Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tiger Moms racing to nowhere?

I feel like a ping-pong ball. Yesterday Time magazine arrived with the cover story focusing on Amy Chua and Tiger Mothering. Then last night, the whole family went to see “Race to Nowhere,” a documentary looking at the inordinate stress we’re placing on our kids through too much homework and high pressured schooling. We skipped the discussion to rush back home to listen to Obama’s State of the Union, where he spoke about our need to out-educate China and India.

What’s a mother to do?

On one hand, I resonate with “Race to Nowhere.” My high-schooler gets 4.5 hours of homework a night, and that doesn’t count projects. Too much! Add swim team and her (loser-un-Chinese) 30 minutes of piano practice per day, and the poor kid barely has time to do anything else. She did that exercise of evaluating how many hours she spends on everything to see if she could join ski team. My husband was floored to see that she spends more hours doing homework each week than she spends in school. Ergo, no ski team. . .

On the other hand, I’m feeling a little defensive for Amy Chua, probably the most hated woman in America right now. I feel defensive because while I mostly despised being yelled at and pressured and pushed non-stop by my own Tiger mama, I’m also strangely grateful because knowing my lazy-bone self, I don’t know what I would have become or achieved otherwise. Chua writes:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.

When I was in 9th grade, my family moved to Beijing for my father to take a year-long sabbatical. This was 3 years after the Cultural Revolution when the Chinese still called each other “comrade” and wore Mao-fits. Added to the horror that my parents were forcing me to return to my homeland in order to brainwash me into embracing my Chinese identity, was the realization that I would need to learn geometry in Chinese. I was forced to live in China the one year reading and writing was necessary for math. And I was illiterate.

It was hard, really, really hard. I eventually needed a tutor because I couldn’t understand either Chinese or geometry. I spent hours each night trying to decipher Chinese characters, angles and equations. But one day, my teacher, Li lao shi, realized I knew what I was doing and called on me in class. I jumped up, bellowed the answer, we beamed at one another, and then I glowed.

That’s one of my favorite memories. Studying geometry in China taught me it’s possible to work insanely hard, and that work pays off. Not necessarily in a terrific grade, but with a sense of achievement and accomplishment.

So maybe the question is, what are we racing for? According to “Race to Nowhere,” the answer is nothing. We’re pressuring our kids and stressing them out so they can go NOWHERE, because ultimately even getting into a great college, having a prestigious job and owning a big house means little if you’ve lost your soul, health or even life along the way. The movie producers are saying, “Stop the rat race! Smell the roses! Focus on what’s really important!” and what’s important is a happy childhood leading to a happy and healthy adulthood.

I haven’t read much of Chua’s book yet (which is much funnier and self-deprecating than critics would have you believe), but if she’s like most Chinese parents, the race is to get to the most prestigious college possible, then the most prestigious graduate school so you can find a great job, a great spouse (preferably Chinese), bear great achieving children, and then support your parents. The race is to do your family and your people proud.

And here we have it, the classic difference between the Western value of individualism, where the ultimate goal is often about satisfying oneself as an individual and the Chinese value of filial piety, where the ultimate goal is pleasing and honoring one’s parents.

So what does God think? Is God asking us to race somewhere? Christians talk about performing for an audience of one, God, and seeking God’s pleasure only. Is that all God requires? What do you think?

My ponderings about these questions will have to be posted another time because despite Winchester’s persistent race of homework inundation, today’s yet another half day with a snow day possible tomorrow. We're going ice-skating with the 5th grade, then maybe watch Hugh Jackman in PBS’s version of “Oklahoma.”

Now that’s a race I really can enjoy. . .


Karen said...

THANK YOU, Kathy - for fleshing out the dilemma Amy Chua presents when she openly champions another way of childrearing in the U.S. She has certainly touched a nerve for all of us straddling generational and cultural values in parenting with the plethora of information tossed at us by everyone from Dr. Spock to Oprah, to the Nanny. You put your finger on that sense of accomplishment that I want my kids to have - that sense of satisfaction when you work hard at something and it shows. I did not have a tiger mama, didn't pick up an instrument until college and even now play a very remedial guitar. While we didn't have the resources for music lessons...I'm sad that I'm not proficient in SOMETHING. And while the idea of going "nowhere" resonates wildly with me, the idea of having skills when you get there is very attractive to me. The skills I did learn had more to do with child rearing (2nd of six children) and housecleaning (you understand why). Sadly, my internal chaos is reflected always in a house that is disheveled and disorganized...and the shame I have weighs on me, as much as my mother's shame on me. She would likely be more proud of a clean bathroom than a job in academia she doesn't quite understand. I appreciate some "Chinese" insight on the subject, Kathy. When we tried to talk to our kids about it we got stuck in this passionate protest (kids need to be pushed to do what they LIKE, that mom is abusive, etc.etc). You've given me a way to articulate to them that I couldn't find in the face of their American adolescent outrage.

gr8god said...

i really enjoy your reflections and writing, kathy - enough that i've subscribed to the rss feed of your blog. :-)

you demonstrate the tension i feel of appreciating chua's commitment and some of her values on the one hand and recoiling from some of her excesses on the other. i so admire your self-examination and willingness to grow - the absence of which i've been decrying in so much of what's been written since that original WSJ article. thank you.

as for your closing question, of course we live to honor God (we don't have to live for his approval - we already have that), but do we really think that a life dedicated to God has no social implications - most especially to our own children? and no, i don't think we're racing to nowhere, but explaining why is probably a blog post of its own.