La La How The Life Goes On

Ode to Tiger Mom

Posted on: February 7, 2011

Actually, not really.  More like: “Ambivalent Equivocating Blog Post About a Book I Have Read Only in Excerpted Form.” Listen, I’m nothing if not honest.

So by now you have read about Tiger Mom Amy Chua.  You have also read (or written) the hate mail.  Or you have cried yourself to sleep at night, finally thinking you understand why kids in Shanghai are kicking your kid’s ass academically.  Or alternatively you have never heard of this woman, in which case I congratulate you on having no kids and a life!  For those of us with the precious balls-and-chains known as human children, the intertubes are LIT UP! with all kinds of weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding Ms. Chua’s memoir of her parenting years.

My journey through her book (=excerpts) went thusly:  Right away one feels really grateful that they were not born or adopted to Ms. Chua.  As Chris Rock liked to say, “I told you that bitch crazy!”  As the book evolves, however, you can see what she was trying to do–and with good intentions.  But as we know from our old friend Deney Terrio, good scores for execution are the key to winning the grand prize, and Ms. Chua really fell down, IMHO, in parts of the execution.  By now the story of the Neverending Piano Lesson is legendary, in which she refused her daughter a drink or a bathroom break until she perfected a piece of music on the piano.  I’m going to go ahead and say that is a little to draconian for my parenting tastes, even though I’m all for a no excuses kind of household.  She at one point (which she freely confesses regret) called her daughter “garbage” just as her dad had done to her.  I could list story after story, but I think you get the point: The Chua house is not like you remember your house being back in the day, and it sure ain’t my house now.

But what did she say that was valuable?  Well, the notion that American parents assume fragility in their children, that not being invited to a party or not getting a prize will somehow damage them.  Chinese parents, on the other hand, she says, “”assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.”  She deplores American-style parenting in which even the smallest task is met with gigantic applause and mentions of giftedness.  Tiger Mom expects effort to be put into one’s work, even if it’s a hand-drawn birthday card from her daughter (which, incidentally, she “rejected” because it had been thrown together at the last minute).

I have to confess that Ms. Chua has a point.  I have at times been guilty of assuming fragility in Bambina when none existed. Or, where it threatened, I learned that she needed to be told, “I know you can do this; I look forward to hearing about x when you get home.”  Instead of totally indulging her fears or insecurities, our goal was to acknowledge them and then move her forward with confidence.  Magically, when we began to do this, the episodes of worry, anxiety and trepidation decreased considerably.  Although Bambina has always been a sensitive, slightly anxious soul, the only way out of her perceived stressful situations was through. Obviously, sometimes the “through” was painful and not fully successful, but the mere fact of making it through was a giant victory for her.  And now?  Now she stands on the mountain of each of those little victories, a more confident, happy and efficacious kid.  Precisely the kind of child you think you are building when you are attempting to prevent the slings and arrows of life from harming them, but precisely the growth you are obstructing.

I also agree with Tiger Mom in her eschewing of constant praise for average work. I grew up in a house that was full of praise for deserved achievements, but pretty much silence on what my Dad called, “Stuff you’re supposed to do.”  So–making honor roll. NOT an achievement. Why? Because you’re supposed to get good grades.  Employee of the month at my high school job? NOT an achievement. Why? Because you’re supposed to go to work and do your best.  A car for high school graduation?  Not happening. First, because there was no “car money” available. But even if there were, it wouldn’t have been spent on me because….you’re supposed to graduate from high school!  It’s not an achievement, it’s a responsibility. It’s a fulfillment of something you are supposed to do.  I remember my Dad saying, “Do they throw your mother and I a parade for going to work every day and taking care of our kids? No.  Because that’s what grown ups are supposed to do.   Same for you.  Your job is to go to school and get good grades. No prizes for that.”  It totally sucked, of course. But looking back, he was right, and I am better for the lack of indulgence.  I try to bring a softer version of that to my life with my girls.  Gabriella routinely rushes through her homework and I routinely have to tell her to rewrite something.  I’m told that first grade homework is not a big deal and not important, but the larger point of it is to teach her to respect her work, her teacher and the process. So I know it seems a little insane to be making a 6 year-old rewrite the word “ball” in her neatest handwriting, but that’s what the work asks for, and I’m not going to tell her her work is fabulous when it’s obvious she’s phoned it in.  Even if she’s “only six.”

So what’ s my take?  I think you have a responsibility as a parent to prepare your kid for life.  As in, the place that does not stop to make sure your little snowflake feels valued and affirmed for her very average talents. At the same time I think it’s okay for our kids to be average at some things.  We’re not all sports stars or math geniuses. But we all can be the best that we can individually be.  I guess what I’m saying is that it’s okay for Bambina and Baby Sister to be average at a particular thing, be it a sport or academic or hobby activity. But it will never be okay for them to be average people.

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2 Responses to "Ode to Tiger Mom"

I agree, we are all protective of our children but too many times nowadays we are expected to wrap them up in cotton wool because the nanny state tells us to. Would not follow Tiger Mom’s methods but was brought up in a similar way to yourself. Maybe our Scottish Dads were harder to impress, but it made it all the more special when you did go the extra yard and received a pat on the back. Made me look up to him all the more.

I remember in middle school, working on a poster for a Science project. I spent HOURS on this poster, and it showed. Everything was lined up perfectly. It was all hand-painted. I had thought it out, and executed the masterpiece to perfection (or so I thought). After I was finished my work, I brought the poster out to show my father. He looked at it and said, “well, this is nice, but if you are going to take that much time to create something, you better make it perfect. I can still see your pencil lines, that you used to line eveything up. You need to get rid of those.” I was crushed. All that work, and all he saw were the stupid pencil lines. I knew that nobody in my class would have anything close to what I had done. These things were my strength. This is what I was good at. I reluctantly took my poster, and went back into my room, and carefully erased all my pencil lines. He was right, it did look better. Of course, I got an A++ and nobody in my class had put forth even 1/2 the effort I had. My father is a craftman, by trade. He taught me that if you are going to take the time to do something, you better commit to making it as perfect as you possibly can. I’ll never forgot that poster or the lessons I learned. I live by those lessons whenever I embark on a new project. Do it well, and do it in a way where you can be proud of your efforts. Make sure there are no “take-aways”, where people can ding you for something you missed. Don’t be sloppy, because sloppiness shows a lack of effort or committment to being that best. In some cases, you can’t compete against the work of others. Not because you don’t have the skills they have, but because sometimes your skills are better developed, and you need to compete against yourself. Sometimes, you actually have to out-do yourself, because there isn’t a challenge from your immediate peers.
I didn’t grow up in a household where there was a lot of praise. It wasn’t because we weren’t doing great things, it was just that my parents grew up at a time where bragging was not proper. As such, my parents, even though they wanted to shout from the rooftops how great we were, wouldn’t “brag” about their kids, ’cause it wasn’t polite. To be honest, it always irritated me. I was a well behaved, responsible, nice kid. There were a lot of rotten kids around me who were getting lots of “shout outs” from their parents, and there mine were, mute. I always thought to myself, “why don’t you acknowledge that I am a good kid, and while I may not be at the top of my class, at least I am not in trouble on a daily basis, and the things I do – I do WELL”. That’s not bragging, that’s showing that you are proud. Instead, I had to practically beg for that ackowledgement. So, while I do think that kids today, get too much praise, I also think there is an important place for well-deserved praise. It is okay to “brag” a little about your kids, if they are consistently keeping themselves out of trouble, and making an effort to keep themselves on the right path.

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