Monday, July 16, 2012

Tiger Mother worth a read, even for a kitten mom

So, the summer is when I do most of my reading. Things are more laid back. I don't have lunches to make, permissions slips to sign, outfits to prepare for the next day, so when it's bed time I can settle in and read. The other night I read Inside My Heart by Robin McGraw. It was interesting. Last night I started Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Tonight I finished it.

Why did I finish it so quickly? Well, I read the first quarter of it last night. And it made me mad at first. I really get bothered by condescending people who think they are better than others and by those who have acquired the attitude that education entitles them to be arrogant. That was the first impression I got as I started reading the book. The author thought that Western parents were weak and undisciplined, that those who didn't play violin, get straight A's or attend an Ivy League university were uncultured and uncivilized. I felt insulted.

Then as I read on about her methods of getting her children to do what she wanted them to, I was really appalled. I was shocked at the lengths she'd go through to control her children's lives.

I'm glad I read on today and finished the book. It ended the way I hoped it would - that the author would realize she was making some errors and take action to correct them. And that she did. I won't give away too much for those who haven't read it, but in the end, she became a bit more flexible and backed off and her family seemed to become closer and all the better because of it. But it was a lesson that was hard to grasp and took a tragic family illness and being alienated by her teenage daughter to realize that what works with one child may not work with another. She eventually came to realize that creating a comfortable, happy atmosphere for your child can have as big of an impact as forcing six consecutive hours of violin lessons. In any culture, parents want what is best for their children. In different cultures, the definition of  what is "best" can be very, very different.

Do I agree with her early methods? I can't say I do. But that really doesn't matter. I can't tell her how to parent any more than she can tell me how. She did some things right and did some things wrong. So have I. It takes a lot for a parent to admit to making a mistake. It shows character when a parent takes measures to correct a mistake. I have to give her props for her honesty. I write a lot of columns about my parenting experiences. But I don't share everything. Some things are private or are painful and I'd rather not disclose them. I'm sure she knew there would be some backlash over the book and she chose to expose herself to that criticism.

I had a hard time getting past the screaming matches she said she'd have with her children. That's because I didn't hear much yelling as a child. I don't raise my voice very often with my kids. For someone who was raised that way, it would not be abnormal. I grew up with what was probably the opposite of a Tiger Mother. My parents piled on the praise. They were patient and kind and loving and affectionate, with lots of hugs and kisses and not a lot of boundaries. Sometimes I wished I'd been pushed a little harder. Sometimes I wish there would have been more discipline. But, all in all, we turned out pretty good, I think.

I was never yelled at or called names or belittled or spitefully compared to my siblings. There were not a lot of stated expectations. We just knew we were supposed to be good kids and make our parents proud. We didn't behave and get good grades out of fear or because of threats of punishment. We simply were motivated by making them happy and making ourselves happy. The only fear I had was that my parents would be disappointed. And one time my dad actually told me I'd disappointed him. It crushed me. I was disappointed in myself, too.

You can't fault her for raising her children the way she was raised. Patterns are repeated, good and bad,  inherited or acquired. And you can't deny the success that comes from her parenting methods. I don't want to bash her any more than I want to be bashed for my more Western-type parenting practices. She did what she thought was best for her children. Just like I do. We go about it in different ways. And along the way, I guess it was inevitable that a little bit of this Western culture rub off, especially since she married a non-Chinese American.

Maybe it is a flaw of Western parenting that we can accept mediocrity. I want my children to try things. I don't expect them to be the best at everything. And I applaud the other kids who are good at things my children may not be. Not everything in life has to be a competition. Sometimes the greatest lessons come from failure. I expect my children to try the best that they can. When my first child was younger (like preschool and early elementary school-age,) what I wanted most was for him to be well-rounded. I wanted him to be smart and artistic and athletic and compassionate and eager to learn new things. I signed him up for everything under the sun. He did baseball. He did soccer. He was in the choir. Band. Basketball. Gymnastics. Art class. Music class. Karate. He did volunteer activities with me. So many times, he sat and watched what was going on and barely participated. Other times, he resisted going. My attitude was that if I signed him up, he had to finish whatever program it was he was enrolled in. I didn't often ask if he wanted to try it, I just signed him up. Once he had little brothers, I just couldn't keep up the pace. I was more judicious in selecting activities. I asked for their input because I only wanted to invest the time and money into activities they were passionate about or at least were thoroughly engaged in.

I discovered that just because one son liked baseball, it didn't mean the next one would. And I realized that just because one of them was good at something, it didn't mean they'd want to continue it. I could have put my foot down and not given them a choice. But, another thing I learned as the years went on and as I had more children was to pick my battles. Making a 3-year-old go to gymnastics if he didn't want to wasn't worth the battle. Dragging a 7-year-old out of the house to go to a sports practice he didn't want to be at wasn't really worth all the aggravation. Well, sometimes it was worth it. I got good at gauging if the battle was worth it. There were many times they've put up a fight and I didn't give in. Then once they arrived, they really enjoyed it. But sometimes it's a hard call. You live, you learn.

I do admire Chua's dedication in diving into her children's music lessons and sitting in on them. I always have had the attitude that when someone you love has a dream, it becomes your dream as well. You should show an interest in and learn about it. And in the book, the author struggles with the question of whether she is helping her children follow their dream or if she is doing it to satisfy herself. I do jump in and learn more about what interests the kids and play an active role in supporting their endeavors, but I have really never been as absorbed my children's activities as intensely as she was with her children. I encourage them when I feel they've found their niche. But, I can't say that I could ever picture myself driving four hours every Sunday for a one-hour music lesson and then going home and sitting beside my child for six hours of non-stop piano practice. I think I'd go batty after an hour. She does display dedication and is willing to work as hard as her kids to see them succeed. Back when I had only one child, I probably could have done it. Even when I had two kids it might have happened. Today, probably not.

One thing that my husband and I make a priority in our household is rest. We make sure that our kids have a  routine bedtime and get enough sleep. We are pretty diligent, but that doesn't mean there aren't ever exceptions. In one part in the book, the author says that she has kept her kids us past midnight practicing piano or violin if they weren't playing it perfectly. I just have the attitude that kids need their rest and it's a necessity for them to sleep well so that they can concentrate and succeed. I cannot fathom forcing a kid to continue playing a piano at 1 a.m. and then for them get up for school the next day and be expected to perform to the best of their ability. There have been times my kids have been up that late, but it was for something like New Year's Eve or for an occasional sleepover (Insert gasp here - that's a no-no in Chinese culture.)

I do believe that each child needs to find their niche and it's a parent's role to help facilitate that and nurture it. With some kids it is obvious early on what they are destined to do. Others take longer to figure it out. In looking at my five, each has different interests. My oldest has played guitar for six years. He loves baseball. And he wants to be a firefighter (I can her the gasp of the Tiger Mother already and see her shaking her head -- a civil service profession? what shame she would attach to that!) To me, it's a profession to be proud of. He was a bright child and we knew it early on. He was reading well at age four. He had an outstanding memory. At age three, he had every piece of apparatus from the local fire department memorized. Every fire hydrant in town had a number on it. He knew where every one was and he knew his way around town. You could ask him where fire hydrant #64 was and he'd tell you that it was at 178th Street and Maple and then he'd proceed to give you directions. At age three. I felt that he was gifted, but I was his mother. All moms think that, don't they? Maybe I should have pushed a different direction. Or maybe I was right to let him lead me in the direction he wanted to go.

The other boys seem to have also found their niche. Son #2 is the artistic one. He likes to draw. He's also somewhat introverted. He likes literature and art and music and I can see him someday expressing himself through one of those mediums. Son #3 has been on a bowling league for several years (that's another thing the Tiger Mother shunned. She was relieved her daughter took up tennis "It's not like it was bowling..." she said in the book, as if it was the lowliest and most barbaric of possible extracurriculars.) Hey, I think bowling is fun. I bowl in a league myself. So, that's his thing. He's also taken up soccer. He's the reader and logical one. He gets involved in Harry Potter books and can't put them down. And he loves documentaries and will rattle off facts about machinery, military history or other topics that he stores away in that little brain that never seems to shut off. Last year's summer class involved learning some Spanish and he really enjoyed it. Son #4 is the dramatic one (Yet another area that a Chinese mother like Chua would consider to be a waste of time.) He is always singing and seems to enjoy being on stage. The past two summers he has taken a summer musical class that ends with a big production and he's great at it. I look forward to seeing him on stage more in the coming years. Son #5, I'm not quite sure about yet. It's hard to tell. He's 7. He's going into second grade. A Tiger Mother would probably have already had him mastering an instrument and doing high school calculus. Me? I'm content hearing that he's reading two grade levels ahead of his classmates, is above average in math and watching him play T-ball and do bumper bowling. Sure, I'd love to hear him play Pachelbel Canon in D for me, but perhaps that will come one day. And if it doesn't it's not the end of the world. In the Chinese world, the thought may be that time is wasting. In the Western world, there's still lots of time to help him figure out who he is.

I have had regrets over the years of not pushing a little harder or forcing them to do something I thought they were good at. Time will only tell if they'll hold that against me. I think they might hold it against me more if I made them spend years toiling away at something they didn't really want to do. Sometimes there are mixed signals. Chua's daughter constantly fought back with her mom and told her she hated violin and wanted to quit. Yet at times she talked about how much she loved playing the violin. She probably did love it, but rebelled because she didn't love how her mother handled it.

The book did make me think twice about some of the paths I have taken with my children and has even caused me to think that I should place higher expectations on the kids. Sometimes being a parent means taking the path of unpleasantness and not the one of least resistance, which parents these days often do. And which I know I have done at times. There's something to be said for committing to something and seeing it through no matter how tough and impossible it may seem and there's such a sense of satisfaction that comes from that.

There's also a time to know when you're in a losing battle and you have to look at the situation and ask yourself if you're digging your heels in because you're doing what's best or if you're doing so just to be right. Sometimes continuing the battle isn't worth it. Chua recounted how no matter what was going on, her children had to practice their instruments for several hours every day. No exceptions. That meant that while traveling through Europe, there were sites they missed out on or had their visits shortened so that they could sit inside a room and play something over and over and over. What do you think those girls will recall most from the trip? Do they say to themselves, "I'm so glad that I spent only an hour an a half exploring Rome because I spent the rest of that day practicing piano and arguing with my mother over playing piano." Just because a parent has the power to be in charge, doesn't mean that demonstrating that power at all costs is the best thing to do. You need to pick your battles and make sure they are something worth fighting for. Everyone needs a break sometimes, especially when you're half a world away from home. That's what vacations are for.

There's no denying that her daughters will be highly successful. My son might not be able to play Mozart on a violin, but he can play AC/DC or Queen on his guitar. He may not be going to Yale, but he's learning a lot by working hard at his part-time job and saving his money and is learning many life lessons in doing so. He might not end up having his M.D., but he may end up in a profession where he saves lives. Does that make her child more valuable to the world than mine? I think her children and my children will find their own kind of success. Not every kid is going to be a musical prodigy with a perfect grade point average. Ok, maybe every Asian kid is. Mine are going to be more ordinary. Maybe even more happy. They're not going to be the best at every single thing they set out to do. And somehow I'm totally fine with that. I guess I'm just more kitten than tiger.


Adventures In Babywearing said...

Oh wow- I never considered reading it but now I want to!


Melissa Ryan said...

I read an article with excerpts from the book the other day and I have to agree that I would rather my son be happy than to feel he has to be the best at something. I am interested in reading the whole book now.