Monday, November 28, 2011

Tiger Mothers, Part II (From the Cleveland Post March 24, 2011)

Stepping Back, Looking Closer


K. S. Volcjak

Tiger Mothers, Part II

Amy Chua is the "Chinese" mother who threatened to burn her daughter's stuffed animals if she didn't get her piano piece right. You may have heard about how she mocked the birthday cards her daughters had made for her and insisted they make new ones. She also made some sweeping generalizations about "Chinese" and "Western" parenting styles, the finer points of which didn't quite make it into the public dialog.

She picked those incidents to introduce her book, no doubt because they grab more attention than the questions at the heart of it. "How do I rear my children to meet today's challenges?" and "What is best for my children?" don't grab as many headlines. All parents ask those.

Ms. Chua is an intense person. The eldest daughter of a proud family of scholars going back to the 1600s, she is not going to let her daughters get slack and soft as children born into the upper middle class often do. Family is important to her. She is smart, driven, purposeful and thorough. Like a bulldozer, she brings all those qualities to bear in making decisions for her children.

That's all very well and good, until she gets to self-determination and obedience. She doesn't give her children choices and she demands obedience. She even insists that it is possible to get straight As just by working hard! Frankly, that goes against the grain for many folks.

It goes against the grain because Ms. Chua is not in the least bit squeamish when confronted with the realities of choice, obedience and hard work. Most of the choices children have are fluff any way. They have no choice when it comes to the really important stuff, like attending school.

Obedience isn't really a choice, either. At its best, demanding obedience is about team building, and John Rosemonde has written about the family being the original team. The captain knows what's best for the team (if not, somebody else would be captain) and the team follows her lead. If you don't, you're not pulling your weight and may end up without a team, on your own. This kind of obedience has nothing to do with "Do as I say or I'll whip your hide because I'm bigger than you."

That is not to say there is not an illusion of choice or disobedience. Standing firm in the face of a child's loud, inconvenient, maybe even dangerous defiance is not for the faint of heart. That illusion can't be allowed to stand. If you can't handle it when your child is five, you're sunk by the time she turns fifteen.

Sometimes the defiance brings ugly things out of our mouths. Parents have things to learn, too.

Rearing children is a high stakes undertaking, and I believe Ms. Chua sees this more clearly than most. It is not about dumping them into opportunities and assuming their own desire will be enough to teach them to swim. It is about being teaching them a longer view and giving them the practice, the encouragement, the external motivation to get over it. It is not just carrot and stick, but carrot, stick, and companionship. Amy Chua is there for her daughters.

The thing is that her child rearing position is always under assault, even in her own family and her own mind. This book is not a parenting guide, but a memoir of the battle of ideas, Western and Chinese, that play out in her family. It does not end as she intended.

I think she has it right when it comes to choices and obedience and grades.

But I think it could be done without all the yelling and the threats. 2000 years of civilization not withstanding, I think it is uncivilized.

I do sympathize with her reaction to last minute, slapped together birthday cards. But I prefer the tactic taken by a wise woman of my acquaintance. While she was watching her granddaughter one day, the little girl grabbed a piece of paper, made a crude scribble across it, then handed it to her with the challenge, "Isn't it beautiful?" Her grandmother replied truthfully, "It's not your best work."

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