In a world of Tiger Mothers, I'm proud to be a big pussy

Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has evoked (to the publisher's delight, I'm sure) a huge love-to-hate-her response this week. An excerpt appeared in the WSJ under the unfortunate title "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior", in which Chua boasts that she's raised two "perfect" prodigies with her ultra-strict methodology. A sampling:
"Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.

...What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences."
Jen Singer, author of You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad Either): 14 Secrets to Finding Happiness Between Super Mom and Slacker Mom, responded with a great item on her Momma Said blog: Tiger Mom Mauls Creativity. True that! Today, the LA Times reports that those stellar Chinese test scores come at a cost, and they're proof of the ability to take tests, not an accurate measure of a well-rounded education. (As the late great Molly Ivins use to say, "Weighing a pig doesn't make it fatter.")

Plugging the book on the Today Show, Chua seriously toned down the braggadocio and backpedaled like mad on the racist aspect of her premise. She actually came off as fairly likable (if you're able to like someone who called her child "garbage" and then bragged about it in a book.) She says the book reflects a learning curve, her "coming of age as a mother". I have no doubt that she truly does love her daughters, and having watched the interview, I'm not sure the WSJ article reflects the actual spirit of the book - or that it will result in terrific book sales.

I'm not willing to judge anyone else on how they parent. Setting yourself out there as a parenting expert before your kids have turned 30 is just begging fate to kick you in the head. That said, I personally have a lot of fun doing things I'm not good at, including bowling, dancing, and playing piano. I also must take issue with Chua's assertion that "children never want to work". That's simply not true! Clearly, she never saw my kids and their cousins building snow forts at my sister's house in Montana. Or making hundreds of tissue paper flowers and butterflies to plant in the yard of our elderly neighbor lady on May Day. Or building sets and creating costumes for plays at school and church.

My son and his friends would labor for hours with intense focus to master the increasingly challenging levels of certain video games, and I'm not convinced that time was utterly wasted. It was time spent with friends, bantering middle school guys banter, which is a lot like that scene in 2001 where the apes are ooking around the obelisk, discovering their opposable thumbs. Plus they were earning little zings of serotonin that ingrained in them a subconscious knowledge that pushing past frustration to achieve a goal yields satisfaction - even if the goal is not understood or appreciated by others. (An ENORMOUSLY important life lesson for writers.)

Kids (and writers!) joyfully work their hearts out when they're doing work they care about. Self-discipline is essential, obviously, for a successful life in general and a successful writing career in specific, but unfettered exploration is essential, too, along with a willingness to be humbled. An adventurous spirit requires a healthy relationship with failure. The least painful way for children to learn that is through playing, dabbling, being allowed to quit what they don't care about and try something they might turn out to be passionate about.

Chua speaks fondly of her father and praises him for his response to her second place prize in a history contest when she was in elementary school. He said, "Never disgrace me like that again." That moment in the interview makes it impossible for me to hate Amy Chua. What I see there is a damaged little girl, struggling to make two wrongs make a right, which is what abused children often grow up doing.

Beyond the heartbreaking ugliness of that little scene is the impracticality of the idea that only one child can be valedictorian while the rest are loosetorian. It's simply wrong-headed to measure your accomplishments by the accomplishments of others. I'm not saying we shouldn't celebrate excellence. We should. Big time. But there's a triumph hidden in every smackdown. The ability to find that while the world is celebrating someone else is key to a joyful life. Besides which, we're disgraced and uplifted by our own defeats and victories, not our kids'.

In fact I'm adding that to my own list of Things My Kids Were Never Allowed to Do:
• Blame me for their choices or give me credit for their accomplishments.
• Be without a safe haven of unconditional love and acceptance.
• Think their ideas or goals are stupid.
• Imagine that it's foolish to fly by the seat of your pants.
• Forget for even a moment how much their mother loves them.

Here's Amy Chua, bless her heart, on the Today Show.

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Wow, Joni. Your list for your kids made me tear up. I love your analysis of Amy and her "brokenness." She's also a product of her culture, which I don't know if I'd qualify as broken so much as extremely foreign from our own.

I think there has to be a middle ground between "let kids be kids" and "expect nothing but the absolute best at all times." How do you raise kids who want to excel, who know how to take personal responsibility for their actions, who know how to set goals and pursue them -- and have the persistance to do so? Those things are terribly lacking in a lot of kids I see.
Great response to a troubling interview and topic, Joni. Love your list (and blog post title) too!

Although I probably could've done with a few higher expectations, I'm truly glad this woman wasn't MY mom. People should realize there's no one RIGHT way to parent. Every child has his/her own specific needs. It's up to us to be attuned and give them the nourishment they need.
Dad Lonnquist said…
Well done Joni. (as usual)One of my goals as a Grandparent to all of those 19 Grand kids (and 9 Great Grands) is to remind them on every occasion that we visit,that they are FANTASTIC! Whether the visit is in person, on line or on phone the question is: How Are You? Mostly they answer "Fantastic Grandpa," but of course sometimes they tease the old guy with, "Ohh I'm okay" knowing that I am going to say WHAT? and they will then answer Fantastic. If Grandpa doesn't tell them they are fantastic, who will? And if the little rascals believe they are fantastic they will be. You can truly say you and Gary have raised two fantastic people. The old guy is proud. Very proud. Oh and Joni, BE FANTASTIC! (of course you are)
As a non-mom, I feel a little reluctant to comment on this, but as a daughter, I have scores to say. I also have seen this kind of parenting in action as both a tutor and a teacher, and as a friend. I remember working with a young woman from India whose parents were forcing her to go on a pre-medical track and wanted her to follow in their steps as physicians. The girl was miserable, and yet all the walls in her room were covered with the most beautiful paintings--her own. She played in an orchestra and was first chair. Her parents were proud of those accomplishments as well, but only as much as they made her "well-rounded" and a "good pick" for college and later for medical school. I remember helping her with her writing and seeing this beautiful, fragile little soul, and wishing that her parents could see who she really was.

Flash forward to recently, when I looked her up. I found out that she did end up going to an Ivy league school, but afterwards, she didn't go to med school--she went into graphic design. She has her own website and her own business, and from the reports and from her blog, it looks like she's thriving.

I can't help but wonder what Mom and Dad think of that, though, and what her relationship is with them at this point. And I agree very much with Melissa on the "middle ground" bit and with Colleen on the "be attuned." There are times I wish my own parents, great as they are, had realized I would never be the perfect "middle class girl" they wanted me to be.

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