Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Of big cat mothers and dental dissolver cereals

The public loves to hate an over achiever, and Amy Chua, "Tiger Mom" and media darling of the week, is no exception.

I'm going to swim upstream and say, I kind of like her.

First of all, she's smart. She's written a timely book, created a swirl of attention for herself and rocketed to fifth position on the NYT Bestseller List - no mean feat. But she's more than smart; Ms. Chua has the kind of drive that commands respect, at least from me. Not just drive to sell books, but drive to make her children's success the main thing in her family's life.

Her whole life, and indeed that of their entire family, revolves around raising academically and musically accomplished children. I don't possess the self-discipline to emulate her, and I'm not sure I'd want to, although some aspects of her approach make a lot of sense.

Boiled to its essence, her premise seems to be: hard work and dedication will pay off. Hardly a revolutionary idea, but nonetheless a refreshing concept in this age of everyone-gets-a-trophy. Maybe those children who dedicate more time and effort should reap bigger rewards. Or are we raising a generation of kids who won't bother to pull their weight on group projects or in team contests? Because, really, why should they exert themselves, if all the credit derives from simply showing up?

I also wonder if she'd receive the same volume of hate mail if she was pushing scholar/athletes as opposed to scholar/musicians? Our society has a long history of admiring young elite athletes, and by extension the parents who borrow money for private tutors and relocate their families so the kiddo can train. Would Ms. Chua have sparked equivalent vitriol if she had rearranged her family life so her younger daughter could hit tennis balls for six hours a day?

There's no way to know for certain, of course, but I suspect not. Which leads me to another thing I like about her: she's not bending her values to secure public approval. In her culture, musical education garners more prestige than athleticism. Fine. Hate her for that, but then you should also despise the man who forces his son to play baseball because that's what he did growing up, even though the lad would prefer cello, track or gymnastics.

What I do find surprising about Ms. Chua is that she had such a tough time realizing her children could cultivate more than one extra-academic interest.

And not give up all hope of admission to an Ivy League school in the process.

It's been interesting to watch hordes of parents who claim to arrange their lives around their children's needs and future prospects tear into Ms. Chua. Isn't she doing the same thing, albeit in a more absolute fashion? Really, she's a Martyr Mom on steroids, and that's where she loses me.

I've written frequently in this space about my belief that parents need to have lives and interests of their own. Ms. Chua's brand of parenting leaves little time for that. No play dates for the kids means no time for the moms to visit while their tots run around. Hours of homework and extra academic enrichment every night leaves no time for more "frivolous" entertainment oriented outings. Time spent at the piano equals time locked indoors, which I don't happen to believe is healthy.

And all children simply won't make straight A's in a non-grade-inflated environment, no matter how much they study. I can promise you that China has its fair share of average students, too. Perhaps Ms. Chua, with her insistence on perfect marks, merely meant that standards in her children's schools were too low - a sadly common phenomenon in this part of the world.

You need only look around a park, restaurant or shopping center and see that standards for behavior have slipped as well. Yet, notwithstanding the one meltdown by her teenage daughter recounted in a widely reprinted excerpt of the book, it sounds like Ms. Chua has raised immaculately behaved children. How? By making it clear - early and often- that some things are just plain unacceptable.

I cannot imagine Ms. Chua negotiating in a saccharin voice with a pre-schooler who had thrown himself on the floor of the cereal aisle in a full blown tantrum over Candy Coated Dental Dissolver Cereal.

I saw this exact incident just the other day in our local supermarket. The child, who looked about four years old, hurled himself on the floor of the store and howled like a possessed monkey. He kicked and bit when his mom tried to pick him up. She pleaded with him in a high pitched whine to please, please stop. Eventually she gave in, placed the cereal in her cart and actually - I swear I am not making this up - praised the kid for ceasing the tantrum.

Score one for the brat.

I felt like marching over to the woman and telling her to get down on his level, look him in the eye and tell him to knock it off in a voice that left no doubt she meant business. Because it seemed so obvious that her abdication of parental oversight wasn't doing the child any major favors.

Which ultimately is what Ms. Chua's Tiger Mom schtick is all about.

1 comment:

  1. One of my regular readers pointed out (rightly) that berating kids isn't all that cool. I agree, absolutely, if we're talking about little ones.

    Teenagers who don't bother to make an effort are in my view, a whole different story.

    Example: If a high schooler, out of laziness, produces a paper that truly is garbage, maybe it's on the parents to provide a blunt wake up call.