Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Martha's Tiger Family

I haven't been able to peep into SFGate, NPR, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, or even Entertainment Weekly without running into the tale of self-proclaimed "tiger mother" Amy Chua, a Yale Law Professor who decided to raise her kids in accordance with strict Chinese standards and wrote the resultant memoir "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."

My close circle of friends break down between Vietnamese, Taiwanese and Korean but we are undoubtedly bound by similar upbringings within our "tiger" families. Different values were emphasized for each of us, but the takeways were identical.

1. You get A's. No other grade exists.
2. Schoolwork first.
3. Approved (e.g. piano) extracurriculars second.
4. Family duties, church and chores third.
5. All the above gets done. All of it.
6. More school work next.
7. Other extracurriculars follow.
8. Then maybe a social life.
9. Elders are right.
10. No whining.

Punishment for violation of these terms is likely physical, sometimes financial, and definitely punitive to any sliver of social life you might have.

There is no such thing as a "hard" teacher. You never blame the teacher.
There is no such thing as an "unfair" system. You never blame the system.
There is no such thing as a "wrong" adult. You never blame an adult.
There is no such thing as a "bad" day. You never blame your mood or health.

Of course, as children, we knew teachers could be unduly difficult, systems were sometimes unfair, adults could be wrong, and days could be sucktastic. We huddled up, lamenting how cruel our parents could be. How distant. How completely medieval.

We also learned it's not the point. In life, you will always run up against difficulty, unfairness, and injustice. You should not go running to mommy. You should not let it paralyze you from doing your best. You find a way to deal with it and still pull out perfection. YOU ALWAYS DO YOUR BEST.

If I came home with a bad grade, I had no one to blame but myself. It did not matter if the teacher did not cover the material. It did not matter if late construction kept me up the night before. It did not matter if the bus driver was late to school, thus frazzling me. It did not matter, if I was robbed at gunpoint on the way to school and someone stole my pencil case and I had nothing to take the test with but my own blood. Really.

I will admit, I wish everyone followed this philosophy.

If I'm on a surgeon's table, I don't want the person cutting into me to let bad days get to them. If I'm being defended for a crime, I don't want the lawyer preparing my argument to be distracted by the unfair assignment of my case. If I'm preparing for retirement, I don't want the investment professional preparing my portfolio to blame the wrong analysis they received.

Does it really take Tiger parenting to yield this result?

I don't know.

I was raised in Asia, and thus was raised like everyone else. Some of my friends were raised in the US, and thus were aware that another type of parenting existed. Parenting where kids were encouraged to have fun, to enjoy their days, and to do their "best" but "best" didn't have to be an A+ or a gold medal or first place. Parents protected their kids interests. "Went to bat" for them with parents or principals.

This completely baffles me and my friends. Not because it's wrong, just because it's different. In the same way these parents are baffled by our upbringing, we are baffled by theirs.

I don't have kids, but I assume the end result of any parenting gig is to produce a happy child. To the Western mom, how could you be happy if you haven't been given the freedom to discover what makes you happy? To the Tiger mom, how could you possibly be happy if you aren't doing your best?

Lemme tell ya, I'm the best at a lot of things, and it's pretty effing awesome. But it also took me decades to realize that I could be happy doing something as "frivolous" as writing.

Now that I live in the United States (and I admit this is based purely on anecdotal evidence, the bane of the progeny of any tiger family), I'll admit I don't see that my friends raised under one method or another are any happier or smarter or nicer or more well-adjusted or less worrisome.

There are differences.
Oh yes, there are.
I'll not raise controversy by noting them here. But they have nothing to do with paycheck size, the number and quality of our friends, or how often we smile.

So I guess that's good news.

We're all functionally dysfunctional.
No matter the type of family.

(On a postnote, the author's eldest daughter wrote a letter defending her mom in which I gleaned a lovely piece of advice I am going to co-oped for writing: "Everybody seems to think art is spontaneous. But Tiger Mom, you taught me that even creativity takes effort." So there you have it - EFFORT! I'll get right on that...after this nap.)


Jill said...

I can add a few from my non-Asian, highly Southern mother: 11. Wear makeup - always. Otherwise you look tired. 12. There's no excuse not to cook. 13. Don't slouch. Just a few....I'm sure your mother would agree. :)

Martha Flynn said...

Haha, well I can tell you my highly Southern dad had a few neat parenting tricks up his sleeve that would make a Tiger Mom gasp in horror.

And I believe I know number eleven as, "Don't leave home without your face!"

Juliet Blackwell said...

My son went to the French-American school, where they have yet another philosophy of childrearing. But what really stuck in my mind was one discussion I had with a teacher who said (with dismissive Gaelic shrug): "Of *course* he's unhappy, he's a CHILD. No one is happy until they are forty."
It took me aback...but I really think she was right!
Great post, and great response to the crazed reaction to the Tiger Mom book.

Unknown said...

This is such a complex issue.

I was held to similar standards as a kid (overall pretty close to the same) and thought to do the same for my own.

But then I was confronted with a son who had some significant learning issues and suddenly the grades expectations had to be changed. Had to be. When a nine year old is battling depression because he can see that everyone else gets it and he doesn't even though everyone says he's smart enough, you have to let go of certain things.

We still hold to the no blaming anyone else, take ownership of whatever you do, and no whining, and obey adults/teachers/leaders even if you absolutely disagree with whatever they are saying.

The amazing and beautiful thing about children is they force us as parents to learn to change and adapt. Even if it almost kills us :)

J-the French-American comment made me laugh!

Martha Flynn said...

Amy has also talked about Tiger parenting a special needs kids, specifically as related to her younger sister who has Down's, and how there is always expectation adjustment for the individual. For her, her kids, me, and my friends, who were capable of A's, that's what we had to get.

So that's more the point - that you are excellent as you can possibly be and not to make assumptions about that excellence until you've worked your ass off. (Not literally, as I'm sure you can see I have quite a bit of my ass still on me.)

Julie - 35 hour workweek standard, two hour lunches with wine, and chill child rearing - we all need to be taking notes from the French! Those guys know how to do it!!!

Sophie Littlefield said...

hey M thanks for this post, i've been looking forward to it. I think it's possible - truly! - to take cues from a variety of types of parenting. you guys know i'm a mushy indulgent slobbery parent - to a point. But i do NOT abide whining or excuses. It's very very clear in our house that our destinies are our choice and our responsibilities, and if you want excellence, if you want to compete, then you had better work your ass off and then work it some more. I do not pretend to respect a half-hearted effort - BUT i do always say that "happy is good" and that if someone can be happy doing a job or a achieving at a level that we ourselves would not choose, it's not our place to judge (that's where the "haul garbage if it makes you happy but be a damn good garbage hauler" philosophy comes in.) anyway, thanks, and i love how you turned out. :)

Unknown said...

M-thanks for even more insight into her book. I'm sure the notoriety has been great for her sales, but it must stink to be considered evil by people.

The best piece of parenting advice I ever heard is this:

You need to allow your children to be who they are meant to be not what YOU THINK they are meant to be (paraphrasing obviously).

Which can be really, really hard some days!!

But hopefully with the standards and values that we lay down, they can find their own happy path, even if it isn't what we expected.

Martha Flynn said...

Lisa, isn't that what Walter Mosley said to us that night we had drinks with him? (oh hells yeah I named dropped the shit out of that)

Unknown said...

Actually the thing that Walter said that stuck with me was his attitude about food and exercise and accepting the fact that there are so many things in your universe that are out of your control that you can stress over. But how you take care of your body is the single thing that only YOU can control. Loved that.

Although yes, he did say something similar to the above about raising children. The first time I heard it was from the psychologist who wrote The Price of Priveledge :)

Mysti said...

Pretty tough balancing trick, helping your kids grow tough enough to thrive without putting them in hyper-alertness PTSD zone.

I do think it's not a one-size-fits-all kind of experience, and worry when perfectly intelligent people defer their own instincts to "experts" who are selling a one-size plan. Like that craze to let your very young kid cry for hours instead of responding to their needs, whatever that was called.

Loving your child, feeling the bond, being as consistent as you can, as honest as you can, really, what else can a parent do? The idea that there is a perfect parent on this earth strikes me as highly unlikely :)

Martha Flynn said...

The perfect mom - totally unlikely.
The perfect nanny? Still Mary Poppins! :)
You're right, Mysti. Child-rearing (LIKE DIETS, URGH) are never one size fits all.

Rachael Herron said...

GREAT post. And thanks for linking to the daughter's letter - I loved reading that. She sounds like I did at 18 - I had a Tiger mother whom I'd pretty much hated for 5 years, and suddenly, faced with the real world, I wanted to stay with her. She got really smart, really fast somehow.