Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Art of the Chinese Compliment

[Cross posted on Cranial Gunk]

I pulled a real Chinese parent move recently. My eldest’s piano teacher told me he was playing very well but instead of turning to my eldest and saying: “Hey! Did you hear that? That’s excellent! Good Job!” I said: “Hey! Did you hear what your teacher said? If you concentrated and practiced more, you could be even better.”

It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized what I had done.

Oh my God, I thought – I am my father’s son! I’m not the cool American parent hanging his child’s drawing on the refrigerator – Good job Timmy! Let’s go for ice cream! I’m the Chinese parent saying, Is that it? You’re going to do better than that, right?

There should be a special category in parenting dedicated to the art of the “Chinese Compliment” - An 80, son? Well, I guess that’s good if that’s the best you can do. Sometimes it isn’t even what they say but how they’re saying it. I imagine an American parent saying the same thing but the tone is all different. In my head I am hearing a more excited pitch (akin to awe or expectance) – An 80, son? Well, I guess that’s good if that’s the best you can do. Now, let’s go for ice cream. There’s no ice cream when the Chinese voice in my head says it.

A friend and I joke about the extreme differences in our upbringing when it came to compliments. He says when he came home with 60s on his tests, his parents would say, “That’s Great! You did good this time! You know a 60 is more than half way to a 100! Let’s go out for ice cream!”

I’ve failed more than my fair share of tests – passing is a 75 - and can say with great confidence that I’ve never gotten ice cream.

I want to say here that (ice cream or not) I love my parents. As a parent now myself, I have learned that sometimes it is not so much about being fair or liked by my children but about what is necessary to insure good habits – Sometimes you need to be the bad guy in order to raise a good child.

And there are sacrifices. I like ice cream too but there is the proper moment for it – There is an appropriate time – An appropriate time that I (as father) need to choose and stick with – My children don’t need mixed messages from me regarding treats and rewards – I think in Parenting 101, most experts agree that consistency is important.

Maintaining consistency and good habits is hard. Complicating the process is determining when. Just like the cliché of the punishment fitting the crime, the reward must fit the deed. What’s an ice cream occasion and what warrants a visit to the toy store? Every parent has his own measure of success and this measure is incremented by that parent’s expectations of his child.

I expect my children to strive to be the best at whatever they decide to do. This is different from expecting them to be the best. I make the distinction because I feel too often children as students get too comfortable. They define a set of skills and academic subjects they are immediately successful at and cease to strive for more. As a parent, it’s my responsibility to nudge my children along so they can develop the necessary habits to achieve greater successes and learn to cope with their failures.

Now, I am certainly not justifying my words to my eldest when his piano teacher complimented him. It’s also my responsibility to inspire my children. There is a time to relish the moment – as in an instance of a compliment – and a time to be pragmatic – as I was trying to be when I told my son he could be even better if he practiced more.

I guess I got too comfortable in my role as a Chinese parent. I guess I need to take my own advice and stop being comfortable. I need to take my own advice and strive to be the best dad I can be.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Picture (Book) Perfect

[Cross posted at Cranial Gunk]

There’s this story I like to tell about my introducing “literature” to my children. It involves my eldest. He must have been two. I had bought a copy of Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are, to read to him at bed time. I was so proud of myself, suddenly eligible to join the cult of NPRents simply by reading classic Western children’s literature to my children.

My eldest seemed to enjoy the story but then one night he asked me to stop. It seems my venture into classic Western childhood storytelling was scaring the wits out of him! Where Max welcomed the Wild Things and became their king, my child hide from them under his covers after I turned off the lights. And so I learned it wasn’t the “Terrible Twos” causing him to be a “wild thing” - It was the lack of sleep from being so frightened at night!

Needless to say I stopped reading Where the Wild Things Are to him at night. I think we settled on the manic hijinx of The Cat in the Hat instead.

I like the notion of “picture books as art objects” (as Barbara Kiefer defines it) – “a combination of image and idea in a sequence of turning pages that can produce in the reader an effect greater than the sum of the parts.”

Neil Gaiman and David McKean’s The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish immediately comes to mind. The “mixed media” feel – angular depictions in photographs and ink - of the images enhances the surreal dream-like content of the text.

The story is about a boy who trades his father to a friend for two goldfish. When his mother finds out she demands he get his father back. The situation is complicated when the boy discovers the friend who he swapped with has in turn swapped his father for an electric guitar. The story follows the boy through the various hands who have traded his father.

On the opposite end of the visual spectrum – but no less an art object - is Joyce Sidman and Micelle Berg’s Meow Ruff: A Story in Concrete Poetry. My youngest brought it home from his school’s library. Like Gaiman and McKean’s books, Berg and Sidman use text as a visual instrument to help convey the narrative. Unlike Gaiman and McKean, Berg and Sidman’s images are bright with safe edges. With its Chibi-like illustrations, Meow Ruff is a good introduction to poetry in general – not just concrete poetry.

Embedded in the gray depiction of the poured concrete parking lot: “Parking Lot/ Hot Spot, Black Tar Multicar, Hard Flat Welcome Mat.”

And in the depiction of a tree: “Each Leaf A Map Of Branches Each Twig A Branch Of Leaves Each Branch A Tree Of Twigs Each Tree A Green Haired Slim Chested Great Hearted Gnarl-Armed Strong Legged Deep Rooted One.”

Meow is a cat whose owner has abandoned it in a local park. Ruff is a dog who gets away from his owner and stumbles into the park. A rain storm forces the two – who were initially at odds - to seek shelter together under a picnic table - becoming fast friends.

What’s great about this book is when you have time to think about it, it is a story of abandonment – in Meow’s case purposeful and premeditated – in Ruff’s case just an act of recklessness – that is told in the bright vibrant colors of a child’s birthday card and not the expected subdued colors that signal loss and tragedy.

I think you can take it for granted that the picture book is the first book children experience – meaning it is the first book they interact with physically and emotionally – from turning the pages themselves to interjecting their own ideas as you read.

I remember as a child I had a set of picture books from Encyclopedia Britannica. I don’t remember how many were in the set but they had solid colors – purple, red, yellow, blue, green, etc. I remember one was numbers and one was nursery rhymes.

I also remember Little Golden Books - thin, hard covered books, with the marbled, golden spine. I remember the three little pigs and a story with a puppy in it.

I remember the first Rice Daddies post I read. It was a contest involving the first book you read. I couldn’t remember the first book I actually read on my own – though I remember its story. It was about a boy with large hands who was awkward until he found a sport that would utilize his hands – football.

I also remember my elementary school teacher reading Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing to my class. It was a positive and lasting impression (though many scores later, reading the same story to my children I realize my teacher left some parts out).

Books continue to be an integral part of my home – even before the children. My parent’s were avid readers and so are my children’s mother and I. I believe the availability of books and a literature rich environment as well as seeing my parents read all the time fostered a penchant for reading in me.

I don’t know if my children will remember their first book, so let me write it here – Where the Wild Things Are (my eldest) and Go Dog Go (my youngest).

How about you? Do you remember yours? Are they fond memories?