Recently Amy Chua is in the news. Her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” has raised a storm in American households. Although many may not have read her book, but the excerpt published by Wall Street Journal was enough to enrage many parents who challenged Amy in all forms possible. To us, Indian parents, Ms. Chua’s parenting style is nothing new at all. Rather the western parenting style of protecting the delicate and fragile self-esteem of our children seems more foreign to us. We remember how we trembled to bring in our report cards that had less than 80% scores in front of our parents (well during our times 80% was a great score – letter marks, as we used to say). But after we came to this country, we learned that we should never exhibit our dissatisfaction when our child fails to deliver their best. We should keep encouraging them, tell them that they are doing great, even when their grades keep slacking. Positive reinforcement, we learned, was the key to success. Before exams, we are told not to pressurize them to study. Rather the kids should relax, and have a good nights sleep, unlike us who used to study almost the whole night before the exams. At sports and games, the motto is everybody is a winner, and the kids are showered with trophies and accolades even when you clearly know that your child is not at all the athletic type. And then comes Amy Chua and tells the Americans the Chinese (read Asian) style of parenting. Her parenting policy is simple – do not give your kids false sense of success and security. If you do, you are lying to them and are doing a great disservice to them. The real world is a tough place – your boss is not going to say, keep up the good work, when you clearly have failed in your job. The strategy practiced by Amy on her daughters does sound shocking to most western parents. No sleepover party, no grades less than A, no drama clubs, no TV or video/computer games, no boy/girlfriends in school etc. etc. Well it is a bit harsh no doubt, but she does make a point. We know that in reality we don’t have to be that hard on our children, but I agree with her that our children needs to be told in a clear and unambiguous way – giving up or being complacent is not an option. And when our children don’t get this simple message, we may have to give them the message the hard way – the drill sergeant way. American education system has many good features, but Amy Chua has pointed us to its greatest weakness – complacency, lack of competitive spirit and underestimating the sense of self-esteem of our children. This weakness, if not fixed, can prove to be fatal for this country’s future.
Recently I too, like many others, came across Amy Chua’s article in the WSJ and had to smile and ponder. Not that I am a parenting expert because I don’t think anybody is. It’s a game of trial and error, but I do think we, as parents, are torn between two extremes. And since I abhor anything extreme in life and always prefer to look at other options and weigh the pros and cons, I think we need to aim for a happy medium. While as a parent, I lean a bit more on Amy’s side, I couldn’t ever NOT send my child to a sleepover or NOT be thrilled because he wants to take part in the school play. In fact, when there was an option to choose a middle school in our town with a concentration on the arts or the sciences, we chose the one that focused on the arts. Then how do I lean more on Amy’s side?
For the last couple of weeks, our home has been in a constant state of disarray with books, study guides, papers, notebooks, pens and pencils strewn all over our living room. And I have had a splitting headache for the 2 weeks—all because my 8th grader is taking his midterms. Every evening, if you were one of our neighbors, you would hear screams, yells, and tantrums galore. Why? Because I have incessant battles with my 13-year old about studying and not studying enough for his midterm exams. While he thinks I am expecting him to study as a college student, I feel his studying skills do not match his capabilities and will only fetch him grades between 79 and 82 and not 90 and above.
After working all day in the demanding pharma advertising industry, I will admit that when I get home my tolerance level is probably zero. And hence the battle begins—hours of reviewing, quizzing, and studying—all in an atmosphere of tired, red eyes and yawns and the slouching gait and the constant resistance to anything I suggest that might help him. I often raise my voice (ok, maybe I scream) and allude to his “western” friends and their mothers and rhetorically ask if they are doing the same. And consequently, if so, why does he NOT appreciate the fact that I have given up my relaxation time, my time to watch the Idol or House or what have you and instead have been a martyr evening after evening only for him? Why does he not care? In fact, ever since he turned 12, we have been battling over most things—from brushing his teeth in the clinically accurate manner to not picking up the clothes he has thrown all over the floor of his room, to not practicing the tabla or the saxophone or to not staying on top of his school work. I had to literally sit him down one day and explain to him that in life he will be battling with me on major issues and he should learn to pick his battles and let go of the silly ones like brushing his teeth! It did seem to sink in, a bit. My sister, a mother of a son older than mine, once advised me to calm down because, she warned, this was only the beginning, that I would have to endure this struggle for another 4 years before he turns out semi-responsible! I choked because I seriously could not fathom doing this for years to come.
One of his teachers once told me to take a step back because he was a good boy and I should let him take on the onus of his actions and face the consequences himself if he fails. But I could never do that! How could I let my son’s grades slip or allow his performance to not be up to the mark? I wouldn’t be a true Indian or “Asian” mother then!
But all those things aside, on most nights after my son has gone to sleep, when I go to his room and look at that soft, warm, moon-like face, I forget that earlier in the evening, this was the same smarty pants who was challenging me on everything I was suggesting he do for his own good! I sit on his bed and run my fingers through his hair very gently. He barely looks at me, but smiles and turns around mumbling “creepy crawlies on my back, please.” And then I promise to never again lose my patience, never to be too harsh on him, just let him be a 13-year old and enjoy life! But then again, the next evening, the promises are forgotten and the rigors of raising a 13-year old, the Indian way, begins. Oh, there has to be a middle ground. I am searching. Let me know if you find one.