Sunday, January 23, 2011

Love: It might not be all you need, but it’s almost all you need.

Amy Chua has ruffled a lot of maternal feathers over the last few weeks. She is a Yale Law School Professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a book that chronicles her experience as a mother of two daughters. Her twist? Her Chinese heritage and how it had an impact on the choices she made as she raised her children.

Without belaboring this, she tells story after story about how the Chinese perspective on raising children differs from that of the “Western” moms and dads. If you haven’t seen her interviews or read any articles, here are a couple of quick statistics and a few excerpts to give you a flavor of her view:

Almost 70% of Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.”

0% of Chinese mothers agreed.

Most Chinese mothers believe their children can be “the best” students.

They believe “academic achievement reflects successful parenting.”

They believe unsuccessful students were the offspring of parents who “were not doing their job.”

Chinese parents spend about 10 times as long as Western parents drilling their children on academics.

There’s plenty more but that’s enough to tell you that Chua takes an approach that assumes a couple of things raising children:

Instead of focusing on and worrying about a child’s self-esteem and fragile ego, she claims that Chinese parents “assume strength, not fragility” in their children and “as a result, they behave differently.”

She believes her children owe her everything. She’s done her part at making them a success; they must spend the rest of their lives acknowledging that and “repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.”

Chinese parents like Chua believe that “they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.”

I have no idea if she’s onto something here or if she’s a nut job who has browbeaten her daughters into submission on the road to her definition of “success” and quelled any dreams they may have had that didn’t quite mesh with her idea of what is valuable. Among those ideas: earning a grade lower than an A [ever, in any subject], being the number one student in every subject other than gym and drama, learning only piano and violin [no other instrument, ever], not being part of the school play and watching no television and playing no video games. Ever. Many typical childhood activities seem pointless and intrusive in Chua’s view, sleepovers, camp, and play dates among them.

Look, the village that many claim it takes to raise children notwithstanding, every parent on the planet has at least some autonomy when it comes to their children. We’re all, hmmmm, quirky and crazy in all kinds of ways and all of us come up with some strange ideas along the way as our children arrive and make us into instant parents. With little more to go on than instinct, the endless and well-meaning advice from people I mostly ignored, and a combination of Drs. Brazelton (since dismissed) and Spock (less so), and a dose of Rosemond good sense plus Quindlin pragmatism and brilliance, I tried my best to help the boys go through challenging life stages and then move onto young adulthood.

I might not agree with Chua and so what? I’m not raising her children and she’s not raising mine. And absolutely, I think she’s extreme and possibly borderline abusive but I don’t have her heritage. I didn’t grow up with parents who very likely modeled that kind of “practice, practice, practice, practice, practice until you attain excellence” behavior for her.

She admits to calling her daughter “garbage” as a result of her disrespectful behavior. She claims bad academic news [which is the rarest of occasions] would be met with “a screaming, hair-tearing explosion.” The Chinese solution to sub-standard performance “is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child.” When her daughter, Lulu (age 7), was unable to learn a piano piece, she drilled her relentlessly, threatened to give away toys, and then threatened “no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years” and told her to stop being “lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.” (Surprise! Lulu learned the piece perfectly. Quite a victory, yes? And well worth the effort to perform perfectly at a children’s piano recital, right?)

But here’s the thing: in one way, and one way only, I envy Chua. I envy her certainty. If nothing else, she has complete confidence in her choices as a mother. She doesn’t appear to have spent so much as half a minute wondering if her choices are correct, or healthy, or harmful or bats- -t crazy.

While I don’t agree with her, the idea of being so secure, so absolute about the choices you make with your children and how you ultimately raise them appeals to me on some level.

Maybe this is erupting in me because my oldest child just turned twenty-one. By almost all standards, and certainly in the Western world, he is an adult. And as we drove to Philadelphia to take him out for dinner and celebrate his landmark birthday, I kept thinking: how did this happen? How did he get to be 21? What did I forget to do, to tell him, to teach him, to warn him about? (What didn’t I forget, more likely.) What did I do too often, to seldom? What did I do very, very badly?

I’m certain Chua has never had a moment like this. I’m also certain she’d consider me a slacker beyond all hope and label my children “failures.”

And this is where I have my absolute certainty. That would be exactly where she is entirely wrong. I’ll readily admit to breaking many of her “rules” for raising “successful” kids. And in exchange for that choice, I had experiences with my sons that I wouldn’t trade for a lifetime high honor rolls, perfect recitals and valedictory speeches. Experiences I’ll remember until the day I die because they are just that amazing; just that loving; just that – shall I say it? – perfect.

Somehow, when I look at it that way, even with my questions unanswered and still troubling, and when on a very bad day, the moments of ‘growing up’ sadness and discomfort loom large in my memory, I’m not longer unsure about what a “successful” parent is.

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