Battle Hymn of the Pussycat Mother

January 19th, 2011

I’m obsessed with Amy Chua

For those who haven’t seen a newspaper or a TV in the last couple of weeks, Amy Chua is the Yale law professor who’s written a book about her parenting experiences called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she contrasts her (as she labels it) Chinese-mother approach to child-rearing with the lax, “just try your best” western approach she sees all around her.  Her book has sparked a nationwide debate, as extremist attitudes toward mothering often do, and you can read article after article about it, so I’m not going to dissect it here.  But to pick out some salient points: she didn’t allow her kids to have playdates or sleepovers, she expected them to practice the piano or violin for three hours a day, she wouldn’t let them act in school plays (waste of time), and if they didn’t get straight A’s, she would criticize them and make them work harder until they did.

Chua’s book has fed into all my fears and insecurities.  My husband and I are not what you’d call strict parents.  We have a few definite rules, mostly about behavior, and have been adamant about those (e.g. no member of this family was ever allowed to hurt another.  Period.) but when it comes to things like grades and studying and music practice–all the stuff that Chua has drawn the line about with her own family–we tend to get a little  . . . you know . . . wishy-washy.

I’m very involved with my kids in some ways–I work at home so I’m always around, I’m the chauffeur, the cook, the laundress, the dishwasher, the social secretary, the question-answerer, etc–but I’m kind of lazy about a lot of things.  Like staying on top of the kids’ homework.  I basically feel like it’s their job, their problem.  I did homework when I went to school.  I don’t want to do theirs.  If they ask me for help, I’ll only help if it’s easy.  I’m happy to read an English essay and make some suggestions (many of which are usually ignored) but I usually can’t make heads or tails of the math and don’t really want to try.  And I’ve never made them redo things because the work isn’t satisfactory: I figure the teachers will tell them if it’s not.

As far as music practice goes . . .  I forget about it until after I’ve put the kids to bed.  I guess it’s just not on my mind.  Most nights, as a result, they don’t practice.  Which means they don’t improve very quickly. Which means sometimes they quit.  Same goes for sports: they don’t get a lot of practice at home, they don’t improve that much, they’re not naturally all that adept, so sooner or later they give them up.  I blame myself for letting them give up too easily.

The thing is, when your kid doesn’t have a natural drive to do something and all the driving force behind it has to be YOU . . . that’s where I fail.  You hear stories about kids who find an activity they love so much, you just have to get out of their way (Leonard Bernstein, I hear, was like that about playing the piano).  My kids aren’t like that.  And you hear about parents who get their kids to practice a sport or an instrument for so many hours a week starting at such a young age that the kid becomes amazing at it through sheer exposure.  I’m not like that.

So there’s not a lot of “outstanding” going on in my household.  But, god, I love my kids.  And I think they love me.  We have fun.  Sometimes we just sit around the table making each other laugh.  Sometimes we play games.  Sometimes we write snarky things on each other’s Facebook walls (something that would make Amy Chua shriek in horror, I suspect).  When we go on vacation together, we have a ball.  They’re not straight A students.  They’re not prodigies.  They’re not brilliant athletes or musicians.  They’re just really fun, nice people who enjoy doing stuff with their family.

Of course, that last part may be true about Chua’s kids too.  I hope for their sake it is.  I do envy her her certainty.  I’m filled with self-doubt.  I should have instilled a stronger work ethic when my kids were younger.  I should be pushing them harder now.  I should have started thinking about college when they were in grade school.

But some friend put it best: when a group of us were talking about Chua’s “tiger mother” parenting and wondering whether or not we should have been more like that when our kids were younger, he said, “But that’s just not who we are.  We couldn’t ever be like that.”

Am I a wishy-washy parent?  Yes.  Insecure and self-doubting?  Guilty.  Lazy, loving, and lax?  All of the above.  There isn’t a tigerish molecule in my body.  But I do like to curl up on the bed and watch TV or read a book with my kids, so you could argue I’d make a good housecat.

I’ll let you know in a few more decades how it’s all worked out.  Meanwhile I have to go pick my son up.  From his musical theater rehearsal.

  • Claudia Reilly says:

    There is no book I want to discuss in book club, or with other mothers, more than this book. The moment I hear someone mention this book, I run over to the person, eager to listen and talk and think.

    When I was a child, my mother believed in chores and kindness. My grades/sports/talents were up to me. Yet I met some kids (wealthier kids, ALWAYS WEALTHIER KIDS) starting in junior high whose parents cared about what their children DID. The parents drove the children to lessons, to sporting events. The parents were EXACTLY the way every parent is NOW only this was in the 1960s.

    When I was 12, I turned to my mom and said, “I read about a place called Hull House started by a lady named Jane Adams and they have a theatre class for teenagers. Could we go?” She said, “No,” but then she felt bad and dropped me off there. It was amazing and I loved it.

    So all my wisdom comes down to your line “when your kid doesn’t have a natural drive to do something and all the driving force behind it has to be YOU . . . that’s where I fail.” I agree with that line DEEPLY. It is what most informs me as a parent.

    I wait to let my child choose. And sometimes a sad day comes when the child says, “Mom, I hate that. I’m TERRIBLE at that. I’m sorry.” And we mourn together — mourn that the child hoped he might be good, mourn that I probably thought the child might be good, mourn how not everything goes right.

    One of my kids said to me recently, “Sometimes I can’t tell when you’re giving me advice and when you’re making me feel horrible.” And sometimes I don’t know either.

    And another child said, “I feel you love me more when I succeed. I feel you LONG to have a child succeed to make it worthwhile that you don’t work.” And I said, “Wow. You’re RIGHT. Ick. I better watch that.”

    But how wonderful we are all talking and thinking about this. How wonderful we are trying to figure out how much to push THEM and how much to push US. Part of me thinks maybe we need to push US. Amy Chua, maybe, should be practicing a musical instrument.

  • Claire says:

    I liked your whole comment, Claudia, but ESPECIALLY the last paragraph about pushing ourselves. I do think some people get so caught up in their kids’ success, they forget to invest anything in themselves. So it’s only about the next generation. But if each generation is only about the next one . . . I don’t get what the ultimate goal is.

  • I try desperately to reverse engineer things. I meet people I like, that I find interesting, who are doing things which seem fulfilling and important or expressive, and I try to find out how they were raised.

    So far the people who drove themselves are the ones I like more. The ones driven solely or mostly by their parents I like less or seem much less happy. I believe it is incredibly difficult to be supportive in the right measure and to allow your children to grow in the ways THEY need to grow. It feels like barreling down the I-10 at 110mph with your hand NEAR the steering wheel. But, if it is worth doing, it’s going to be difficult.

    Claire is WAY busier than most house cats I know. Her own cat would be disgusted with her. Where is the napping?

    For the record, I haven’t read the book and from what I understand from her backpedaling, she’s conflicted. And, in the end, her younger daughter won a decisive battle. Not to spoil the book for you.

  • Julie Winn says:

    And you’ve written *how* many books in that time? That’s one hardworking pussycat.

    As for Amy Chua’s tiger-driven kids versus your happy ones, remember what Zhou Enlai said when asked about the French Revolution? “It’s too soon to say.”

  • Katherine says:

    I enjoyed reading this.

    This topic is an endless conversation. Everyone is wired differently and some will do great on their own and others need to really be pushed. I think what matters most is the environment. A loving, fun, nurturing, supportive, and engaging one. But the ultimate goal in the end is happiness, right? I think even tigers are nurturing and loving to their young. This lady just sounds like she has issues to me and I think now she is saying she was just “self mocking and irionic” in her book.

    And Claudia, You wrote a blog in a blog.

  • Claire says:

    I agree with everything everyone wrote. Who knows which way happiness lies for our kids? We have to do our best and simply encourage them. Maybe a healthy dose of uncertainty and insecurity is the best trait for a parent because it keeps you from being doctrinaire and allows you to change for each child and be open to what works for him.

  • Kristin says:

    I have such strong opinions about this as well, and really related to your blog, Claire, except for 1 comment. “The thing is, when your kid doesn’t have a natural drive to do something and all the driving force behind it has to be YOU . . . that’s where I fail”. You DON’T fail, Claire, you are respectful of who your children are.

    I played soccer from a very young age. I discovered I was good at it and played it competitively. My parents did not make me practice at home, I was the one who chose to go kick a ball by myself most afternoons or find a friend to play with. They only encouraged me when I told them I wanted to play on a more competitive level, and I am happy it was that way b/c I feel like soccer was MY thing. I don’t think I would have kept playing if they pushed me, and if I did, I think I would have resented them on some level. I strongly believe that it is a mistake to push a child to play a sport/ instrument/ take up art, etc. any more than to introduce them to the experience. If the child decides it is a passion, they will take the initiative to continue to pursue it.

    My older son is 7. I would have loved for him to play soccer. He tried it, and he is pretty good, but doesn’t love it. However, he loves to run. LOVES it. We go for a walk in the woods and it turns into a 2 mile run. It makes him who he is. Instead of forcing him to play soccer in the Spring, I’m going to let him loose on a high school track somewhere and just watch the smile on his face as he passes me each time.

    Claire, when my kids are a little older , I pray that I have the same sort of relationship with them that you described having with yours , because it sounds like you have an incredibly happy, healthy family life.

  • Colin says:

    My younger son, 12: “Sometimes I think a parent might want their child to be like they were, to do the things they did. That’s wrong to do. The kid shouldn’t have to be someone else.”

    Ah. Wisdom.

  • Claire says:

    Kristin, having your kids find something they love to do and go all-out when they do it . . . that’s the goal to me. That seems to me a more important indicator of lifelong happiness than anything else.

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