Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Battle Hymn of a Rabbit Mother

The other day Emma and I were driving to gymnastics, our new Saturday ritual. I decided to schedule this activity on Saturdays instead of a weekday so as not to have to haul two extra kids to the gymnastics place once a week. I love this arrangement. It allows for Emma and me to have some one-on-one time together (a hard thing to come by in our family of five), and I can sit and really focus on watching her gymnastics class/read a book/zone out rather than corralling two younger children for an hour.

We were stopped at a red light on the way to gymnastics when Emma asked me apropos of nothing, "Mommy, what's a tiger mother?"

I laughed and tried my best to explain what a tiger mother was without totally freaking her out. I told her I was born in the year of the rabbit and was therefore not a tiger mother.

For those of you who don't know about the book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it's a memoir of sorts about one mother's experience with raising kids the "Chinese way." Here's an excerpt from the Wall Street Journal piece by Chua detailing what Chinese children are not allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

The gym where Emma takes gymnastics is like a three-ring circus. There's Emma's "level 2" class, which is learning how to do cartwheels, how to walk backwards on the balance beam. Meanwhile the girls on the gymnastics team are practicing their floor routines, flipping their bodies powerfully across the big blue square in the middle of the gym. Another class practices the vault, another the uneven bars. You can see the evolution of how a donkey kick leads to a handstand, which leads to a handspring, which leads to a standing front flip. It's rare to see such a vivid example of how hard work and practice (and a touch of talent) can pay off.

Watching the class, I'm reminded of what the Tiger Mother said in her article: "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up."

In the car on the way to gymnastics Emma told me she doesn't want to continue to level 3 gymnastics. She thinks it's too hard and she's not "good" at it. She has said similar things about soccer and ballet and we didn't continue with those activities. Since Chua's article was fresh in my mind, I reacted more like a tiger and less like a rabbit. I told her that she was going to stick with gymnastics, that she hadn't given it enough time to be good at it. That things that are worth having sometimes take hard work and practice. "Things are always hardest at the beginning," I said, channeling Chua.

Chua has gotten lots of flack for her book and Wall Street Journal piece. I completely agree with her critics who find her parenting "strategies" borderline abusive. She calls her girls "garbage" and "lazy" if they disrespect her or do not get straight A-pluses in school. She threatens to give away her little girl's dollhouse piece by piece if she doesn't perfect her piano piece. She's extremely hardcore.

It's a shame, though, that these sensational details get most of the press when a lot of what Chua is saying about the "Western" parenting style is valid. We do quit too easily. We place so much stock in our children's self-esteem that we treat them like these privileged, fragile little deities. We worship their accomplishments to such a degree that they are growing up with nothing to shoot for, nothing to work for. If they aren't enjoying themselves, then we scurry to make things more entertaining, more palatable for them. I know not all "Western" parents are guilty of this, but a lot of us are, me most certainly included.

Is there a happy medium? Some sweet spot somewhere between calling your child garbage if she brings home an A- and praising the crap out of her all the time? I'm still working this out in my head. I'm starting by not letting Emma give up on gymnastics so quickly. I'm also starting to work with my kids on their math skills more at home. We've always focused on reading together because I am a reader and it's just something I enjoy doing with them. I have never placed much emphasis on math, though, and I'm trying to change this. I am not calling them lazy or garbage while we work on our addition and subtraction, rest assured. We are making it fun, and they are actually enjoying themselves, although that is not the point. The point is getting better at math. If it happens to be fun, then that's just a bonus. I am incrementally trying to raise the bar a little bit, to give my kids something higher to shoot for.

Try as I might to be a tiger mom, I will always be a rabbit. I am a softy, too sensitive for my own good. It's my nature to swaddle my kids with kind, encouraging words, protect them from anything uncomfortable or difficult. I want their lives to be easy and fun. But I now see that there is an unintentional consequence to this kind of mothering. If they are never forced to work for their achievements, how will they ever develop self-discipline, stamina or a work ethic? If life is presented to them as easy and fun-centered, how disappointed and ill-equipped will they be when they find out that life is not like this at all?

When I told Emma she was not quitting gymnastics so easily, she didn't question me. She almost seemed relieved to have this particular issue off the table. It must be exhausting being a "Western" kid sometimes--so much depends upon your happiness. It must be a relief to discover you're not the center of the universe, unless of course you discover it too late.


Susan said...

It's rather refreshing to read some commentary on a parenting book that isn't scathing. I enjoy hearing about different parenting philosophies as I travel down this road and consider my own actions. There is no 'one way' to doing this.

Bizarrely, I push my middle child more than her brothers for no obvious reason.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Susan! Thanks for your comment. Don't you think it's because she's a girl that you push her? She's more of a reflection of you in a way, and you push yourself and demand excellence of yourself. I don't know many women who have managed to be fabulous mothers and gotten their law degrees simultaneously. You ask a lot of yourself and have high expectations of your kids. I think she will thank you for it one day. If nothing else, you are giving her a great example of womanhood/motherhood to live up to.