Reader's Caveat: The following is slightly sappy and often overwrought. It is, however, also a belated Christmas gift for my mother, as all I gave her this year was a Kindle.
Self-proclaimed "Tiger Mother," Amy Chua, has received a great deal of attention recently. Her brand of parenting, which is often considered unorthodox among Westerners, includes such novel methods as calling her child "garbage," forbidding "play dates," "sleepovers," or participating in school plays, and throwing the birthday card her daughter made back in her face and proclaiming "I deserve better than this, so I reject this." Nevertheless, by recounting in detail the raising of her two children in a manner that occasionally makes the Gestapo look like a nest of sedated rabbits, she did not incur a visit from a local Social Services agent (nor the Allied Forces), but instead published a book currently on the best-seller list, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
Her story graced the cover of TIME last week and a prepublication insert was printed in the Wall Street Journal. She appeared on the TODAY Show (with the oft-docile Meredith Vieira having to restrain herself, lest the interview turn into an all-out brouhaha featuring the raining of blows upon Chua) and her book has been reviewed by virtually every major newspaper. Such success can spawn criticism, and with the book's release, Chua has successfully infuriated mothers along nearly every inch of the planet (or at least the US) by declaring that "the Chinese way" of parenting is far superior to "Western parenting."
Reading the TIME article along with various excerpts of Chua's book led me to ponder my childhood and the parenting style of my dear mother, who is without exaggeration the nearest example of a saint, aside from my grandmother and late grandmother. She (along with my father) can be credited with my not, at this very moment, lying naked (apart from a pair of sunglasses) in a gutter somewhere, a variety of illegal substances coursing through my system, nursing a broken nose with one last remaining snaggle-tooth hanging on for dear life. She wasn't a tiger, but combined sensible amounts of discipline with love and encouragement and is therefore, in my humble opinion, the quintessential example of an almost perfect parent. I may not have children, (a la Uncle Buck quipping, "it's a long story" when asked by Macaulay Culkin why he's not married, "it's an even longer story" concerning not having kids) or be a descendant of Dr. Spock, but in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
As the eldest of three, all of whom are currently in our twenties, I am endearingly referred to as the "challenge" among the family. We all managed to turn out OK according to society's standards (lowered accordingly for me, of course) but my siblings made the parenting endeavor a far smoother process.
My brother and sister graduated salutatorian and valedictorian of their high school classes while I managed to coast along with an average slightly above a 'B' (effort was not my strong suit in high school). They refrained from getting suspended and always managed to evade arrest despite their older brother providing numerous examples of how to essentially "letter" in both pursuits (in a small hometown equipped with one stop-light, you sometimes had to create your own fun). They never forced their teachers into a nervous breakdown (nor an early retirement) and never dabbled in breaking and entering.
For such shenanigans I was always disciplined, but never forsaken, which is an option that at times seems to readily exist for Chua. Had my mother done so (or contemplated doing so) the chronicles outlined below might have been truly abysmal. Credit goes to her for recognizing that kids are conscious of parents having diminished their efforts. It was these efforts that led me to gain a true respect for my parents, and eventually for the significance of succeeding in life. Said efforts were never more conspicuous than during my days in junior high.
Middle School: A Brief Summary of the Salad Days:
Grade 5 proved to be a bit of a spectacle. With my parents teaching grade 6 (now recently retired) down the hall, misbehaving without their immediate knowledge proved arduous (as did their relationships with colleagues having the pleasure of molding my young mind every day in class.) To sum up the year with a representative example: I enjoyed mingling about and socializing with classmates, which led my teacher to decree a rule applying uniquely to me and entailing three daily "get out of your seat free" tickets. Having the attention span of a marmot with a crystal-meth habit that has misplaced its adderall, this particular rule proved difficult to adhere to, inciting my teacher to tie my shoelaces to my chair once the tickets were exhausted (typically between 9 o'clock and 9:20 in the morning). The walk from my grade 5 homeroom to the bathroom was around 150 yards and, not surprisingly, more challenging/obstacle-esque with shoelaces tied to the chair than without. In short, the year was a horror show for me and for my mother (I could probably include my teacher in that category as well).
Grade 6 was trying on a number of levels, one of which was having my mother as my teacher (and her disciplining not only me, but my classmates as well!). Imagine my incredulity when what was anticipated to be on par with a curious tourist's first night out in Amsterdam turned out to be a classroom where expectations were high and students were pushed to reach and exceed their potential (not Chua pushed, with undertones of abuse, but pushed all the same). Astoundingly, in retrospect, scornful ridicule needn't be practiced in order to achieve results, and childrens' mistakes can be transformed into the often clichéd "teachable moments."
Another grade 6 quandary included the fact that it was the year sex-education was taught to every member of the class; girls collectively in one room, boys collectively in the other. My mother taught the girls. My father taught the boys. The school nurse's trivial participation was the only thing keeping the entire ordeal from becoming a family reunion (she might as well have been my aunt or grandmother). Unfortunately, she stepped out for a smoke when a classmate's query in jest "if your penis gets cut off, will it grow back?" was read aloud and then answered in earnest by my father. The rapturous uproar that ensued signified the demise of any friendships with those 6th grade classmates. It wasn't much better with the girls. Chicks don't exactly clamor to go out with guys whose mother just dissected the inner-workings of the female anatomy. Moreover, they don't dig the notion of coming over to one's house to "make out" downstairs whilst two sexual educators can be found upstairs.
Grade 7 proved somewhat enjoyable in comparison to 6 and life at home improved markedly on account of my mother and I not engaging in a proverbial chess match for several hours a day. A glaring anomaly to said improvement was my father -- an avid hunter of all things wildlife in the great state of Michigan -- bringing me along on his quest to slay any number of animals that were neither armed, nor seemingly dangerous. The entire concept of hunting left me disinterested and slightly mystified (creating one's own fun shouldn't have to include a Bambi safari). What made the least sense was my father requiring me to carry an unloaded gun to "practice form," as I was technically not yet old enough to obtain a license to shoot animals. My mother allowing me to participate in such a charade (the gun weighed slightly less than I did at the time -- had it been loaded the weights might have been identical) is why I earlier referred to her parenting as "almost perfect." Likewise, waking me at four in the morning to chase turkeys with elephant guns in below freezing temperatures constituted my father falling out of sainthood consideration.
By the time grade 8 rolled around I managed to finagle an election to president of the Student Council, prompting the faculty to immediately mandate that all future elections begin with candidates undergoing a vetting process overseen by a teachers' panel, thus removing any potential of an election becoming a "popularity contest." My mother's participation in the mandate has been indeterminable.
The Westerner Way:
My mother provided us every possible advantage while remaining true to the ways of "Western parenting," or at the very least untrue to the ways of Chua. She taught us to find a passion, be it mathematics or mountain climbing, and follow it toward success. She taught us to celebrate our differences, in a town with a racial makeup that was 98 percent Caucasian, and respect every individual. Most importantly she showed us, by example, the essential importance of working hard and living responsibly; a parent as a role model is something that can not be overstated.
She was dedicated, attending every baseball and basketball game, every spelling bee, every school play and every awards ceremony. She kept every birthday card decorated with pipe cleaners and cotton balls as well as every Christmas ornament constructed with popsicle sticks and excessive amounts of Elmer's glue. She provided us unconditional love and support along with necessary discipline, never giving up on inspiring us to (eventually) reach our potential, which makes her and every parent alike a respective queen or king of the parenting jungle, far superior to the lowly tiger. Thank you, mumsy (and father). Life is indeed serious business, and should be approached as such.