Mrs. Right and Mr. Wrong on child-rearing

When my husband (who is Chinese) quizzes our daughter on her math homework and she gets the answer right he moves right on to the next problem. No praise, no recognition of the fact that she got the answer right, he just moves on to the next one. If she gets something wrong though he says pretty loudly, "Wrong!" and she has to rethink her answer.

I asked him why he doesn't compliment her when she gets the answer right. His reasons were a) this is the way I was raised and I can do long-division in my head b) the assumption is that she's right so I shouldn't have to acknowledge it if she is.

My approach is exactly opposite (I am American). When I'm quizzing her on math and she gets something wrong it's hard for me to say that she's wrong. I tend to say stuff like, "Not quite" or "guess again" or "you're so close" when in fact when it comes to Math there really are just two options: right and wrong. Why is it so hard for me to say it when she's wrong?

And if she gets something right I tend to give heavy praise. "Awesome!", "You got it!", "Excellent!" Admittedly to the extent that my encouragement might not really mean that much after a while.

My husband and I are trying to cross-pollinate each other. He's learning to say "right" and I'm learning to say "wrong". And we're both learning to temper our compliments and criticisms so that both mean something to our daughter.


Positive reinforcement generally works much better than negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement works but not as good. Ambiguity doesn't work at all. This is only marginally to do with Mathematics. It has to do more with the development of personality. Approval is key for building confidence. I would say that in general my goal is to give my kids an incentive to get it right and "win" approval" rather than be afraid of humiliation in case of failure. Interesting entry. Thanks for sharing. By the way, knowing your kids, I am confident that they will do long divisions in their heads too. I must admit though, that I didn't, yet, come across an actual need to do that...

Posted by Amiram on June 09, 2007 at 08:08 AM CST #

You said a mouthful. Cross-cultural marriage gets particularly sticky when it comes to child-rearing, as I have learned with my Italian husband and our daughter. Worse, he's a mathematician and I'm... not. It's difficult to agree even on the basics of what a good education means and should entail, let alone how to encourage our daughter to get it.

Posted by Deirdré Straughan on June 09, 2007 at 08:26 AM CST #

The key is the deviation from the expectation. Praises for mundane achievements are empty. It is the anticipation of punishment (fear itself) that deter recurrence.
Think what behaviors you are encouraging, instead of which parenting method is more socially acceptable.

Posted by Sin-Yaw Wang on June 09, 2007 at 09:56 AM CST #

It is very common in Chinese family. I don't know from what time Chinese parents and teachers began to believe that if they often praise children, especially for some small achievements, they may make children become arrogant and won't make progress. They believe that they must let children know that they are far away from being excellent so that children can stdudy hard...I was growing with that as well as many others did. I believe this is not a right way for young children. I hope this will change from when we become parents...

Posted by Harry Fu on June 10, 2007 at 11:33 AM CST #

heard from a Rabbi's lecture yesterday that constantly praising the child when they do good might seem good now, but will backfire when they reach puberty. Basically he says the child will resent that to get your love, they have to do some things. better that they always know that you love them. Also, the child maybe be destroyed when they get to the real world. The world out there becomes a surrogate mother, and your child will expect praise everytime they do something good/brilliant, and we all know the world is not waiting out there with a praise book for your child. Most children are just ordinary, but even for exceptional people, there is always a resistance to give them credit/praise.

Posted by tbra on June 11, 2007 at 08:50 AM CST #

Sound advice. I'm going to try it out on my barista when she screws up my high ticket coffee drink.

Posted by skrocki on June 12, 2007 at 12:28 AM CST #

Harry I don't think the Chinese way is bad for kids, at least you turned out fine!

Tbra, thanks for the insights from your rabbi. He sounds like a wise man.

Skrocki, let me know if you manage to tame the baristas! I remember reading on your blog that they once gave you a non-caffeined beverage, which in my opinion warrants screaming.

Deirdre, I loved your blog, will go back often now.

Amiram and Sin-Yaw, your comments are very consistent with your Geezers advice. I enjoy hearing about how your different paths have led to successful outcomes.

Posted by melanie gao on June 15, 2007 at 02:49 AM CST #

how true. i also commented about this in my blog. my elder son was so happy in school here in USA because he gets a lot of praise! i'm trying to strike a balance at home, not sure how much would be a balance though. :-)

Posted by tjmummy on October 03, 2007 at 08:44 PM CST #

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