The post-dinner- now-the- kids- are- in- the- other- room -and -the –adults- have- two –bottles- of- wine -to -finish-off talk at our Shabbos table this week was, as I imagine it was for many thousands of other parental types, Chinese moms. We had all read the Wall Street Journal article by Yale Law professor Amy Chua (or heard her interviewed on NPR) and her razor sharp attack on “western” moms seems to have kicked up a storm from all of us who have let our children attend sleep-overs, practice their instruments for less than three hours a day, play sports, and worst of all, try out for school plays. (the horror!)
The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, “Hey fatty—lose some weight.” By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of “health” and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. (I also once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her “beautiful and incredibly competent.” She later told me that made her feel like garbage.)
Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, “You’re lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you.” By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.
Chua also makes reference to a threat that she made regarding Christmas-Hannukah presents in the article and that got us thinking about the silent Jewish father who is, we imagine, kicking back on the couch with the Arts section of the Times while his ‘Chinese mom’ wife berates the children for getting a 97 on a math test. (yes, another nail in the coffin for all the twenty-something Jewish women I’ve met who ask why Jewish men pass them over for Asian women)
The couples around our table all weighed in – and while none of us had the ‘tiger’ qualities of Chua, we all addressed the various demands we have put on our children and the need for both demands and occasional comments that are, well, frank.
So, shabbos afternoon arrives and I curl up with my New Yorker. After I dispense with my usual perusal of the cartoons, I stumble into David Brooks latest piece, Social Animal
Brooks writes: “Intelligence, academic performance, and prestigious schools don’t correlate well with fulfillment, or even outstanding accomplishment…the traits that do make a difference are the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships, to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings, and to imagine alternate futures.” And it occurs to me – this piece, by a Jewish dad, is the perfect anti-dote to Chua’s diatribe.
Brooks bolsters his argument from a place of social psychology and biology, citing recent studies that have shed new light on human behavior. This got me thinking: How would Chua respond to Brooks’ piece? Chua might defend her child-raising techniques and say that her children have developed these qualities. But at face value it would seem that calling your child “garbage” or “fatty” is not going to lead to a very trusting relationship. A brutally honest relationship? Maybe…but a trusting one? Highly doubtful. One can imagine Chua and Brooks at the Passover Seder debating the reaction to the Wicked Son.
So, who’s right? Truth likely lies somewhere in between the two polarities – to be demanding without being controlling, to be sensitive without coddling – these are the challenges of parenting.
But I was thinking about both articles this Saturday night as I took my sons to their indoor soccer game.
After the first half, my sons’ team was down 5-1. It was demoralizing. I thought with my “Chua” head– maybe I need to force them to practice more, run two miles a day, call him lazy, that sort of thing. Then I watched as one of my sons decided that he was not going to lose. In the second half he ran full-speed at every ball and the defense couldn’t stop him. He scored four goals, made an assist on another, and got the win. Then I relaxed and patted myself on the back for my less than Chua-like demands – “see, I never yell at him to practice and still he’s playing beautifully” And then something happened that I did not expect.
I was a typical dad, thinking about my kid – about how he had won the game. But when I met him on field after the game, he didn’t think of the win as something that he had accomplished. His first comment was about how his team played better defense in the second half. As he chugged from his water bottle, he went up to one of the defensive players and gave him a high five. The part of me that liked Brooks’ model of human success was very happy.
So – what did I learn from these articles? I’m still not sure, and not sure if they will change the ways that I parent. But they did get me thinking about the cultural norms we collectively create and the importance of talking, preferably over a glass of wine and some rugelach, about what they mean when applied to each one of our quirky and wonderful children. On the other hand, maybe I should stop writing and go downstairs and yell at them to practice the violin. It will be all that better as I yell because none of my children play violin. yet.
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