Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cat fight

In her Wall Street Journal essay “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” Yale professor and author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” Amy Chua poked a sharp stick at her newly acquired nemesis, The Mama Grizzly. In her essay, she pegged the American parenting style as lax and deemed it responsible for producing children who can’t live up to their potential because they aren’t forced to do so.

Her memoir, she says, gives readers a deeper look into the inner workings of a family that raises “stereotypically successful kids.”

She knows what it takes to make musical prodigies and math whizzes, she says, because she’s done it ... with an iron fist. And it takes metal she doesn't see in western parenting methods. For instance, her daughters were never allowed to have play dates, attend sleepovers or select their own extra curricular activities. They were not allowed to play an instrument that wasn't a violin or piano, but they had to play one or the other ... for three hours per day, minimum. They were not allowed to get any grade below an A and they were expected to be the top student in every subject that mattered to her — no excuses.

Reading the essay is gut wrenching. But not because of the presence of stark competition we've systematically tried to erase from our children's childhood experience. Nor is it because of the implied competitiveness we parents have started recording in permanent ink. It's painful because in some way we know none of us — mothers especially — can be sure our children won't resent us regardless of how they were raised.

We all make mistakes.

Chua's are magnified by her candor.

She unapologetically describes calling her children “garbage,” threatening their toys and screaming herself horse as they continue to flub their music lessons … hour after tedious hour. She is jaundiced by her own light even as her daughters get straight As and win prestigious musical competitions.

Parents from all corners of the ethosphere came out swinging.

They called her abusive, surmised she was raising robots who would have no stars to reach in adulthood after playing Carnegie Hall in their teens. They wonder about her husband, and how he could stay married to such a ferocious beast. They predicted the damage she was doing to her family would come full force – or to a deafening silence – when the lessons stopped, bags packed and the return visits never begin.

Nevertheless, her mistakes don’t seem so uncommon.

I pictured myself where her critics picture her: Alone in her advancing years. The difference being that I'll be shunned for saying horrible things in the heat of frustration whilst trying to get my kids to pick up their toys.

One of the most cogent Grizzlies awakened by this Tiger’s memoir, oddly enough, seems to be New York Times Columnist David Brooks, who contends Chua’s Tiger isn’t so much a cultural phenomenon as a class one — and not a new one at that. He says she’s doing everything pushy, over-bearing, upper middle class parents do in trying to give their kids advantages, she’s just more relentless. When he raps her knuckles, he does it by calling her a wimp for protecting her kids from the most demanding of tasks -- understanding where they fit in with the rest of society.

“Where,” he asks, claws extended, “do they learn to detect their own shortcomings?”

I imagine Chua would just smile her pointed tiger teeth and growl at him in response. Why, from her, of course.

It’s a fascinating subject, really.

Here we are in a time when the U.S. seems at the precipice of losing its generations-old grasp of the top of the world food chain; schools are losing education funding left, right and sideways; and jobs are going where wages are cheaper and fear is rampant.

We have precious little control in our lives when it pertains to others, and more ideas about what it is we're supposed to be doing as parents than we have experience actually doing. We tend to raise our kids as we were raised, making changes based upon any number of influences … Chua and Brooks among them.

But we aren't convinced our ways are right either, are we?

I wonder if we’d be so outraged if we didn’t think there was a sliver of truth in what Chua said, despite her grandstanding.

For me, I suppose, the takeaway wasn’t about being relentless in the pursuit of excellence or the acceptance of limitations. It is that self esteem isn't something we can give our kids by protecting them from failure. It's something they take for themselves when they learn from their mistakes. It's the natural outcome of doing something they thought impossible.

I’m know I don't have the killer instinct to be a Tiger Mother or a Mama Grizzly, but I think I can certainly learn from both breeds.


Ange said...

This is really great. I share many of your thoughts, just didn't know how to put 'em down.
I haven't read the essay. I should, but I've been too afraid I'll agree with it more than I want to.
I've been a mother for ten years, and the only thing I know for sure is to never ever think I've got it all figured out.

toyfoto said...

That's pretty much my understanding, too. There's no absolute.