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Once in a while, I will publish a Guest Post from a fellow blogger, examining a particular Trait or highlighting an individual who is deserving of special attention. The following book review was contributed by Mary Dodd. As she says, it’s “A moment of reflection from a mom in the trenches….”
It is a cruel irony that parents of small children have the greatest need for advice about parenting, but have no time to read or reflect on any of it. I consciously took time out of my day (out of my sleep, to be honest) to read two books this week in an attempt to remedy that situation. In a study of contrasts, I looked at both Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Good Among the Great.
[Below is a video of Poosie Orr of Pittsburgh on “letting kids do what they want to do…” And her comments on helicopter parents.]
Tiger Mom and Helicopter Parenting
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a brutally honest book that examines the parenting experiences of Amy Chua, a Yale law school professor, and the family dynamic she fosters with her husband, fellow Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, and their two young daughters Sophia and Lulu.
Chua believes that a traditional Asian parenting model of rigid academic success, extremely high expectations, and intense parental involvement is superior to the Western parenting style, which is presented as unstructured, creative, and somewhat lazy. The author was raised by Chinese parents who used a traditional immigrant parenting perspective of cultural assimilation through control and success.
Chua forces her daughters to succeed both at school and classical music. By denying them sleepovers and forcing them to practice their instruments for hours at a time, she creates musical prodigies who play at Carnegie Hall and star in solo concerts. Sophia, the elder daughter, plays the piano and tends to bend to her mom’s demands to practice and study. Lulu, the younger daughter, rebels more, refuses to practice the violin, and even jaggedly cuts her own hair at one point in the story, in a demand to be heard.
This is less of a how-to book than a cautionary tale, as the author learns that not all of her methods are perfect in every circumstance and for every child. In the end, she ultimately stands by her belief system and believes the ends justify the means. She presents a look at what worked for her and her family; her daughters are currently teenagers, and only time will tell whether they are successful (or happy) as adults.
As a mom of two young sons, I was particularly interested in reading this book. I had seen televised interviews and read enough newspaper articles to be intrigued to the point of buying a brand-new hardcover, which is a rarity in our house. I sat down and read this entire memoir in one sitting, which is also extremely rare. Chua draws the reader in and writes with a brisk pace that commands complete attention.
When I learned about Chua’s own childhood, I felt sad for her and how her parents’ rigid choices had limited her life. As I read the anecdote where she discarded her daughter’s handmade birthday card because there wasn’t enough effort in it, I cringed and wanted to look away from the scene.
It seems at times that the author is excessively confident and immune to all criticism and input, even from her husband. She is, like all of us, trying, doing the best she can, and mirroring the parenting style that she experienced as a child. Chua clearly loves her daughters, makes immense personal sacrifices for their activities, and feels that “helicopter parenting” will ensure that they have success.
After reading the book and all the surrounding hysteria and controversy that ensued, I feel it is easy to judge others, particularly from afar. I make mistakes every day, but don’t do it under a microscope. Many of the techniques Chua used are not unique to Chinese parents or immigrants, and seem to reflect parenting in a modern and stressful world.
Still, I kept wondering how these choices will affect her daughters in the long term, and whether the writing of this book will have unintended consequences for them as they navigate friendships, school, the media, and eventually, the world.
The Good Among the Great and Hands-Off Parenting
In addition to reading Tiger Mom, I also had an opportunity to read an advance copy of Donald Van de Mark’s book, The Good Among the Great, which chronicles the hows and whys of people who are fortunate enough to combine happiness with extremely high levels of success.
The book examines the nineteen traits of admirable, creative, and joyous people, and can be feasted on like a buffet, reading individual chapters of interest randomly at will. Van de Mark alternates between anecdotes, teachings of Abraham Maslow, and reassuring practical advice. One can see his reporting background shine through in his eminently readable style. Reading this book was like yoga for my soul. By absorbing the chapters in manageable and highly readable chunks, I felt informed and inspired to incorporate small but meaningful changes into my own life.
If you contrast Chua’s parenting style with the more relaxed or hands-off parenting approach discussed in The Good Among the Great, there are striking differences. A relaxed, easy-going parent would never put her daughter outside in 20-degree weather as a punishment until she agreed to practice her musical instrument. A calm and reasoned parent would not scream at her children or provide pages of detailed notes for their music lessons.
Hands-off parents believe that children require independence and an ample dose of happiness. In Chapter Two (Loving), Van de Mark examines specific examples of hands-off parenting and cites one mother, Poosie Orr, an ordinary woman who has an extraordinary ability to infuse joy and independence into her four childrens’ psyches.
“Nowhere is this philosophy better manifested than in Poosie’s own parenting style. As a mom she made a point of ‘loving [her children] for what they wanted, hoping to help them follow what they wanted to do.’ Instead of imposing her personal set of goals and ideals on her children, she respected them enough to let them have their own.”
I wonder what everyone in the world could accomplish if they had a mom like Poosie in their corner to support them. I admired Poosie’s ability to stand back and love without judgment, and to impose no rules beyond those for health and safety. I was somewhat concerned about its practical applications when faced with the realities of my own life. It is wonderful to stand back, calmly reserve judgment and let your kids revel in their creativity, but very hard to put into practice when confronted with a child who has purposely emptied a bottle of maple syrup onto the kitchen floor.
I loved Poosie’s stance that life should be enjoyed and not endured. I felt energized by her spirit, but worried that it is difficult to sell that sort belief system in all circumstances to my intellectual and somewhat cynical children. Nevertheless, I resolved to try to incorporate some of her optimism in the hopes that something positive would take hold.
Which Parenting Style is Better?
In the end, I think there is a huge chasm between all parenting styles, and our criticism of others somehow validates our own choices. While helicopter-parenting has received a lot of criticism in the media recently, I am not ready to fully embrace free-range parenting and let my child sail the Indian Ocean or ride the New York City subway alone.
I appreciated that these two books made me think seriously about my own parenting style and intentions. At this point, I would have to say I am “throwing spaghetti against the wall.” By that, I mean that I am exposing my boys to a large number of activities to see which ones they will choose eventually for themselves. I don’t believe in cruelty, but I think that kids need a certain amount of discipline and manners to successfully navigate in the world. I will play Go Fish for hours with “creative interpretations” of the rules if that is what my kids are excited about on a particular day. On the other hand, I make my sons accountable and force them to attend swimming lessons through to the end of the season instead of dabbling and quitting when times get tough.
I don’t want to be “friends” with my children; I am happy to be their mother and know that the job description requires occasional conflict and tension. I am proud of my sons’ academic success, but try to let my kids take the lead. Freedom, choice and experimentation I think are important for children, because building one’s own autonomy requires exploration. But discipline is also critical to truly knowing oneself–discipline in terms of following through, doing one’s work and knowing that true self-knowledge and real freedom comes with responsibilities.
– Mary Dodd
Mary Dodd is a mother of two boys, ages 5 and 4, and a food blogger who writes at Popsicles and Sandy Feet. She lives, writes, and cooks in coastal Connecticut.
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