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Dodge City Daily Globe - Dodge City, KS
  • Dr. Elaine Heffner: Theories of success

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  • There is so much written about children and success: How to raise children successfully, or how to raise children to be a success. However we define it, is the success of our children due to what we do as parents?
    Amy Chua, who created a stir several years ago with her Chinese Tiger Mom thesis, has written a book with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, in which they address aspects of these questions. Their theory, based on research, is that three traits explain the rise and fall of cultural groups in America. The definition of success they use is clearly academic and material success. The idea is that academic success leads to material success.
    The three traits these authors pinpoint is a superiority complex, impulse control and a deep sense of inferiority. The importance of impulse control is something we have heard a great deal about, for good reason. Being able to control one’s impulses is central to achieving whatever one’s goals are in life. It means being able to give up immediate pleasure in the service of a larger objective.
    The other two traits seem contradictory. How can a superiority complex and deep feelings of inferiority coexist? The authors are describing specific cultural groups in relation to their status as first-generation immigrants in this country. Most immigrant groups have initially experienced feelings of inferiority and of being looked down upon. The particular successful groups being discussed, however, also have a strong sense of being exceptional. This strong feeling of being exceptional leads to feelings of superiority.
    The feeling of being inferior can lead to a need to prove oneself, while a belief in being special can provide the drive to do so. The theory discussed suggests that combining these two traits requires impulse control if it is to lead to success. Feeling inferior provides a motivation to excel and prove others wrong. The belief that one is part of an exceptional group can provide the confidence needed to carry out one’s ambitions. But confidence and drive are not enough without having the ability to give up immediate pleasures for long-term goals.
    The authors contend that their findings apply in particular to first generation groups who have something to prove. A comparison is made to our own story as a country: the pioneers who settled and developed America had something to prove and earlier generations were raised with strong behavioral controls combined with a belief in hard work. American ideals and experience gave rise to a belief in American exceptionalism.
    It is certainly true that cultural values in this country have changed considerably. Various media promote the pleasure principle and the belief in exceptionalism has become a kind of grandiosity in relation to other countries. The culture as a whole has come to value happiness and self-gratification over older values. In child-rearing, parents are often concerned about making children happy and avoiding frustration which sometimes interferes with setting goals and working hard to achieve them.
    Page 2 of 2 - Often, an attempt to correct a problem leads to an over-correction in the opposite direction. Possibly in our attempt to modify some of the controlled behavior and self-denial of earlier generations we have moved too far from self-control and are less able to apply ourselves to achieving our goals. On the other hand, the groups that excelled in the way described by the authors, have in turn paid a price for their achievements, as did our own forefathers and mothers.
    The challenge that remains for us is whether it is possible to restore some of our earlier values without its earlier liabilities.
    Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.
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