Battle Hymn of the Pussycat Mother

January 20th, 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.