Most of the time when we persuade children, we are also persuading them to form certain beliefs and perspectives about this world that they are just starting to know. In this post, I will use two excerpts from Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother” to illustrate this.
Amy Chua is a great story teller, especially with the really controversial ones. The book is about her obsession with ensuring the success of her daughters in everything they learn.
My observation is that when adults have high ambitions for very young children, they often require the children to abide by tough rules or plans that do not necessarily appeal to that age group. The most convenient way to do that is by persuading the children to believe that there is something wrong about people who do otherwise. It works by teaching the children to divide people into dualistic groups and then ask them to join the side that is preferred by the persuader. Slowly, the children get the impression that there must be something very wrong with people who are not like them. This anti-pattern is called “Divide and Conquer”.
Lets look at the first excerpt, showing how Amy Chua teaches her daughter, Lulu about “good parents” and what “separates the good students from the bad students”
[start of quote]
There are many things the Chinese do differently from Westerners. There’s the question of extra credit, for example. One time, Lulu came home and told me about a math test she’d just taken. She said she thought it had gone extremely well, which is why she didn’t feel the need to do the extra-credit problems.
I was speechless for a second, uncomprehending. “Why not?” I asked. “Why didn’t you do them?”
“I didn’t want to miss recess.”
A fundamental tenet of being Chinese is that you always do all of the extra credit all of the time.
“Why?” asked Lulu, when I explained this to her.
For me this was like asking why I should breathe.
“None of my friends do it,” Lulu added.
“That’s not true,” I said. “I’m 100% sure that Amy and Junno did the extra credit.” Amy and Junno were the Asian kids in Lulu’s class. And I was right about them; Lulu admitted it.
“But Rashad and Ian did the extra credit too, and they’re not Asian,” she added.
“Aha! So many of your friends did do the extra credit! And I didn’t say only Asians do extra credit. Anyone with good parents knows you have to do the extra credit. I’m in shock, Lulu. What will the teacher think of you?You went to recess instead of doing extra credit?” I was almost in tears. “Extra credit is not extra. It’s just credit. It’s what separates the good students from the bad students.”
[end of quote]
The next excerpt shows Amy teaching Lulu about “bad families”.
[start of quote]
Jed’s fiftieth birthday came up. I organized a huge surprise party, inviting old friends from his childhood and every part of his life. I asked everyone to bring a funny story about Jed.
Weeks in advance, I asked Sophia and Lulu each to write her own toast.
“It can’t just be tossed off,” I ordered. “It has to be meaningful. And it can’t be clichéd.”
Sophia got right on it. As usual, she didn’t consult me or ask my advice on a single word.
By contrast, Lulu said, “I don’t want to give a toast.”
“You have to give a toast,” I replied.
“No one my age gives toasts,” Lulu said.
“That’s because they’re from bad families,” I retorted.
[end of quote]
Of course these are relatively benign examples of “Divide and Conquer”. But they are good for starters. I would love to hear what examples you may have.
The best persuaders are emotional persuaders
It is often said that the best persuaders are emotional persuaders. Emotion is always stronger than reason. When somebody persuade you with reason, you can change your opinion once you realise that the reason is flawed.
In this sense we can say that Amy Chua is not a great persuader, because she actually bothered to reason with her daughters when she could have just used authority, threats or guilt etc like a real “Chinese Mother” (now you know where I come from). This is evident from the many interesting and witty exchanges she had with her daughters, including the two excerpts I shared above.
When you reason with children, you are also teaching them the very ability to one day tell you why you are wrong. That is why great persuaders don’t do that.
As a lawyer, a Yale professor and a best selling author, Amy Chua possess a gift that is rare among Chinese Mothers — the gift of rhetorical wits, something necessary in order to persuade through reason. But that ability also made her a weak persuader. Children will eventually grow up and their reasoning ability will develop along with it. When you reason with children, you are also teaching them the very ability to one day tell you why you are wrong. That is why great persuaders don’t do that.
But the irony is the daughters grew up into independent thinkers. In the book we see how they start to rebel, find flaws and doubt what their mother said. Independent thinkers are more likely to reconsider whether the world is really like the way they had been persuaded to believe. That had caused some very tough times for Amy, but it seems like in the end the girls are able to find ways to disagree and still love each other.
How have you been persuaded to become who you are today? Were you persuaded by great persuaders or weak ones?