Thursday, January 27, 2011

De-clawing the Tiger Mother (or A Fitting End to the Chinese Year of the Tiger)

I considered leaving Professor Amy Chua alone. After all, her recently published bestseller, Battle Hymn to a Tiger Mother, has provoked an endless number of responses in the form of articles, blogs, reviews and round table discussions and it's just quite possible we've read enough. But the temptation to respond to her particularly scorching style of mothering is too great to pass up. After all, I too am a mother, a writer, a professional and a highly educated woman with great aspirations for my children. Therefore the question is: Where do I stand on the issue of tiger mothering?

First of all, I'm a bit bothered by the "tiger" label. Chua's style of mothering seems far more "dragon-like". Her tirades, noted graphically in her book, currently #5 on the New York Times bestseller list, evoke images of the fire-breathing Hungarian Horntail dragon taken on by Harry Potter in his quest to win the Triwizard Match. Not that there's anything wrong with being a dragon mommy every now and then--especially those mornings when the clock is tick-tick-ticking and absolutely no one is moving an inch. Typical scenarios include my ten year old daughter, standing in front of the mirror, brushing her hair for such a long time that there is no hope she'll move on to her teeth and my fourteen year old son still in bed, 10 minutes before the bus pickup time, suggesting that his older brother (always dressed, ready and looking innocent) super glued him there. Although fairly random, all of the aforementioned examples end with the entrance of Dragon Mommy. Just ask those in the know.  

Professor Chua, however, takes the cake in this department. Her punishing brand of mothering goes beyond all limits, not because of its severity (no sleepovers, no computer, no television, no play dates, public shaming, insults…just to name a few regulations on her docket) but because it is based on the belief that, in her words, "academic achievement reflects successful parenting." Her book clarifies that when children do not excel there is "a problem" and parents are "not doing their job." Having been raised within a Quaker school system where competition, albeit existent, was seriously downplayed, the thought of punishing or even scolding my children for not getting a high enough grade on a test, or not performing to perfection, is unthinkable. That doesn't mean that I don't let them know when I'm disappointed, but this reaction would come from my perception that they didn't try hard enough, never from an expectation that they should have gotten a better grade.  
There's no question that sometimes I feel I've swung way too far over and become a Cub Mother--gently nudging my children in the right direction, hoping that they'll find their way to achievement by both caring about their work and trying to do the best they can. Although this makes me sound somewhat irresolute, I stand behind the conviction that success (academic, personal or athletic) is something that no outside source (parent, teacher, or school) can determine for them. Insisting children do well seems to me a form of intimidation that I have always hoped to keep out of parenting.  After all, who determined that they must do well? And if they don't do well on an eighth grade science test, for example, does that mean that there's no hope for future success? Does achieving "all A's" in school assure later happiness and career fulfillment? We all know personal examples that disprove these assumptions.

I actually like the Cub mother concept--it seems gentle but firm. It also suits me a bit more than the Mouse Mama designation that my friend Sarah (also responding to the hoo-hah over Chua's book) assigned to herself this week--aspiring mostly to be the "good-enough-parent-most-of–the time" variety. Knowing this particular mother I can state that this description definitely sells her short and I invite her to join me in the cub mothering category. But Professor Chua would scoff at both of our labels and just throw us in the bin with those, so-called, Disney moms. Her description of Western mothers as soft, overly-accepting, too interested in feelings and basically wishy-washy, is simply insulting. At least in my case, there are absolutely no little animated bluebirds fluttering around my head and no nauseating little tunes accompanying me on my merry way as I negotiate three children, a husband and a dog through a typical day. I am not overly sweet, nor so focused on my children's happiness that I quietly accept their average achievement. I am not a pushover and I make a lot of decisions in the house that my children resent. I am not trying to win a popularity contest--just ask my son Daniel who is currently being weaned from his computer! I'm sure that he could come up with a few choice expletives to describe his mommy this week if given the opportunity. That being said, I much prefer the situation where my children actually "like" me and think I'm on their side, to that where I assume the role of the mean ruler cracking the whip.

Unlike the Tiger Mom, who has mainly professed interest in results, in what happens at the end, I am interested in the process of getting to those results. Standing over my kids with a sledgehammer (and considering what I've read about Professor Chua this isn't entirely beyond the realm of imagination) just doesn't seem right (not to mention legal). Her style of mothering, so publicly aired, has brought back a lot of memories for those of us who well remember Mommie Dearest. The terror Joan Crawford waged on her daughter, exposed in Christina's written memoir (also a bestseller) and eventually a juicy film, is not something easily forgotten—especially as I still use wire hangers!  So, without beating a dead horse, although there was apparently a real chance of Chua doing the same to her dog when it didn't perform up to expectations, I will stand by my choice not to punish for coming up short; not to berate for failing to be the top of the class; for eventually letting it go when one of my kid's performance is just…."mediocre". At the end of the road I want them to learn to find their own way to success and the consequent satisfaction that comes with that.

Authoress and mother of four Ayelet Waldman addressed exactly this missing aspect of Chua's methods in an article in the Wall Street Journal titled, "In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom." Writing in great admiration of her daughter's battle with dyslexia, Waldman marveled how "She climbed the mountain alone, motivated not by fear or shame of dishonoring her parents but by her passionate desire to read. She did it herself, without us, and it is no exaggeration to say that we were and remain stunned with pride." The fact that the impetus for her daughter's effort, travails and eventual accomplishment came from within herself, cannot be overstated. I am currently experiencing something similar as my elder son, a greatly gifted child who wallowed for years within the Israeli school system as a "B" student, has begun to realize, capitalize on, and fulfill his own potential—not only achieving excellence but, more significantly, truly understanding his abilities. Goals, desires and interests cannot be foisted upon us by someone else. Within this premise, the process of growing into one's own skin, nudged along in the right direction here and there by, shall I suggest, a cub mother, is just as important as the prizes one gains along the way. How can we expect our children to fulfill their own potential if they're busy satisfying ours?

David Brooks takes on another lacuna within Chua's mothering head-on in a New York Times Op-Ed provocatively titled "Amy Chua is a Wimp." Smashing to pieces her focus on academic achievement at the expense of all social activity, he berates her for protecting her children from these equally intellectually demanding activities and for misunderstanding what's cognitively difficult and what isn't. "Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention," he writes, "but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale."

In a previous piece I took a crack at Chua's ban on all forms of outside entertainment, distractions from the march to success that would not be tolerated. But even then I admitted to some measure of envy—not so much for the accomplishments of her children as for her belief in her methodology. Chua's book exudes self-confidence. She knows what she's doing. Her choice to be known as a Tiger Mother is meant to reflect all the power, strength and force associated with this animal in Chinese culture. I, on the other hand, inch my way forward day after day; hesitating, lunging, stepping back, and then diving into the frigid water in a kind of drunk, parenting dance. What I wouldn't give to just plow forward, head held high, eyes on the prize, confident that every move was the right one! Unfortunately part of parenting is not having all of the answers. In fact, it's mostly about learning as you go along, exploring the possibilities along with your children, and receiving enormous satisfaction when you hit the bull's-eye. And what exactly is the definition of "bull's-eye"? Well, this wishy-washy Western mother wouldn't dare to try to define that for any other.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rules of Engagement

A friend of mine recently posted a photograph of her 15 year old son sitting at the table reading the newspaper. In the caption she expressed pride at seeing her son as an "engaged citizen". As my own 15 year old had recently requested a subscription to the paper in order to read it on the school bus (we've gone green and stopped buying the "paper" version), I silently affirmed my own efforts at raising my child's awareness of the world around him. Engaged, interested, aware and informed, maybe there was a chance he would actually do his part where he felt it might count.  In response to my friend's photograph I commented that this generation was now taking the reins. Wasn't this about all we could hope for? 

With so much senseless violence and tragedy in the world it has always seemed questionable to give children access to the news.  How many times have I asked my husband to turn down the volume on the evening bulletin (to which he is professionally addicted) or actually thrown myself in front of the screen when a particularly disturbing item is broadcast? But despite my efforts, the world has a way of working itself in and asserting itself. It will be heard and seen and known.  

I stopped shielding my children from frightening pictures somewhere around the time they passed into their teens. The reality is that the world is very frightening; that things happen; that it isn't all one big fairy tale. In fact, any effort I have made to protect them has been continually thwarted by local tragedies including several fatal accidents and bouts of illness, resulting in the passing of several mothers, fathers, a loving coach and even a classmate. Despite the picture perfect reality of the "bubble" community in which we live, with not one traffic light and no poverty, my children know that "stuff happens" and have had to deal with situations of great sadness--all at a very young age. 

Recently we hosted a 7 year old cousin. This little boy was thrilled when offered the chance to watch his 14 year old cousin (my son) play a computer game. His mother looked at me with concern as he ran towards Daniel's bedroom and I, jokingly, guaranteed her there would be no blood; well, virtually no blood or rather, only virtual blood. This prompted a discussion about whether parents needed, or even should, shield their children from the ugly and violent aspects of life. While the bar for a 7 year old is not the same as a 14 year old, I professed the view that it was not healthy to pretend that the world was entirely rosy. Furthermore, teaching children the difference between the worlds they could manipulate and control within the screen, and the one they had absolutely no control of outside of the screen, was equally valuable. Finally, I admitted that although I had unwittingly bought my elder son a totally inappropriate computer game many years ago (namely: Grand Theft Auto), I'd since seen no specific signs of latent violence or vulgarity.

There is no question that the wealth of information available to this generation through access to the media can be daunting. But isn't our job as parents to educate our children to make the right decisions regarding what they do look at and what they don't? I don't believe that children seek imagery which they find too difficult to handle. Many years ago a child at school passed a pornographic website to my fourth grade son. When I discovered what had happened and asked him to tell me about it, he professed that after one cursory glance he had closed the "window". He had found it frightening and didn't want to see more. And one year ago, while watching a PG movie with a light kissing scene, my daughter tightly squeezed her fists over her eyes and turned completely around on the couch. She wasn't ready.

An open discussion in the New York Times this week focused on the extremely controversial parenting methods of Yale Law Professor Anne Chua. As noted in the Wall Street Journal excerpt of her new book, Chua ascribes to a draconic method of totalitarian parenting which she attributes to, and defends by, her Chinese background. Without going into the many concerns I have with her mothering techniques, some of which I find appalling and some of which I envy, I take major issue with the manner in which she purposefully denies her daughters access to the world.  This is expressed in her no media policy (absolutely no television or internet) and by forbidding them to attend sleepovers (because we all know what goes on there!)  Contributing to the discussion in the Times, novelist Karen Karbo commented that the prohibition of all access to media noted in Chua's methods "presumes that we can prevent our kids from hurt, harm and disappointment. It's a fantasy of control and protection in times that seem out of control and scary."

Since we can't entirely protect our children from the evils of life, perhaps it's our duty to expose them to them in a calculated way, including being there to discuss their reactions. I still remember sitting with my six year old son watching the twin towers fall again and again and again. This was history. This was shocking. This was as almost as evil as it gets. But he was going to hear about it anyway, and everywhere. I felt comfortable being the one to try to explain the unexplainable and more importantly, convey both my opinion of hate and my methods of coping.

While to be honest we know nothing regarding whether or not Professor Chua censors her children's exposure to world events, her methods definitely indicate that she finds them a distraction. And yes, what happens around us can upset or thrill us enough to pull us off our game--but that is very much what life is about. Maybe in an ideal world we could shut out much of the bad, but I think it's preferable to learn how to handle it. Violent and troublesome imagery has, for centuries, reigned supreme within officially sponsored works of art. Bloody wars have been documented in the name of memorializing the men lost while glorifying kingdoms; the vicious acts of the Greek gods have been depicted in the name of enlightening us to the potential for evil provoked by petty jealousy that lurks within all creatures, great and small; and imagery of natural disasters, wherein innocents have lost their lives, including devastating floods from biblical times, has been considered educational, exemplifying man's helplessness in the face of nature.

The tragic death of nine year old Christina Taylor Green in Tucson last week made it crushingly clear that evil will have its day. Here was a young person who wanted to be part of the world around her; to engage. This effort ended in the loss of life; and in this case the loss of a child who had been born on the day of one of the greatest evils of our generation: 09/11/2001. Yet our sadness at her passing will forever be accompanied by our communal pride in her desire to be a part of the greater world. If we don't allow our children the chance to step out of their boxes, to look around at what's happening to other people in other places, what chance do they have to actually appreciate what they have? Engagement is simply part of what living is all about.

A few days ago my younger son, the one who had potentially "corrupted" our 7 year old cousin by exposing him to his very own "World of Warcraft" (so terrifyingly named), mentioned pictures of flooding and destruction he'd seen in the newspaper his brother had handed over to him on the bus. This prompted a discussion about global warming and the dangers of something as seemingly simple, and much prayed for here in Israel, as a heavy rain. Together we sat before the computer screen and looked at both photographs and video footage documenting what happened in Australia just a day earlier. Maybe spoon-feeding our children bits and pieces of what goes on outside our sunny paradises, helping them to take a good healthy peek at the media, is the best way to keep this next generation in the loop--but not overwhelmed. In a world where the evil witch sometimes manages to wreck havoc upon our fairy tale lives there is much sense in the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared.   

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Window of the Soul

There is only one proven way to stop time, and it's not through Botox injections, plastic surgery or an intense exercise regime. The only means to really stop time—albeit for only a second—is to take a photograph.  This week tragedy struck in our community. A young man my son Noah's age passed away quite suddenly from complications of flu. Those who had seen him only a few days earlier in school and those who hadn't seen him for a long time began a desperate search to find him in old photographs. All sought documentation of how he looked last week and how he had looked as a child growing up; any documentation that he had been here… because now he was gone.

I also searched for images of this lost child within the massive photo bank I have amassed over the years. I've always been an historian, always had a fascination for looking back and seeing what was, but my own search led me to think about the importance of photography for this generation and its consequent obsession with it.  I remember learning how to wind the film into the spool of my first little Brownie camera, working in a darkroom, hanging negatives up on a line and waiting for the image to appear within a shallow pail of solution. There it was, the person or the object I had photographed, captured right there on the two –dimensional paper. No one could take it from me. The subject I had photographed was now mine.

Our desire to actually possess the objects we choose to capture within the lens, immediately, has encouraged the seemingly- lightning development of the industry. First there were Polaroid cameras; what fun it was to watch these instant records appear before our eyes seconds after clicking a button. I still laugh every time I think of Rose Teplitsky, an older woman from Miami who was part of the group my family travelled to Russia with in 1974. She would snap her Polaroid camera and out would pop the photograph, into the frozen air, hesitating one moment before flipping over and fluttering into a bank of snow. Wet and frosty, there was still a viable record of that one moment. 

Digital photography has one-upped Polaroids by providing us with virtually instant, but now high-quality, documentation. Answering our mania for immediacy we can now take a picture, download it and print it up within approximately two minutes. With virtually no need to go to the local photo shop most of those businesses have closed up. In fact, last week, on the final day of 2010, Kodachrome officially developed the very last roll of its once revolutionary color reversal film. Try to remember the last time you bought a roll of film.

Although the patience to wait for our photographs to be developed is gone, the need to record every breathing moment has been accelerated. Part of this is a direct response to our ability, not only to capture, but also to recover these records so easily. Social networks and the internet have done much to enable our search deep into our past, as well as that of others. I don't believe I'm the only one to have searched for an image of a former classmate or boyfriend.  But this interest is not a product of our generation.  In fact, for centuries kings and queens have had their portraits painted specifically to leave behind a record for posterity; to remind us that they were here. Those left to us, which fill museums around the world, attest to the endless desire both to document and to be documented.

How interesting that as the development of modern photography in the early 19th century began to offer a way to capture appearances with actual verisimilitude, artists began to create more expressive, painted versions.  My present research into the life of a Jewish School of Paris artist has led me to a body of exemplary expressive portraiture.  J.D. Kirszenbaum's (1900-1954) oeuvre is filled with nostalgic imagery of figures he knew in the shtetl who were no longer with him.  His subjects are distinguished by their eyes: exaggerated in size, delineated by endless circling lines and blacker than black. The artist's articulation of these traditional windows of the soul captures a sense of both tragedy and loss. In the end it is the viewer's gaze into the eyes of these individuals that completes the artist's mission.

There is a magnetic attraction to the imagery of those who have left us--attesting to the indelible mark they have left behind. Does anyone tire of looking at photographs of Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana? Simple snapshots can offer us a way to visually affirm that someone was here--that they are remembered--and that they will be missed; each image offering a bit of solace, along with a great deal of sadness. What don't we read into those eyes? Since there is no way to turn back the clock, and every click of the camera means that one more second has passed, we have no choice but to make every moment a Kodak moment.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Daddy dearest

I was mortally offended, just last month, when my elder son stated that he wanted his father to accompany him to the next parents' day. This request was especially exasperating as it came immediately after I'd endured yet one more of those exhausting afternoons at the high school, trudging back and forth from one teacher to another, each child averaging eight. Was the reward I had received for suffering that biannual event to be requested to step aside next time around? Now, for the record, I have dutifully attended parent-teacher meetings on my own, for as long as I can remember. Not once, during this time, has my husband come to talk to any of the kids' teachers. I'm not looking for a prize but I do want it duly noted that I'm the one doing all of the work. In my husband's defense I must admit that I've never asked him to come—just one example of how I've occupied so much of the space which counts as "parenting" in our house that very little is left for the taking. The assumption of virtually every possible task and role is an indication of either my need to control, my eternal effort to be Super Mom or maybe just a vestige of how I was raised.

I distinctly remember spending a lot of time with my mother growing up. In fact, I really don't remember spending very much time without her. Besides a lot of mundane memories of everyday life within our house I have especially warm ones of those moments which I now recognize, having become a mother myself, exhibited her devotion. They include cozying up in bed together at night to read one classic or another—the last I remember was Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy so I must have been in my early teens—as well as her attendance at all of my sporting events (to this day for the record!) and every school concert. If I was on stage my mother was there to see it!

My father came home fairly late in the evening so his role in parenting me was far more limited. Nevertheless, when I needed to get somewhere, whether to school (every morning) or to just about any place over the weekend, my dad stepped in. As a bonus, this trusty chauffeur usually joined us for dinner. A by-product of the limited time available to us was the creation of special father-daughter time. This hour or two a week was so sacred we even had a special name for it (not to be revealed here!). Amongst my favorite memories are those Saturday afternoons at Madray's Delicatessen in Lafayette Hill where I ordered a grilled cheese and black and white milkshake (chocolate and vanilla mixed for those not in the "know") and we hung out in our booth.

Within this equation time with dad was almost consistently "special" and time with mom….well….it just "was". I figure this is the same in many households. Somewhere along the way moms have been counted out of sharing the designation of "special". Their relationship with their children is just assumed: a fact of life not demanding any definition, let alone celebration. As the mother of three negotiating my place within the parenting parabola, I constantly check out that of my husband. My conclusion is that, by perpetuating the imbalance I knew growing up, I've basically paved the way for his elite status!
Although I know it's not the case for everyone, due to the flexibility of my own work and the lesser flexibility of my husband's, I'm the one left to handle most of the mundane, everyday activities--towing the children from place to place, making sure they do their homework and basically taking care of their every need. I have no issue with this division of labor in most cases (I already admitted to being a control freak), but it has clearly led to his having a more unique, untainted, and almost gleeful relationship with the kids. And it is this that I find quite irritating. I've recently noticed that my teenage sons will do just about anything to get their father's attention. Night after night they hurl themselves in front of his face, engaging him in inane conversations, while little old me is right here, relatively ignored. "What about old Mother Hubbard?" Even more annoying is the fact that those 10 minutes spent with their father are filled with laughter, giggles and smiles while my 410 minutes consist primarily of grunts, whining, frowns or just plain silence!!!

A particularly inspiring program acknowledging the significance of fathers has inmates, within the New York Correctional Services, recording themselves reading books aloud so that their children at home will be able to benefit from this form of intimate, albeit distant, contact. The New York Times quoted one man's heart-felt message to his child, "When you hear my voice, remember that daddy is there with you." While I have never questioned the significance of the father figure, or to be more politically sensitive, second parent, in any child's life, I have wondered about their role as nurturers. Yet the new alignment of loyalties expressed by all three of my children indicates that despite my efforts to overwhelm them with mothering, their father still plays an enormous role in their lives. (I guess I haven't done a good enough job filling all those tiny cracks!) And despite my grumbling (especially when faced with the various crises that arise when one parent is trying to juggle too many responsibilities alone), my husband dutifully fulfills every task I lay before him, picking up the pieces here and there--those tiny slivers of opportunity I've left available.

Accordingly, instead of returning to the same, pointless, New Year's resolution to stop yelling in 2011 (that one's been around the block WAY too many times), I now resolve to move over and allow my partner to participate in all this parenting fun (hardy ho). I'm very curious to see if this will gain him the status of "empty space" verging on "Mommie Dearest" (for those that remember that scathing depiction of motherhood) it has achieved for me. Beneficent to a degree, I also admit that I cannot wait to see just how he negotiates the nightmare of parents' day he's signed on for this coming Spring!