Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Basset Hound Mother

I read Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother recently, for my book club. It's about the author's relationships with her daughters--in particular, her parenting style, which she refers to as "Chinese Tiger Mother."

I would never have read it of my own choosing. I had heard that the mother in this book was severely demanding of her daughters--Draconian, by American standards; even...crazy. It was unclear to me why the book was published at all, except as the latest entry in the category of "unimaginably grim childhood,"(along with A Child Named It and Room).

But I liked it! I thought Amy Chua made some very astute observations about how discipline breaks down from generation to generation: The first generation to arrive in America is motivated to labor and sacrifice for the hopes and betterment of the next generation.  The "next generation," saddled with the guilt of their parents' sweat and sacrifice, toils in the classroom (or in service or business...) to make the most of the opportunities afforded to them.

It's true! My grandfathers both had Ph.d.s. My parents both have Masters degrees. I have a Bachelors degree, I think. (I never actually received it in the mail, but I'm sure I earned the credits.) And I have some kind of publishing certificate from a long-deceased institution.

At this rate, my son will graduate from high school, maybe, and if he's lucky, he'll pick up a certificate from the back of a cereal box.

Amy Chua didn't want that for her daughters, so she raised them the same way that her Chinese immigrant parents raised her--i.e., to be a super achiever.

One daughter plays violin, the other plays piano. They both practice two or three hours a day. They're expected to get all A's. An A-minus is a failure and a disgrace.

They're expected to haul laundry and carry their own luggage, so they can develop some vague sense of what real physical labor entails (laundry and luggage).

They don't have time to go to dances or sleepovers. They don't have friends to the house, because they're always practicing or studying.

They keep their rooms clean.

Amy Chua's girls outdistance all of their peers in everything, becoming prodigies and virtuosos.

But it doesn't all go perfectly. Some of her tiger mother technique backfires spectacularly, threatening to shred the fabric of the entire family.

But that just makes Amy Chua more human and likable. As rigid as she can be as a parent, her perspective is unflinchingly clear, honest, and full of good humor--which you wouldn't necessarily expect from a Chinese Tiger Mother.

The book spoke to me. It inspired me to reassess my parenting style and implement some groundbreaking changes.

In some respects (narrowly defined), I was already off to a good start.

My son, an only child, was already taking lessons on three different instruments. (Yeah, you're impressed!) It's because he's sentimental. He tries one, and he just can't bear to give it up. And then he tries another...And before you know it, there are three.

The first new rule was that he has to practice piano and cello a minimum of four times a week. AND he absolutely must practice each instrument for a MINIMUM of fifteen minutes per session--up from three minutes per session.

You do the math--it's a 500% amplification over the previous regime.

So, we've got that going.

Next: He is not allowed to play X-box before he has finished all of his homework and practiced piano or cello.  This was in put into effect immediately after I read the book.

We have since slipped. Josh MUST commence homework by six p.m.

This held for a while, but gradually morphed into Josh eating at six p.m. before retiring to the bathroom for 45 minutes, after which time he is REALLY ready to launch into homework.

Amy Chua makes an excellent point in saying that it is harder to be a Tiger Mother than to be a typical contemporary (what animal would I be?) Basset Hound Mother.

It's true! It's a lot of work to enforce all of that policy.

I'm not at all sure I have the motivation or attention span or patience to oversee the quality of my son's work, to check that his homework is always turned in and his cello is always in tune. (I only have a Bachelors degree myself; it wasn't difficult to come by--I don't have it with me right now.)

I listen to him play piano, and I can tell when he's improvising (That's not Tchaikovsky! ...Is it?) I yell at him from the other room.

I don't know a damn thing about cello, except that I like it--any note, any string, I don't care what you do to the cello, it sounds awesome.

I admire Amy Chua for her dedication--I really do. But I am also comforted by the fact that it didn't go entirely according to plan with one of her daughters.

I mean, from Amy Chua's perspective, the catastrophe was accepting her straight-A daughter having an A-minus attitude toward violin, and grudgingly allowing her to have a social life. But let's embrace that as a true catastrophe, and conclude that one daughter was horribly damaged and the other not so much.

Because that would mean my son has a 50/50 chance of surviving his Basset Hound Mother's parenting style, which is, I'll admit, long on good intentions, but short of leg.





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