular, Chua wrote (p29):

"What Chinese parents understand 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."

I vaguely remember reading something similar in a homeschooling book or two several years ago. In general, this does apply to education, but also to life skills. What child enjoys dressing themself before they can do it competently? It is a daily struggle. But once they master the skill of getting those little arms and legs through the right gaps, they're eager to dive into and out of three changes of clothes a day, not to mention several trips to the dress-up drawers, in my experience!

Continuing the quote:

"This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something - whether it's math, piano, pitching, or ballet - he or she gets praise, admiration, and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more."

Chua argues that Western parents often give up too early, and I agree with that. But from the rest of the book we see that the problems of resistance are not "always hardest" at the beginning. The book chronicles the increasing resistance of Chua's daughter Lulu to the increasingly extreme demands of her mother, until the mother is finally "humbled" and forced to give up. I think Chua would have done far better to decrease her demands earlier (once she saw the warning signs of rebellion) instead of increasing them. She might have ended up with a more desirable result, according to her own desires, had she done this. But she was unwilling to settle for anything less than the best, even when the requirements of extracting the best from her daughter meant her daughter was forced into open and outright rebellion, and that's a clear flaw in the Chinese method.

The Bible says parents are not to exasperate their children. Yes, often Western parents give up long before the point of exasperation is reached because they misunderstand or misinterpret the behavioural responses exhibited as part of their child's testing of, or searching for, appropriate boundaries. There is a middle ground, where the parent doesn't exasperate the child but also doesn't fail to bring them up properly. It's a tricky ground to find, and I'm not sure I know exactly where it falls in every situation. But applying a parenting method that you expect to push your children to the point of exasperation is wrong, without doubt.

Furthermore, this quote seems to describe Chinese-style parenting as a method which aims at fun as its end point, or at least a major benefit. I did not see that reflected in Chua's description of her ambitions for her daughters. The book describes how Chua continually pushed her daughters to play harder musical pieces and achieve better musical honours (the right to play at Carnegie hall, a position of Concertmaster, etc). However, she only rarely comments on her daughters' enjoyment of playing, and almost always in the context of providing a justification for her demanding parenting in particular cases. The daughters' joy in playing their musical instruments is never a main goal, according to Chua's own recount of her choices.

This brings me to question Chua's choice of focus in her parenting. She has chosen musical excellence as the focus of her Tiger Mother efforts. For the first-born daughter Sophia, this meant excellence in playing the piano. Of the second-born daughter Lulu, Chua required excellence in playing the violin. Numerous times throughout the book Chua makes the point that offspring of "Chinese parents" (a generalising term, which does, Chua admits, include parents of other racial backgrounds, most of whom are Asian) are very over-represented among programs for musical excellence in the young. I seriously question the worth of this choice of musical excellence as a standard to aspire to. Spelling, yes, it is important to spell correctly - that's why I'm going to accept Chua's point about pushing past the initial recalcitrance and require Joshua to knuckle under and work hard at excelling in spelling this year. Reading, yes, it is essential to be able to read fluently and enormously enjoyable to be able to read with verve and expression - that's why I plan to require Abigail to practice her reading more with me this year. Bible study, yes, this is a beneficial discipline - that's why I get up early to do it and Jeff is training the kids to do it. But I don't see why music is chosen as the arena of excellence by so many Asian parents. What is its inherent value and utility, given that "fun" is clearly not the goal? Chua admits at one point that she chose violin for Lulu because it was inherently difficult. Is that all this parenting method boils down to, requiring excellence in a manifestly difficult endeavour purely for the sake of its difficulty? Disappointingly, it appears so.

Now, I have to admit, I do think learning a musical instrument is a worthwhile endeavour. For me, however, its worth is in its utility, not in its difficulty. This year, Jeff and I have decided to encourage and challenge Anna in her playing of the recorder, as a lead in to piano lessons, because Anna aspires to be involved in music ministry with a church in the future. She loves singing and dancing and already is involved in our school's junior choir, but we can't afford private singing lessons. I'm not even sure how we'll afford piano lessons; I'm hoping she'll be able to practice on our church's piano, and we'll be able to barter for piano lessons with someone we know through church. So, given Anna's interest in music, I can see that lessons and drill and diligent practice for her are worthwhile. But for Joshua, who needs to focus his energies on learning to spell, and for Abigail, who needs to focus her efforts on learning to read fluently, neither of whom have significant interest in music playing or singing, requiring musical excellence would be a source of unnecessary conflict and exasperation, without the benefit of utility.

Chua has neglected to reflect upon this aspect of her choice of such a demanding parenting style. And in doing so, she has also failed to consider how such a demanding parenting style has influenced her own life, although she clearly chronicles her lack of enjoyment of her chosen academic studies and profession, despite her admirable success in those arenas. Given that Chua describes herself as experiencing little joy and fun in her adult life, which she entered as a direct result of her own experience being parented under the Chinese model, I wonder why she chose to inflict it upon her own children. There is no answer to this in the book, except Chua's fear that her children might succumb to a typical third-generation immigrant slide into an "average" life. Is fear a good basis for parenting choices? I don't think so.

So what is a better basis? Is it reasonable to go all Tiger Mother on even one aspect of child rearing? It has to come down to the goal that God sets for us: to do all for the glory of God. Realistically, I don't think Tiger Mothering can be done to the glory of God, because the glory of the child and the glory of the parent get in the way. However, I think those of us with very relaxed "Western" attitudes to our parenting, like - at times - myself, can learn a bit from Chua's determination and Type A personality focus.

Tenacity and diligence in overseeing the teaching of life or academic skills are good things. But the lesson Chua herself learned, that Tiger-style Extreme Mothering is not always a good thing, needs to be kept in mind.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Equip Academy 2012

Our youngest child Samuel started "away" school last week, registered as a Pre-Primary student.For those who don't live in WA, that means his education is not legally mandated (although PP will become compulsory from 2013, I understand) but the schools run a full-time (5 days a week) program, rather than a part-time program as for Kindergarten. So Equip Academy - as a homeschool - does not exist any more. We decided several years ago to begin enrolling our children in a carefully chosen "away" school, and after moving Joshua from our first choice Christian school to a smaller, nearer - and better - one after his first term, we enrolled Anna and Abigail from the last term of Pre-Primary, to give them a taste of school before it became compulsory for them. Since Samuel was born at a time of the year that means he would be at home for 6+ months longer than his siblings, we decided to enrol him from the beginning of PP, rather than the end. All of these decisions took time and prayer. Some of them I have written about on this blog, but others have happened at a time when I wasn't blogging much.

So what will happen to Equip Academy in 2012, since there is no longer any Equip Academy Homeschool? Well, I'm going to keep this blog because Equip Academy, as a concept, is still well and truly up and running. It's just changed what it looks like. Now, Equip Academy involves away-school, after-schooling, and added-to-schooling (aka "extracurricula activities") for the kids:

Jeff has been reading the Bible with the kids each morning, using Amy's Lenten devotional (yes, we got a few week's early start).

I am about to embark on remedial spelling work (using LEM Phonics materials) each weekday with Joshua. That is in addition to the homework for all four kids, which I am committed to supervising more diligently and closely this year than last.

Anna is practising the recorder under my supervision each weekday morning as I eat breakfast, working towards a promised reward of piano lessons if she can keep recorder practice up for an entire year.

Both Anna and Abigail have been studying Italian in free after-school classes since they started school, and they'll continue in 2012.

Samuel is going to join his siblings at Brigades this year.

We've been reading to the kids after dinner most nights. This year to our regular novel reading (currently The Borrowers Afield) Jeff is adding some World History reading. Once a week he'll read from The Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer, while I'm off studying Church History.

And this morning we went to our first family karate class in over three years. We've chosen to take up karate lessons - for the second time - because it's a sport for the whole family that requires discipline and rewards improvement. (Jeff and I would both love to take up archery as well, but for now that is just a dream.)

In addition, the Equip Academy blog has also always been about me and "how God has been equipping me for the life He has planned for me". Nowadays, that also looks different. I have attended BSF, an international, inter-denominational Bible Study that is run in over 1000 classes in 38 nations on six continents, for the last 7 years, but now I am taking a break from that. So I'm reading my Bible alone daily, following my own plan for reading, which is a learning experience of its own since I have studied with the BSF questions for so long. While Jeff was studying full-time at Trinity, I was studying the Certificate III in Christian Studies via their Trinity@night courses. Now, it's my turn to study for my Graduate Diploma of Divinity, and I'm doing that part-time, studying 2 subjects this semester. My lectures in Church History and Old Testament begin this week.

I have also planned a "12 books in 2012" reading program to take me through some of the practical theology, godliness and autobiography books I've had on my shelves waiting to be read for years, reading at least one book a month. Here's the list:

The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne.
(also The Story of Christianity Volume 1 by Justo L Gonzalez, pre-reading for Church History, and the whole Old Testament of the Bible, pre-reading for Old Testament).
February: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.
On Becoming Childwise and On Becoming Preteenwise by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam.
March: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, which I began reading last year with my friend Shelley, but never finished.
April: Feminine Appeal by Carolyn Mahaney.
May: Gunning for God: Why the New Athiests are missing the target
 and God and Stephen Hawking: Whose design is it anyway? by John C Lennox, whom I heard at the Oxygen11 conference and was deeply impressed by.
June: The Shaping of a Christian Family: How my parents nurtured my faith by Elisabeth Elliot.
(June/July: The Story of Christianity Volume 2 by Justo C Gonzalez, pre-reading for second semester.)
July: Desiring God by John Piper - a Christian classic, I read the first few chapters of this at the time of the Oxygen11 conference, and I'm eager to read the rest. It was on my To Read list for last year, so I really hope I get through it this time!
August: Leading Women to the Heart of God edited by Lysa TerKeurst. I bought this in Singapore six years ago and read it then. With my possibilities horizon opening up now that all four kids are in school, I think it is a good time to re-read this practical book.
September: A Call to Spiritual Reformation by Don Carson, which I began several years ago and deeply appreciated, even though I only read half. This time I am looking forward to reading the whole book!
October: "Don't Make Me Count to Three!" by Ginger Plowman.
November: God is the Gospel by John Piper and Helping Children Understand the Gospel by Sally Michael, Jill Nelson and Bud Burk, from Children Desiring God ministries.
December: The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards.

I'll be reading one more book in December as well: Shopping for Time by Carolyn Mahaney, Nicole Whitacre, Kristin Chesemore and Janelle Bradshaw. I read this book in December 2011, because it's a great December book. It gives practical suggestions for evaluating the way you use your time, and how to make better use of it. I have to admit that the first time I read this book, I didn't apply much of what I read. That was several years ago. The second time I read it, I was determined to put into practice what I read, and it helped me to formulate my New Year's Resolutions for 2012. One month into 2012, and I'm actually keeping up with them so far. It did help that I put them into my iPhone Notes App, rather than publicising them on this blog, so I can re-read and be reminded of them frequently. Downloading and using the Due App helps heaps as well (Hat Tip: Amy). The biggest differences have been getting up consistently at 6am and beginning my day with reading the Bible instead of leaving it till later. I've also begun exercising 6 days a week with Jillian Michaels' Biggest Winner DVDs before breakfast. And kept up with the laundry for a family of six. There's no way I could have have consistently done all that without reading Shopping for Time first!

So that's what 2012 looks like for Equip Academy. God willing, I'll share some of it with you as I go, starting with that book review of The Trellis and the Vine...