Saturday, January 15, 2011

Destiny, or why I'm glad my mom's not a tiger

 I cannot shake the haunting effect of this article I read about "Chinese mothers."

If I understood the article correctly-- knowing that it was given a healthy shot of gratuitous controversial spin by some savvy editors--  "Chinese Mothers" seems to be a euphemism for mothers who are intensely involved with, concerned about, and in full control of their children's destinies.

What haunts me so is the fact that even though every bone in my body wants to disagree with this woman, or at times even shake her, she still managed to disturb my confidence in my parenting techniques. Am I too soft? Am I putting too much faith in nature, rather than focusing on nurture?

And I resent that. I reject that.

The very fact that I work hard to churn out the best possible pieces of writing I am capable of, without my mother sitting next to me, ruler poised to slap my hand if I get up too often for coffee or chocolates, tells me that I probably do not need to keep my children in a halter at all times.

Work ethic can be learned. I think. But can it be forced? Should it be forced?

I could have used a good dose of work ethic as a teen. Work ethic came naturally, sort of, athletically, but certainly not academically. No one, aside from the A.P. English teacher who kicked me out of his class, called me on it. The lesson came in its own time. And it tasted bitter, like regret.

But, there is something to be said for destiny. Something to be said for yielding to the current.

If I hadn't been a teenage screw up, I would never had run away from the ski academy I begged my parents to send me to. If my parents had been "Chinese," they wouldn't have let me quit said academy. They'd have forced me, by whatever means necessary-- hard to imagine, considering how incredibly stubborn I was, what means those might have been-- to stay.

If I had toughed it out at said academy, I would most likely have finished college in four years, where I would have been just another second-rate college ski racer. Then, after college, I would have been a college-educated, washed- up ski racer.

If I had graduated from said ski academy, and gone on to become a college skier, I would never have learned to snowboard, or broken my ribs, in stubborn determination, in the process.

And if I had never learned to snowboard, I wouldn't have had anything cling to, anything to keep me afloat, when I dropped out of college. (There's a big section I left out in here, involving letting go of the good guy, then flagellating myself with the bad guy, who, ironically, turned me on to snowboarding, while he tossed my heart around like a toy, then left it lying where it fell. It's dizzying how many closed doors lead to open ones.)

If I and my bleeding heart hadn't dropped out of college, I never would have had the time, or the rebellious incentive, to get up and go, alone, to the ski area every morning to master snowboarding.

And then I never would have been sponsored by a major snowboarding company, who paid me to travel the world and compete in World Cup snowboarding competitions, and, ultimately, the Olympics. (Had my mom been Amy Chua, would I have won the Olympics, rather than crashing? Oh right, I wouldn't have been a snowboarder, because sports are a waste of time.)

Had I never been paid to travel the world, to compete in snowboard competitions, I never would have met and married my husband.

If I had never met, or married, my husband, the right to my left, I would not be the mother of two of the grooviest daughters I could imagine being mother too. (Sorry, we've been watching too many Brady Bunch re-runs.)

If I hadn't given birth to my groovy girls, I never would have discovered BabyCenter and somehow finagled myself a gig with them as a journal writer/blogger.

And if I had never become a mom blogger, I really have no idea who, or what, the hell I might be.

But whoever I might have been--like the high-school German teacher I briefly was-- when the opportunity came up for us to live in France, it would not have been so easy to say,

"Yes, yes. Of course. Yes! What do we have to lose?"

I can't begin to think how piano lessons would have fit into this picture. As it turned out, I did take them, for about a year. But then I quit. I have been trying to teach myself to play violin over the years.  I'm still perfecting Camptown Races, but I've got Mary Had a Little Lamb down.

Nobody cares how often I practice.

Nobody but me.


Bethany said...

I'm glad she's not my mom, either. I think, however, that the "Chinese mother" method doesn't actually teach work ethic. It teaches success at all costs. Work ethic requires a sense of responsibility for your successes and failures. It is this winning is everything attitude that leads to (and this is obviously extreme, I know that) adding poison to baby milk to make more profit. And then suicide. How is that good parenting?

Not that the "American mother" method she contrasts hers with is much better. The "my baby must love herself and have good self-esteem" method teaches that the world should make you happy, not that you should work and be responsible for making yourself happy.

That's where your mom clearly succeeded. She let you quit what you hated. But, she didn't solve all your problems for you. She made you work to find your happiness. And, it looks to me like she did pretty well.

KGJ said...

To be the master of oneself and one’s passions, to understand the rightness of one’s moral law and to obey it out of a sense of inward affinity to what’s good and natural; to practice virtue as its own reward, freely; to view one’s sense of duty serenely and make it one with one’s will and desires; and to stand firm in the face of hardship or even annihilation, without bending to coercion from tyrants or losing oneself in any frenzied mob — this is the ideal of discipline that cuts against the grain of the Chinese method, which, despite the good intentions of many of its practitioners, must be recognized for what it is: i.e., the relic of an authoritarian and collectivistic, however stable, culture and a tool for the perpetuation of the same.

Anonymous said...


Betsy, you're great! I love reading your "show you my ass" writing!

I think that you're a great Mom. We're not imperfect, but are we really supposed to be? I don't think so. I think that it's healthy for our kids to see that we're subject to the same emotions and uncertainties that they are. Obviously, we're supposed to control ourselves a bit more than they do (although, there have been times that I would have LOVED to throw a monster temper tantrum! Well, maybe in a certain way I have....)

Every culture is different. I definitely don't think that Chinese mothers have the edge on us. I'd rather turn out a compassionate, loving, child who is comfortable with themselves and knows that they're loved, than turn out a child with good work ethic.

Meowmie said...

A few of my friends wrote about this on facebook. I did have the push from my parents to continue with my music practice - and I'm glad they did because in those cases, it was a case of getting over the hump to move to the next level. Those bits happen in a long-term thing like piano or singing.

OTOH, all us kids were encouraged to think, plan ahead, discuss, argue, and stand up for ourselves. (With varying degrees of success LOL but that's part of parenting!)

I wonder what sort of mom I'll be to my DD. I think I probably need to push a bit more. Then again, I'm reminded that moms at the school gates exaggerate how 'stern' they are with their kids and maybe I'm not so odd after all.

JediMom said...

All I can say about Amy Chua how would she have treated or reacted if she had had a child with a disability.
Betsy, I think you're mom raised you right!

mooserbeans said...

I think like everything else, it's a balance. When is it worth it to push and when is ok to back down? As my mom says "choose your battles wisely." I forced my oldest to stay in soccer and was treated to a pouting 10 year old standing stock still in the middle of the field while the rest of the team ran around her. I forced the same child to stay in swim lessons, knowing that she secretly loved them and had a tempoary setback, and it has worked out fine. From reading your post I happen to agree that you have raised to amazing girls:)

Anonymous said...

Hi Betsy! Of course there was a lot of response to this article. Thank you for sharing your reflections.

Here are several articles with more food for thought:
A response article by Ayelet Waldman (She of the famous "I love my husband more than my children" article):

Here is a Q&A follow-up with Amy Chua: (Interesting clarifications by Ms Chua of some assumed ideas from the original article.)

And here is a page with posts by readers:

There are many, many more responses to these ideas. I am not sure how I fall...I've always been a bit of a "I can see both sides" kind of gal.

Anonymous said...

Amy Chua had a sister with Down's Syndrome. Apparently there is much more in her book than this piece, which was so carefully-chosen and histrionically-titled by the Wall Street Journal editors.

Betsy said...

I think I've read all the follow-up articles--I'm fascinated by this topic--including this one:

And this amusing one highlighting the true value of the dreaded sleepover:

All the articles have only served to alarm me further. The essential theme remains: Seeing ourselves as knowing better than our children about who they are and what direction they should take.

Betsy said...

And, this post wasn't meant to say, hey, this woman is wrong, wrong, wrong, so much as it was to say, this got me thinking about how much failure has guided the course of my life and how glad I am that I was "allowed" to fail.

Steph said...

Parenting is alarming.
The end.

andrea frazer said...

I concur. Our failures teach us more than any tiger mother. ANd really, they aren't failures.

Megan said...

I love this topic. I think it's fascinating to look at how our culture affects our parenting styles.

**I LOVE this photo of Isla! It reminds me so much of my daughter... out there digging in the dirt with her fancy shoes, mixing and concocting and exploring the microcosmos. She used to spend hours and hours collecting dirt and twigs and leaves to make snail playgrounds or homes for beetles. I think it might be the backyard digging and exploring that I miss most about living in the States. That and TexMex.**

Punam Sidhu said...

I’m glad my kids didn’t have Tiger Mom!
by Punam Khaira Sidhu

WHEN PISA test results showed that Shanghai students’ scores were far ahead of American students, President Obama referred to it as a “Sputnik Moment” — “the humbling realization that another country is pulling ahead in a contest we have become used to winning”. In this scenario comes Yale Professor Army Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom”, a ‘politically incorrect’ account of how she raised her daughters with a disciplinarian upbringing, Chinese style. And while it’s got Americans introspecting their parenting styles, Indian parents are using it to strengthen their own mission-mode upbringing of their kids. And that’s got me worried, because I was raised by a “Tiger Dad”.

We all turn into our parents as we grow older and I did too. So there I was, a ‘Tiger Mom’ pushing her kids to work towards A’s, play the guitar, tennis, golf and work at calligraphy and math. But I had not reckoned with the boys’ genes and their ‘Laidback Leo’ father. They had soon replaced my teeth with dentures!. ‘Laidback Leo’, loves, supports and does not judge- B’s and C’s are happily accepted and in fact the boys chide him for not having higher expectation of them. He is proud of their well-rounded personalities and their high emotional quotients (EQs). And the boys love him and would die for him.

When they were growing up, we dreaded PTAs where we got routinely pulled up for the boys’ “attitude” and pranks. But the same ‘attitude’ has helped them excel and adapt to situations, without, parental supervision even while kids raised by ‘Tiger’ parents have floundered. I constantly seek approval, while my boys have a self esteem, you cannot dent. The answer to Chua’s Battle Hymn should be the “Lullaby of the Laidback lion” –my spouse’s ‘politically correct’, account of parenting his progeny, American style. Childhood is a time of ‘nurture’ – why turn it into a ‘battle’?

Indian and Chinese kids grow up with such odds (we are 1 billion plus) that competition is built into their DNA. But it is perhaps incorrect, like Chua, to assume strength when children are fragile in every way. Let the fire in a child’s belly decide where he puts the bar. Would it be fair for a parent to place the bar and push until the child has fractured both legs trying to cross it?

‘Tiger Mom’ or ‘Laidback Lion’ – the jury’s still out. But history is witness that innovation and creativity can be stifled by too much discipline. Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Zuckerberg rejected degrees for creativity- a Chinese Mom would have coerced them into submission and insisted that they finish college, get their degree and put in some piano practice as well!