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Michele Somerville

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A Lunar New Year Meditation: Chinese Tiger Mothering for the Soul

Posted: 02/03/11 10:58 AM ET

As a middle-class, white mother of European descent living in a part of New York City that has become notorious for helicopter parenting, neurotic maternal hovering and over-privileged "one-upwomanship," I have been reading the conversation about "tiger mothering" with great interest. I have not yet read Battle Hymn of the Chinese Mother by Amy Chua, but when I do, I will bear in mind that memoirs like hers are designed to "stir it up," and that the author's intention was to be more descriptive than prescriptive.

I think there is something to the suggestion that overprivileged Western, American parents are not strict enough with their children. I know I'm not.

My Chinese-born acupuncturist and I speak often about the challenges of raising and educating teenagers. He has a high standard of excellence for his own children and uncommon affection and respect for his juvenile patients. When I mentioned Chua's book, he laughed, and the good doctor, in his imperfect English, said the perfect thing:

"No one way is the best way."

My children say I'm strict. I wish they were right. In theory, I'm "old school," a former teacher who believes a TV-free home and piano lessons do make children smarter, but I gave up, too soon I think, having failed to be hammering enough on the matter of practicing piano. Even getting them to practice guitar -- which they actually want to play -- is a push.

I've never called my children "garbage," and every birthday card my children have ever made for me has evinced tears of delight, but I've threatened to throw the television set out the window more times than I can count. I do not doubt my son would prefer being called "garbage" to listening to threats made against his beloved television set.

A year or so ago, I took a shot at teaching my kids some Latin. I wasn't Machiavellian enough. I wanted to be loved, not feared.

I guess I'm a "kitten mom."

As I read about Amy Chua's book, I found that there were merits in arguments on all sides, but I found precious little attention to how religious, spiritual and ethical education fit into "tiger mothering."

Isn't training a child's soul as important as training his or her mind? Ought not a child's talent for making the world a better place to be subject to at least the same degree of rigor a child's musical talent warrants?

I was having lunch recently with a man of the cloth, a friend who knows my family well enough to have a clear sense of how we function in the context of faith and religion. I confessed that my children's lack of a formal religious education sometimes troubles me. (I'm a practicing Catholic married to an agnostic Jew, teaching them about both, raising them in neither faith.) The clergyman reminded me that my family observes Shabbat, that we pray before meals, that we observe Jewish high holidays, that we (children included) work in social justice ministries at my church, that my children sometimes accompany me to mass, that they sing in the choir. His point was that my children are growing up with prayer and a sense that the life of the soul matters.

It may be that when it comes to the spiritual education of my children, I'm a bit of a "tiger mother."

I suppose I hold out hope that any rigor their father are able to bring to educating our children in areas of social justice, faith, religion and ethics might help to ward off the sense of entitlement to which children of privilege seem are all too subject.

I suppose I'm counting on their involvement in the secular parts of my parish life to offer my children -- the spawn of white middle-class college educated baby boomers -- some kind of perspective on the privilege they enjoy. They grew up working in a food pantry. They take part in Haitian Creole liturgies. They sing Spanish songs in the children's choir. They work in gay Catholic and HIV/ AIDS ministry. They've visited the homebound elderly. They've taken part in a program for children whose fathers are incarcerated.

I'd love to have a child who can play a Rachmaninoff piece on the piano perfectly, but given the choice between that and one who loves well, cherishes diversity and cares for the vulnerable in his or her society, I'd take the latter -- which is not to suggest that many children can not do both. Many do.

I tend to believe that an overemphasis on competitiveness does interfere with development of the soul.

My children are not prodigious musicians, but when my 15-year-old son with autism is setting the tables for the Hope Dinner at my church (a festive monthly dinner for people with AIDS/HIV and their families) as he does one Sunday each month, he IS, in a sense, playing Carnegie Hall.

Furthermore, I don't want my children to believe their worth is predicated on how well they play violin, what colleges they attend, or what kinds of jobs they have. I want their self-esteem to grow out of their belief in the dignity of all human beings. For me,
this belief is intertwined with religious feeling, but it need not be.

I was discussing "tiger mothering" recently with a friend who is a Chinese-born artist. As a girl, although she was poor, she hustled some free violin lessons without help from any adult. She majored in physics, for a spell, in the Ivy League. She left, pieced together an artist's education, and today she is a the mother of a gifted Chinese-born daughter (who plays the piano well) and a teacher who works primarily with students a racist educational system has failed.

Jane (I'll call her) pointed out how socio-economics figures into the analysis of "tiger mothering." A Chinese mother working 12 hours a day -- as Jane's did -- could not very well police her child's violin progress. Jane herself was often sewing alongside her mother in a New York City sweatshop when other elementary school girls her age were enduring Für Elise.

Today, Jane makes the world a better place through both her work as an educator and artist. She is multi-lingual. She has traveled the world. Her art is big. Her heart is big. What might have been lost had Jane's mother enjoyed liberty and privilege enough to "tiger mother" her Chinese daughter?

As a white woman reading about Chua's book, I found myself meditating on my own experiences with (in) Chinese family life. Like many children living in dysfunctional homes, I spent as much time as possible away from home as soon as I was able. Between the ages of 9 and 15, I found sanctuary in home of my Chinese-American best friend (I'll call her) Ann. Ann's family had a color television, a back yard and soda. I never saw a violin there. If there was a piano, no prodigies touched its keys. But I remember the Cantonese opera coming from her mother's bedroom, how vividly embroidered it was. I knew no Chinese, but I could tell it was love stories. Four decades later, that music still holds sway, sounding its plaintive strains of influence, some kind of persisting technicolor musica sacra that makes an appearance, now and then, in my poet's head as I compose.

The Ling family (I'll call them) ate dinner together every night at a big table in the kitchen. It was at that table where I learned to pick the ends off of fresh string beans. It was there I learned to eat squab (pigeon) without cringing and rice with chopsticks. It was there I learned how valuable sitting down for a nightly meal with one's children is.

In the aftermath of some mischief I instigated when Ann and I were about 12 -- we (really, I) spilled black enamel on their soft beige wall-to-wall carpeting -- her parents forgave us immediately. I stayed away for a week in shame, until, at her father's urging, Ann demanded that I resume visiting her at home.

Mr. and Mrs. Ling knew a 12 year-old girl who was around so much must have a trouble at home. Mr. Ling worked 10 or 12 hours, six days a week, and sat before the television news before dinner each night parsing The New York Times in his second language, his one nightly cocktail -- a Johnnie Walker Red -- at his side. Mr. Ling thought I was intelligent because I read newspapers and took an interest in current events. He liked Nixon, Gerald Ford, Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan, and I easily forgave it in him.

Circumstance had forced Ling and his wife to emigrate from the land of their birth in order to start a new life in a strange land where they would give birth to seven children, work six days a week at hard jobs, love their children and each other well -- and still somehow have love enough left over for a neighborhood white girl with the drunken father.

I credit this family with helping to raise, perhaps even save me. From them I learned to delight in the privilege entering within a culture outside one's own truly is.

Every year, as the Lunar New Year approaches, I remember the several times Mrs. Ling pressed a small red envelope bearing an ornate gold design (She called it "hum bau.") and containing a few folded dollars into my hand with a "Gung Hay Fa Choy." For good luck.

I always think of the Ling family on Chinese New Year. This year, as I reflect back, I am thinking of how lucky I was to have enjoyed a taste of "Chinese parenting." Remembering reminds me that we are born into this world to bring to it our goodness -- not just our greatness.

 

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