Let me begin at the beginning, where parenting models are usually born. When my French mother, newlywed and recently arrived in Boston, learned she was pregnant, she developed a specific idea about what kind of baby she wanted. She cut a label off a Gerber baby box -- the picture of the perfect, grinning, blue-eyed infant with white blonde curls -- and taped it to the wall next to her bed. "It was the first thing I looked at every morning," she told me many times. "And the last thing I looked at every night. I wanted my baby to look like that."
And that baby did. At least for the first few years of my life, I had tight white curls all over my head. By the time I was three or four my hair began to change color. First it turned red. I was a straight-haired brunette by kindergarten.
My mother viewed this devolution with horror, as she would nearly every future development relating to my looks. When I needed eyeglasses, as the world looked like an impressionist blot and I was lost when anything happened at the blackboard at the front of the classroom, she was horrified. I was finally given glasses in fourth grade. When I wanted to wear pants, she was stunned. Pierced ears were beyond the pale. "Do you want to look like a whore?" This was not a rhetorical question.
"I made you beautiful," she would cry. "You are making yourself ugly."
I've been following the articles and the commentary in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times about Chinese mothers -- and Jewish mothers, and all the rest. Oddly, the so-called defenders of different models actually reveal themselves to be variations on the same model. So while we're focused on the subject, let me throw in my nomination for the fiercest kind of mother: the French mother. But I don't want to join a Monster Contest. I want to talk about why this is such an important conversation, and what's at the heart of it.
Here's what the Chinese/Jewish/French superiority models have in common -- and yes, I generalize, brutally -- but that's because we're in a conversation that involves huge generalities:
Discipline. I wasn't allowed to choose how to spend my time. No play dates (American girls are bad influences) or sleepovers (waste of time) or participation in school activities (when will you practice your piano -- and, by the way, half an hour? I was doing that when I was three.) I begged to be a Girl Scout (waste of time -- why do you need to learn to cook, sew, and get dirty? And when will you practice your piano?) I begged to join the literary review (waste of time -- why aren't you speaking French?). I begged to be allowed to date (waste of time, when will you practice, etc.) I begged to be allowed to wear makeup when my friends did (Do you want to look like... etc).
Control. A central concept. The French (Chinese, Jewish, etc.) model is all about control, authority, and permission. This sets up a dynamic in which the child has to learn to fight for any sort of autonomy -- or forget about it as a possibility. "Boundaries" is not a relevant concept in this parenting model. Neither is "choice" or "self-discovery" or "autonomy". It is no wonder that the Chinese mother described her own "inability to enjoy life" or to be creative. If the development of those qualities has been stunted, or denied, they have to be learned -- or relearned, if the child had a sense of them in toddler years -- later. To this day, I can sit at the piano and play a Beethoven Sonata, but I cannot improvise one bar. I wonder if my inability to write fiction is related.
Punishment. These parenting models are fear-based. They're all about retribution by the authority figure for transgression on the part of the child -- who is ultimately the victim. The Tiger Mother told her daughter she was garbage. That's typical of this model -- you have to inflict pain. Sometimes it is physical. More often it is psychological. It will probably be years before that child can quiet the constant voice in her head that tells her that no matter what she does, she is trash, or an idiot, or in some way damaged. Nothing is ever good enough.
But here's the twist. The French parenting model, especially for girls, is laced with obsession about stylishness. How you dress, how you present yourself to the world, happens to be one of the things French women seem to be born knowing. When they have American daughters, who might adopt American styles, they are offended at the deepest levels of their being. Of course, this also meant that by the time I was eighteen, my mother was begging me to wear makeup. (Put something on your face... you cannot go out naked...) But by then, I had figured out how to rebel, and I had become a raging feminist. (And yet I always wore perfume, and a silk scarf.) This obsession with stylishness extended even into that completely uncontrollable realm -- how one's body develops, as, of course, French women must be shaped a certain way.
Given our national obsession with dieting and plastic surgery, an obsession that has landed us in a chronic and aggravated condition of dysmorphia, I would guess that this is actually not a French thing, but a mother thing -- for mothers who wanted to live through their daughters. Many of my generation were raised with a rigid idea about what we were supposed to look like -- and with its evil twin, the unattainability of that image. It is otherwise hard to understand how and why a generation of feminists has become a generation of Botox addicts. What's worse, we are modeling that lack of self regard and acceptance for our own children.
Chauvinism. Nothing is superior to French culture -- ask any French person. But I would bet that Jewish mothers feel that superiority, as do Chinese mothers, as do Catholic mothers... Chauvinism is common to all these models -- they are basically founded on the idea that the mother's sense of superiority is backed up by, if not founded on, a cultural superiority. And that gives legitimacy to domination of the child.
And now, for compassion... I can imagine what it must have been like to be a new mother in a strange country, alienated from every cultural norm around you, and without any support at all from like-minded parents. My mother built a moat, and lined it with high walls, around her children; she was scandalized by the permissiveness of American culture. She wanted to hold onto a way of life in which she had been raised. We certainly weren't allowed much television; radio was verboten, and newspapers? I was the kid who could never do the current events homework -- but I was too embarrassed to explain that we weren't allowed to read the newspaper, because it was full of information inappropriate to someone my age. Which, by the way, was thirteen or fourteen.
Difficult? It certainly was. I look back on my mother's child-rearing instincts with astonishment. Once I had my own children, I could not even fathom how she did what she did. Probably, many of us go through such an inward journey when we move from being daughters to being mothers. And of course, not all French/Jewish/Chinese and etc. mothers are the same, not by a long shot. What does follow the same general patterns is only that Top Down Fear Authority model.
Finally, after years of thinking about it, I have some sense of why my mother wanted to maintain control over creatures -- other human beings -- who ought to be beyond anyone's control. I like to think that her parenting was based on love and hope. I need to think so -- and I'm sure it was, if misguided. One enormous thing was missing: respect. And respect is what makes it possible to move from being the parent of small children to the parent of adult children -- something I've been thinking a great deal about, having just crossed the country on a train and driven the California coast with my twenty-something year old sons.
Most of us, as parents, like to think we do the best we can. There isn't any guarantee, of course, that any "method" is better, just as there isn't any guarantee as to what sorts of adults children will become. That's because good parenting shouldn't be about methods. It is about values. My mother's way of raising us was, to put it kindly, eccentric. But with the benefit of therapy and hindsight, I can tease out the values she was determined to instill. The value of working hard, of perseverance, of determination. The value of connecting to the sublime in music and art. The value of not being a slave to fads and trends. And I taught myself some values in response, too: The value of self-nurturing and solitude.
The problem was in the concept of "instilling" by discipline, as though we needed to have values poured into us as children, or forced on us, rather than modeling, and letting us find and build our way to those values. My friend Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has been working on a book about what she calls Childism, and in a fascinating piece she recently posted online, she makes an intriguing connection between the way we raise children and the way we understand, and nurture (or don't) our democracies. There are profound consequences to the choices we make with regard to the way we build trust and respect in our parent/child relationships. That is why this conversation about parenting is such an important one. The Fear Model is clearly not the way to go.
I am sure that my sons harbor complaints about things I did or did not do. I worry that, in reaction to my childhood, I wasn't strict enough about practice, and grades, and the rest of it.
But there's one thing my children will never doubt -- and that's the most important thing of all, I think, in raising children. They know they are loved, respected as individuals, and honored in their selfhood. They didn't have to earn this cherishment; it is their birthright. There's no method to it, only expression of it. Perhaps we can all agree that it is what matters most -- and start from there.
Cross posted at Slow Love Life.