Monday, January 24, 2011

Dear Tiger Mom: I Don't Need Parenting Advice From The Wall Street Journal

Unless you've been in a media blackout -- which is something that can actually happen to moms who are too busy cooking, cleaning, feeding, bathing, and clothing their kids while trying not to neglect their husbands, and maybe working full-time too -- you probably know all about the Tiger Mom.  But in case you don't, here's a quick refresher:  Amy Chua is a Yale law professor whose parenting memoir, The Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother, was recently excerpted in the Wall Street Journal.  It's caused a bit of a dust-up over parenting methods, at least in the print and online media, with subsequent articles about the book appearing in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, and it was even mocked satirically in the Huffington Post. 

The controversy it's generated seems to focus mostly on Chua's strict parenting of her tween-age girls, e.g., she didn't allow them playdates or sleepovers, they couldn't participate in school plays, they had to get straight As.  In one instance, her elder daughter was forced to perfect a challenging piano piece while her mom threatened to take her dollhouse to the Salvation Army, and then Chua deprived the girl of dinner and even bathroom breaks.
Chua is the striving, successful Chinese-American daughter of immigrant parents.  She's married to a Jewish dad (another Yale law professor) who's more permissive, but also less heavily involved with his daughters:  he's there, but doesn't put in the same hours and effort Chua does.   Chua has garnered praise in the media for setting clear goals and having high standards, which has no doubt helped her produce high-achieving kids, but she's also getting drubbed for having kept her kids from the kinds of non-academic interaction with other kids that can help them master social skills which would undoubtedly help them succeed in life too, especially when it comes to relationships and working with others.  (By the book's end, when her youngest daughter rebels, Chua finally -- and sensibly -- loosens on up things like the no-playdate rule.)   She's being lambasted for being such a no-fun, hard-ass mom and accused of depriving her kids of having a real childhood, at least by American standards.

Here are a few points Late Blooming Mom hasn't seen made about the Tiger Mom controversy.

A)Chua's book was excerpted in the Wall Street Journal, where it first garnered notoriety.  Nobody should look to the Wall Street Journal for parenting advice. 

Nobody on Wall Street has behaved like a grown-up for years.  I realize Chua's book was not published by the WSJ, but she chose to have it excerpted there.  The WSJ is in the business of covering business first and foremost -- but I use the term "covering" loosely, because it is really the voice of Wall Street.   It's the utter lack of ethics and a sense of responsibility to one's fellow man exhibited by large and often sociopathic-acting American companies -- especially the big Wall Street investment banks -- that has led us into the mess that is devastating the American family every single day.  The WSJ is the mouthpiece of corporate America, which has done its level best to destroy the security of middle class families by selling crappy bundles of crappy mortgages and continues to rake in huge profits thanks in part to all us tax-paying families who bailed them out.  Corporations are sitting on piles of cash and not hiring back any of the workers they've downsized or outsourced.  The values reflected in the WSJ make it a very odd place to publish an article telling us how to raise our kids. 

Chua is not a corporate CEO, but agreeing to have her book excerpted there smacks of, at best, a poor choice on her part, and a decidedly inappropriate one.  Good moms would not let their kids get away with the kind of legalized thievery we've seen on Wall Street in the past ten years.  If you've seen the kids' movie DESPICABLE ME, you might remember that the would-be supervillain protagonist goes to the Bank of Evil to apply for a loan for his latest evil scheme.  The sign above the Bank of Evil's door says:  "Formerly Lehman Bros."   Leave it to the writers of a kids' movie to sufficiently skewer the powers that be; I'd rather take my parenting advice from them.  (For the record, those writers are:  Ken Daurio, Sergio Pablos and Cinco Paul.  And by the way, by movie's end, that "supervillain," Gru, makes a great dad.)

B)Sure, it's good to make your kids tough things out sometimes, so they can learn they're capable of doing something they think, at first, they can't accomplish.  But depriving them of dinner and bathroom breaks is the kind of borderline abusive tactic that's going to send many kids into therapy as adults.   All parents mess their kids up in some way or another.  It comes with the territory.  But I know I didn't have kids for the central purpose of grinding them into high achievers so I can bask in those achievements.  I will want to do what I can to prepare them for a competitive world, and I'll kvell when they do well in school or at music or on a sports team, etc..  But being potential prodigies is not their reason for having been created.   I made 'em to love 'em, and not to be perfect. 

As for discipline, sometimes I take toys away from them if they don't behave well, or offer them a reward of some kind they can earn through good behavior.  They're still in kindergarten, so there are no grades for me to get hung up on, though one day I will for sure be paying more attention to their academics beyond simply encouraging them to read and write.  I know they'll have to practice some things longer than they are inclined in order to get good a those things, and I'll try to coax them to do so.  I can still remember my mother drilling me in long division.  But she never deprived me of dinner or the bathroom.  And I won't do that to my kids either.  That would teach them to be cruel.  I'd rather they be kind than academic superstars or music prodigies.  Kindness will come back to them again and again in kind, and make them a lot happier, if not necessarily wealthier.

C)Chua has a good point or two.  The current generation of American-born parents are soft on their kids compared to parents born into other cultures, and over-emphasize self-esteem.  But not making them strive as if their lives depended on it is okay too.  In fact, it's one of the great blessings of American life.  Even in the midst of this recession, when everybody we know in the battered middle class seems to be having to make some sacrifices, and the poor are getting no richer, living standards for most American families are much higher than when my immigrant grandparents arrived from the shtetl, and needed to learn English and get educated in order to secure decent jobs, a living wage, and potential futures for their families.  Having our kids take it a wee bit easier is, well, part of why their ancestors worked so damn hard.

My parents each had one immigrant parent and one who was born here but was the child of immigrants.  Following their parents' dreams, mine moved on up, a little like the Jeffersons, though in their case,  from Brooklyn to Manhattan, where they found their rent-controlled apartment in the sky.  My folks had high expectations for my brother and I, and in many ways, we've realized those.  Like Amy Chua and her husband, we too are Ivy League graduates.  But there's a down side to all that pushing.  Sky high expectations can cause pain that lasts for years.  One time I can still remember my brother and me, as adults, sitting down with my parents and asking why we felt that nothing we did would ever be good enough for them. Years and years later,  I'm still feeling like I'm not quite living up to my potential.  The striving part of that is fine; the restless lack of satisfaction with my accomplisments, though, can be paralyzing.  I want something else for my kids. 

It took the Tiger Mom for me to realize I'm more of a Teddy Bear mom, doling out a lot more hugs and considerably less humiliation.  I can still be tough and put my foot down when my kids need rules enforced and stick-to-itiveness emphasized.   They need to work toward some goals and have to do some stuff they'd just as soon not.  But not all the time. 

Why should life have to be such a chore and a struggle simply because it was for another generation?  Let's honor our immigrant ancestors' hard work by, um, living a little.  A day without homework or piano practice can be a good thing.  It leaves time for daydreaming -- something there's less and less time for in adulthood.  As Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."  My grandparents and great grandparents worked their butts off.  But I know if they were here now they would want my kids to enjoy a little more childhood fun, and less childhood labor.


William V. Madison said...

I hoped you would weigh in on this topic, and you've exceeded my expectations! A thoughtful, compelling essay.

You zero in on Chua's immigrant experience and that of your own family. What strikes me is that, among families I know, it was imperative that kids live up to their potential (in a country where it is possible to do so) — but not, as you say, for the gratification of basking in one's kids' achievements. On the contrary, the idea was that each generation was providing a new foundation for the achievements of the next. Grandparents sacrificed in order that their children and grandchildren might not have to work quite so hard in order to succeed.

This may have resulted in some softness, and even with some of my own godkids, I find myself thinking, "You don't know how easy you've got it." But there are so many measures of success, and one of the most important is happiness. Are kids happier when they're treated like galley slaves? I doubt it — no matter how much money they earn or how many prizes they win.

I keep telling my godkids I'm proud of their achievements, but what matters most to me is that they be happy. Things 1 and 2 are most assuredly that.

Uncle Bill

(And here's a loud cheer for treating the WSJ with skepticism and wariness.)

joshuawait said...

Brillant and insightful response to the Tiger Mom. I loved the fact that you pointed out that her article was published in the Wall Street Journal. Right! Who writes parenting articles for the Wall Street Journal? Yeah, I bet the list of columnists is tiny.

I've wondered if the article was published there to purposefully reinforce values about what it takes to be economically prosperous. Amy Chua has backed off quite a bit recently. Hmm. I've wondered if the article's title was intentionally inflammatory in order to get attention and thereby sell more books. As the saying goes, "The only bad press is no press" if you're in the business of selling popular media.

joshuawait said...

Oh and have you seen the Dear Tiger Mom website? It's a humorous take on this whole debate

You might get a chuckle out of it.

Patty said...

I was raised by kind of Tiger Mom myself and I can say its' not that bad. But you need to have a more relaxing dad to counteract.

Logistics Gal said...

I think modern parents rely too much on info from media.

Zoe said...

I like your Tiger Mom idea, thank you for sharing.