Monday, January 24, 2011

Tigers and Greyhounds

I have struggled over whether to comment on Amy Chua's new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. For one thing, I haven't read the book and don't intend to, so I'm unqualified to critique it. Secondly, I consider the book a wily and successful marketing ploy that plays into a stereotype (those Asian parents are crazily pushing their kids and all the rest of us should be afraid and defensive) and does so in extremely provocative terms.

On the other hand, I'm married to a Chinese-American man and I expect high achievement from my children, so I want to comment. First, it's remarkable how anxious today's upper middle class parents are about their children's success. Our parents wanted us to do well, but didn't spend time fussing, as I've heard parents in my neighborhood do, about their kids will earn enough to buy a house in the same town where they grew up. (Is this the children's major aspiration? To re-create their parents' lifestyle? The question doesn't come up.)

Second, it's remarkable how our anxiety tends to focus on external validation and money. Apparently, getting into good colleges/medical schools/graduate schools/law schools and earning a bundle is how our children can demonstrate that they've grown up right.

I believe it's misplaced anxiety that's propelling the success of Tiger Mother. We don't want to be utterly pushy and controlling, but we're anxious and defensive about the notion that we might not be doing our best. Therefore we all want to talk about it a lot.

So here are my confessions of a - hmm, not a tiger mom, not exactly a pussycat, but perhaps something in between, a bobcat.

I try to make my children practice their instruments, but most of them ignore me: they've quit flute, violin, and trombone. Two or three still play a bit of piano just for fun, a couple strum a guitar, and three get a lot of joy out of singing.

I visited my daughter's third grade teacher, who had placed my daughter in middle instead of high math. I asked the school to give her a try in high math, where she thrived, until in 11th grade she told me she wanted to drop down a level. Agaisnt my better nature I made mean and sarcastic comments, but she dropped down a level, aced her courses, got into the college of her choice, and got top marks in college math.

My kids have all played sports. They've gone to sleepovers and been exhausted wrecks for the rest of the weekend.

Late in high school, my son was playing a lot of World of Warcraft online with two friends late at night. One mom sent an email to the other two of us asking if we thought it was time to intervene and require them to cut back. To my surprise, the second mother (Yale, Chinese American, insisted her kids practice their classical instruments instead of playing team sports) said she thought their playing was fine. The boys were getting A's in challenging classes, they were steeped in extracurricular activities, they were polite and connected to their families, they had friends, and they deserved a little down time. I agreed.

One more anecdote, to show that craziness about our children getting ahead is not limited to Asian families. Years ago, Leo and I took our then three kids to a dude ranch in Wyoming. The place was family-friendly, even offering babysitting for small children. Among the couples we met there was a pair of lawyers from Las Vegas who had a three-year-old daughter. When the mother found out I was involved with education reform, she regaled me with tales of the "Teach Your Baby to Read" system, which she used with her daughter. The daughter was reading at three, and the mother had brought along the training materials so her daughter could continue work with the babysitter while her parents rode. Currently the little girl was memorizing the names of all the national parks in America.

We rode together for a couple of days, but then the mother stopped going out. She had discovered that the hired babysitter wasn't following the program closely enough. Rather than let her daughter waste a few days of advancement, this mothergave up the rest of her vacation to go back to the carefully scripted tutoring system.

I asked the mother what came next, when her daughter entered school. She told me she expected the child would be able to accelerate and enter college early. "She'll have her Master's degree by twenty-one!" she told me triumphantly. But later, when I pointed the child out to Leo, saying, "See how that child reads!" the inadequate babysitter, overhearing, said, "Yes, but she doesn't know how to play."

My kids mastered reading at five, six, and yes, at almost three (untutored). All of them know how to play. The truth is, life is long and full of ups and down, but playing brings joy. Greyhound pups, bobcat cubs, and even tiger cubs need to play.

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