Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tiger Would

First it was the book and the accompanying New York Times column. That lit up the blogosphere with vilifiers and defenders. It made the cover of Time Magazine and became its own Internet meme. I'm referring of course to Amy Chua, whose "Chinese mother" parenting techniques have been a lightning rod among pundits and parents. I haven't read a hundredth of the coverage, but it seems like she's been covered from every conceivable angle.

What I haven't read a whole lot of is a more humble, less wound-up response. I admit that my initial read of her New York Times column made me wince at some points and set off anxiety alarms at other points. But, and perhaps this is more indicative of my insecurity and cluelessness than her insight and correctness, I found myself musing more along the lines of feeling like I have a lot to learn as a parent in terms of finding my own style and way, not necessarily to become more like Amy Chua but in response to all of the talk that has emerged from her controversial writings.

I must disclose that I am probably more disposed than the average bear to applaud the ways of the "tiger mom." My parents did not make any effort to nurture my self-esteem, which was not unusual among my Asian peers, but they also did not pressure me over academics or extra-curriculars, which was a bit unusual. I guess they didn't have to, because I was already extremely self-motivated. Telling is an essay I dug up a few years back, written when I was all of 14, lamenting that my younger sister, who was all of 8 at the time, wasn't taking school seriously enough; I predicted she would have to buck up or else she would struggle. (I am happy to report she turned out just fine. And, looking back, she was taking school plenty serious.)

Anyway, fast-forward to the present, and I am confronted, as you may know if you read this blog, with all sorts of different and at times competing influences for what I think is right to do and be as a parent. I am Ivy League educated and still very ambitious. I am a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, so I am mindful to say no to the covetousness of this age, but also aware that sometimes we sell ourselves short and settle for mediocrity instead of striving, with God's help, to be as great as He has made us to be. My kids are adopted, so they do not share their genes, which means I have even less direct influence on their potential and their trajectory. I am a cheap bastard, which means I have not yet signed them up for piano or dance or swim or soccer. But I have taken them all sorts of places and exposed them to all sorts of activities and settings. And I live in a very diverse neighborhood and go to a very diverse church, which means I get all sorts of messages and examples about what it means to be a parent.

Swirl all that together, and mix in my limitations and foibles, and you have a recipe for finding it very easy to admit that I don't know much and could sure use some help. So these are some of my takeaways from all of this chatter about parenting, realizing that other people will take away other things because they are further along in their comfort level with how they want to be as parents (in no particular order; I suppose I should have a cohesive line of thought here, but I haven't figured out that line yet):

* One size doesn't fit all. Parenting would seem to be a trial-and-error process of figuring out what works in the intersection between a unique parent, a unique child, and unique relational dynamics, all three of which evolve over time. So it seems ludicrous to lift up a certain approach as "the" way to go. It really is true that the less gifted child who works hard and gets B's deserves to be commended over the supremely gifted child who coasts to A's.

* Rote memorization is in fact a useful thing to push kids to get good at. It is not natural to do something over and over again until you get good at it. But it is the only way to be successful at anything. So says Malcolm Gladwell in "Outliers." So it would seem to be a useful skill to work hard with your kid to develop.

* Preparation for future success requires a whole range of experiences and skill sets. as David Brooks points out, sleepovers, much vilified by Chua as useless and trivial, are wonderful preparations for the real world, because of the nuances of the power dynamics of social groupings.

* Straight A's may indicate sub-optimal time allocation. There is something positive to taking the extra effort to go from B+ to A. On the other hand, perhaps that effort could be better allocated in an extra-curricular activity, thus presenting a more well-rounded portfolio that isn't just about book smarts. Having gotten straight A's all through junior high and high school, I resolved pretty early on in my college career that if I was continuing to get straight A's, I was either not doing enough stuff outside of the classroom or I wasn't taking hard enough classes, for it would mean I was burning my precious time and brain space on the diminishing return of getting all the way to A, instead of pushing myself in more and diverse areas.

* Tread carefully, but do tread, on the issue of China eating us for lunch. Governor Rendell went there in a very insensitive and racist way, conjecturing that not only would the Chinese line up for a football game in the snow, but would do calculus on the way to the game. (What's up with that, Ed?) On the other hand, to the extent that we give in to "loser" talk about always doing what feels right and never pushing yourself, we are in fact ill-preparing our kids to compete in what will be a more globally demanding world. Even worse, we're telling them that "they're OK" when they really might not be. We all see how different the distribution of jobs will be in the future economy, and how much training will be required to land a "have" job versus a "have not" job.

* Self-esteem isn't the most important thing. On a related note, it was telling when my pastor led a parenting class last year, and some of the parents from the Chinese congregation that meets in our building attended as well. He started the discussion by asking us what is the most important thing for kids to learn in their childhood. All of the Americans said "for kids to be comfortable with themselves and to like themselves." All of the Chinese said "for kids to not embarrass themselves or their families." I'm not saying one side is all right and one is all wrong, but, with some exceptions in cases where there really are some deeper mental health issues going, parents don't do well to work directly on self-esteem as much as other development goals, from which self-esteem will naturally follow.

* Make it hurt a little sometimes. The real world, as noted above, can be cruel at times. We do a disservice to our kids to overshield them from pain. It's healthy to feel the sting of our punishments, whether physical or emotional, and to not have every comfort provided with no questions asked. When I discipline my kids and they respond with "I'm not your friend any more" or "you hurt my feelings," I have to stifle a smile, because I know that I am doing my job right.

Parenting is a bewildering occupation. Making sense of all of the commentary that has erupted around this meme has been no less bewildering. But these are, I think, some of the concepts I am holding on to, however lightly and flexibly, as I seek to be a good parent to my two kids. I'm neither asking "what would tiger mom do," nor am I discarding her approach wholesale as mean-spirited and dangerous. Instead, and don't tell my kids this, I'm figuring out as I go along. And I've got a lot of figuring out left to do. But I'm glad for Amy Chua's ways, and for what they've sparked in terms of responses and in terms of my own reactions to them.
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