I’ve mentioned the book Mao’s Last Dancer a few times before.

It’s one of the reasons I think I kept getting nudged to start a sister’s podcast (planning to launch this summer…more on that HERE), inspired by the power of a memoir to make you think.

But I have never written about one part of that book I liked the most.

And that I still think about a bunch.

It is a story about a young boy who was plucked from his impoverished family in rural China to be trained as one of Mao’s dancers. They took him away from everything he knew and started him in rigorous ballet training, not only stretching him beyond his capacity physically, but he was expected to keep up mentally in school as well…and survive emotionally without his family. Amidst all the pressure he had started to let his grades drop before he finally got to go visit his family again.

In order to “save face” in China it may have been customary for him to be punished for not excelling as much as was expected. I mean, no one could believe his luck in having that opportunity.

But here’s the part I loved the most:

The wise father’s response to his son’s dropping academics.

Instead of any punishment or lecture or even a pep talk, his father used every ounce of his money to buy and present him with a beautiful pen for his studies. Something more luxurious than this young boy had ever even seen before.

Yes, a pen.

And that young boy knew enough to know that that pen was more than just a pen.

It turned into a symbol of his father’s love. He believed in him. He was rooting for him. So much more powerful than any punishment or lecture could have done.

And, as you might go ahead and guess, that boy went back to his academy and embraced the challenge. He excelled at every level. And he turned out to be an extraordinary dancer, which led to all kinds of other “open doors” in his life.

I have thought of that story often.

How beautiful to use “positive parenting” rather than punishment whenever you can.

So next time you’re mad as a hornet over something or other your child has done, remember that stomping around giving lectures rarely works.

(I had to remind myself of that while driving with Lucy in the car the other day when the straw came along that “broke the camel’s back” and I just started yelling. That definitely didn’t work, but I’m sure I gave all the other drivers around us a good show!)

Creating positive incentive is just so much better.

Looking for the things our kids are doing well and focusing on the good rather than the bad.

Take the emotion out of it.

Become a durable object.

Are punishments or “consequences” necessary? You bet.

Boundaries? They are essential (I’m still learning that and that should be another blog post all on it’s own).

But “the carrot [a reward for good behavior] is always better than the stick [a negative consequence that only highlights and brings attention to bad behavior].”

Kids crave attention in any form, and if they’re getting it for bad behavior, you can bet they’ll keep asking for it.

That’s one thing I learned from Mao’s Last Dancer. (And from being a mom on the cusp of 25 years…yikes!)

Tips for Positive Parenting:

Fingertip Talents

Family “Awards”

Nine Ideas to Create Resilience

Memoirs you should read:

Where the Wind Leads (refugees coming to America)

(a few more suggestions I love at the end of that post)

The Moment of Lift

Tatoos on the Heart

(honestly that one might be one of my all-time favorites)

Thirst, The Promise of a Pencil and Kisses from Katie


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  1. I think you would love reading ‘Mary’s Last Dance’. It is the story of the wife of ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ and her journey with ( and advocacy for) their disabled daughter.

  2. I love your posts on parenting. You are so honest & have such wonderful insights that really resonate with me & help me as I take care of my little daughters!! Thank you for your wonderful blog!

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