Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are you a tiger or a kitten?

The text for today's Mom Moments column was a wee bit long and was cut down in the print version of the paper, so I'm posting it here in its entirety:

Are you a tiger or a kitten?

There’s been a big stir about a recently released book by Amy Chua, a professor of law at Yale University who has also authored two other books, one of which has been on the New York Times best seller list. “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is her latest publication. It’s about the strict Chinese style of parenting that emphasizes academic achievement and creating musical prodigies.

In an essay that is an excerpt from the book that appeared earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” she cites grueling hours of violin and piano lessons, the expectation that every grade brought home be an A+, yelling and screaming and her daughter and even calling her “garbage” as some of the techniques that “Tiger Mothers” use in raising their children.

There are admirable lessons instilled in children as a result of this parenting style that she mentions: having confidence that your child can do anything, perseverance and not giving up quickly when you’re not good at something, drive to succeed and do your best. However, its how she goes about getting those results that has raised eyebrows among American parents.

Forbidden in her household are playdates and sleepovers, being in a school play, getting a grade that is not an ‘A.’ Three hours of nightly practice on an instrument is the norm as is refusing to let kids choose extracurricular activities or watch television. Humiliation and degradation in the form of verbal expression are acceptable. Some examples she gives are “Hey fatty – lose some weight” or “You’re lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you.”

While I’d agree that academics should be very high on the priority list, I think American moms also take into account the child’s overall happiness and also consider that at the top of the list. The culture she describes is what you might hear some older generations of Americans talk about – an old school approach with the belief that failure in academics brings embarrassment or shame to the parents, that children are born indebted to their parents and obligated to repay them through obedience, that children are to be seen and not heard or without opinions since the parents know what is best and will enforce what they think is proper. Beating the competition is paramount and being better than everyone else is the ultimate goal. I don’t want to knock that kind of dedication and drive, but I just don’t have such a narrow focus. What’s wrong with a kid that’s well-rounded and good (but not perfect) at a lot of things?

There is something to be said for old-school parenting – it was often successful in bringing up children who were respectful - and often fearful. Sometimes that bit of fear motivated kids to tow the line. Today’s generation is certainly one that seems to have more of a sense of entitlement and has been accused of having less of a work ethic, but they’ve also acquired many positive traits. Today’s kids are creative, fast-paced and tolerant.

As crazy as this “Tiger Mom” approach sounds to many of us, we can also look at the other end of the spectrum to parents who may be considered “kittens” by comparison and see faults as well. If you’ve ever tuned in to the television series “Super Nanny” you have seen parents where the children undoubtedly control the house – refusing on a regular basis to do what is requested, causing chaos and throwing tantrums.

I’d like to think that the majority of American mothers fall somewhere in between. Personally, I could never parent the “Tiger Mom” way. I know I could certainly stand to improve some of my parenting techniques to encourage my children to take schoolwork more seriously and push them more when they aren’t interested in an activity. It just seems like a great cost to drill your children into doing what you want them to do and not giving them an opportunity to really enjoy childhood.

However, any great classical symphony musician has gone to great lengths to get there. You don’t get there without practicing every day several hours a day. But, somehow I’m ok with my kids not being concert pianists. When kids have a passion, it comes out. Why not nurture those talents – even if it’s choir or painting or soccer or web design or ballet – instead of playing the violin?

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