Where the inside of my mind leaks onto the screen.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tiger Mom

** Be forewarned - the following blog reads a lot like one of my college papers and is nearly as long.  I'm not quite sure why that happened, so read at your own risk!

Remember how I said I was going to be reading every issue of Time Magazine this year?  Well, it is now March 10th, and I'm still on the January 31st issue, but hey... I'm plugging away.

This issue was a special report on "Tiger Moms," inspired by a controversial memoir written by Amy Chua about the style of parenting she used to rear her two daughters.  If, like me, this term is new to you, here's a quick definition:

Tiger mothers are strict parents who demand excellence in academics from their children.  In her book, Chua states that, "The Tiger, the living symbol of strength and power, generally inspires fear and respect."

What started off as, "Man that lady is crazy," quickly turned into, "Wait a minute... I think I was raised by a tiger mom," and finally morphed into, "Yep, I believe in most of this stuff and that is the way I parent."

The controversial stuff, like calling her daughter "garbage," rejecting a hastily drawn birthday card saying, "I deserve better than this, so I reject this," and forcing her 7-year-old daughter to practice the piano for hours into the night until she perfected a piece, is of course not the stuff with which I'm agreeing.  But the underlying methods and motives are exactly how I was raised, and I can specifically attribute the best things about myself to these principles.

Chua tells stories of never accepting a grade lower than an A, a direct parallel to my childhood.  On more than one occasion, I brought home A- tests thinking I'd done pretty okay.  Mom would say, "Okay, but which questions did you miss.  Why didn't you earn an A?"  The thing is, my mom would have accepted a C if she knew it was my best work.  But as a child of intelligent and educated parents in an environment conducive to learning, even my mediocre effort produced A's.  Since A work was indicative of best work, A work was expected.

Sometimes even getting the grade wasn't good enough for my mom.  At Challenger, where I attended school, we had to memorize and pass off poems each week.  I have always had a great short-term memory, so rather than studying at home to pass off my poem, I would cross my fingers and hope to be at least the 4th or 5th student to recite.  I could memorize the poem during the first 3 recitations and be good to go.  I got the A week after week, but when my mom (a fifth grade teacher in the adjacent classroom) caught on to my tricks, she asked my teacher to require me to go first each week, and I had to learn to actually put the effort into the memorization.

One of the values taught to LDS young women is self worth.  Kirk and I often joke about my more than ample supply, referencing an episode of  "That 70's Show" where the self-centered character, Jackie, explains, "If I could run across the beach into my own arms, I would."  All joking aside, I feel incredibly lucky to have a strong sense of self worth when this is an issue with which so many women fight lifelong battles.  If there is one thing I want to do the way my parents did it, it is whatever they did to make me so confident.

Reading Chua's interpretation of a major difference between Chinese and American parenting, I began to understand the foundations on which my confidence was built.  While American parents often insulate their children from discomfort and distress (insert frustration with the lack of competition allowed in schools and some sports), "Chinese parents," she writes, "assume strength, not fragility, and as a result [their children] behave differently."  And according to the article's author, research shows that "kids who have a well-earned sense of mastery are more optimistic and decisive; they've learned that they're capable of overcoming adversity and achieving goals."

I'm betting that's why my mom made sure I learned to do the work to memorize the poem.  I know it's one of the main reasons she forced me to play the piano.  She never hid the fact that I was required to play the piano because it was something I actually had to work at, and she wanted me to experience the satisfaction of working hard to accomplish something.

Chua's daughters were not allowed playdates, sleepovers, television, computer games, or even school plays.  While not a direct parallel, there were certainly similarities in my upbringing.  While never expressly disallowed, our schedule just didn't accommodate playdates.  My mom taught at Challenger (a private school) so we could afford to attend a school where the standards of education were particularly high.  We lived 30 minutes from the school, and we would stay at school until mom was done correcting papers.  We'd do our homework there at the school, then drive home in time for dinner.  We ate dinner as a family, relaxed as a family, and went to bed.  This notion of playing with neighbors after school is completely foreign to me, because it just wasn't a part of my life.

And video games?  Not that I ever wanted to play them, but if I had, they would not have been allowed.  As parents often do, my mom did soften a bit for her last child and purchased a Wii a couple of years ago.  But I know my brother's video game time is nothing compared to the average 17 year old male.  Add to that the strict moral and religious principles taught and lived in our home, and one might consider my childhood to be overly sheltered and restricted.

Chua, who learned her parenting style from her even stricter Chinese parents, says, "By restricting my choices as a child, they gave me so many choices in my life as an adult."  Not only do I think that statement resonates within my religious beliefs regarding my choices to not smoke, drink, etc., but it precisely reflects the motivation behind the choices my mom made in raising me.

A small but powerful parallel struck me as I read about Chua's willingness to "drill, baby, drill."  She writes, "Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America."  Any of my former Challenger classmates would get a kick out of this because I'm sure there's not a single one of them who can't still recite the prepositions we learned in 5th and 6th grade.  (My mom was my teacher for both of these grades.)  "Aboard, about, above, across, after, against, along, amid, among, around, at..."  And those are just the A's.  As a sophomore in honors English, I remember reviewing prepositions and racing a classmate and Challenger graduate to see who could recite the complete list faster.  I think my best was 47 seconds.  How that translates to parenting, I'm not so sure, but the comparison just made me laugh.

The underlying idea here is that the tiger-mother approach is simply to expect the best from your children, and don't settle for anything less.  Not only does that sum up how I was raised, but I know it sums up how my mom was raised, too.  In a book about my grandmother, my Uncle Wesley states, "When we did anything, we better put everything we had into it.  Mom expected us to be the best at whatever we did.  This didn't mean we had to win at everything, just do our best." 

But my favorite excerpt could have been taken straight from my mom's mouth.  "What Chinese parents understand," says Chua, "is that nothing is fun until you're good at it."  At the beginning of every musical my mom directs, she always explains that we are all there to have a lot of fun.  Then she gives her definition of fun, which is to work hard and become very good at what we are doing.  She explains, "If your definition of fun is to come and talk to your friends, this may not be the best place for you."  I have to admit, I've stolen her lines and use this in the opening rehearsal of all my shows.  But only because to me, this a fundamental and universal truth.  Nothing is fun until you're good at it.

That said, I'm not exactly on the path to tiger-mom.  My kids play just as much video games and computer games as the next American kid, and I often find myself insulating with praise.  But the ideals here are ones I agree with an hope to implement in my own way.

What's your take?


Brigham said...

I feel the same way about most everything you wrote in this article. While my family wasn't quite as disciplined, we were met with the same expectation of hard work and excellence because my parents knew we could achieve it.
That is how I raise and will raise my children. Lydia is only two and yet we get so many comments on how well behaved she is even when she has to go into time out.
Now Ammon, he will be more of a struggle I can tell but I will just be more diligent in my discipline.