Monday, June 20, 2011

The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of One Tiger Mom

We were tiger parents once, maybe not to the same degree as Amy Chua, but we always erred on the side of high expectation. I mean Big Sissy not only got into the best high school in the region (= set for life), she also got into the best elementary and junior high schools before that. She could read when she was three and spoke English as a second language fluently by third grade. She was also pretty good at calligraphy and piano. We pushed her hard like many Asian parents do.

Somewhere along the way, it became clear, even in Big Sissy's case, that none of our pushing and criticism worked if there wasn't intrinsic motivation. She had to find her own passions. Still, our tiger expectations followed Sissy through high school. She succeeded, but she was bitter, and only now,in her twenties, is she able to feel grateful.

Today, as I waited for Sky and Pink P at their gymnastics lesson, I was talking to a self-proclaimed tiger dad whose three-year old twins are already taking gymnastics, piano, dance, and swim lessons. As I listened to him describe the various harsh parenting measures he uses with his girls, I thought, "We were tiger parents once, too..."

This is not a shift that occurred because we suddenly decided that high expectations and strict rules were not the way to go. In fact, we started out pushing Sky as hard as we'd pushed Big Sissy. (After all, despite the bitterness and the fights of her adolescent years, she's turned out pretty good.) But it became very clear, very quickly that Sky could not be pushed, and he would not respond productively to any form of strict discipline.

My head spins when I think about giving examples of how we failed to "discipline" Sky. Time outs only worked briefly for a few months when he was four. Rewarding him with stickers, removing his privileges, cajoling, pleading, bribing, crying...none of these things works with Sky. He is smart enough and curious enough to learn just about anything. He is physically adept enough to succeed at any sport. But, he isn't interested in impressing people with his vast knowledge nor does he care about being a star athlete.

It's hard to push a kid to perfect his reading, learn his math tables, and practice writing hiragana when you can't get him to ignore the various sensory distractions that demand his focus or to stop obsessing about what his little sister is doing or to abbreviate his detailed explanation of how the various parts of the body work. It's frustrating to know that he would be capable of just about anything if you could just get through the static of information that seems to crowd his brain.

Some days, I think I have just softened up and become one of those indulgent Western parents Chua criticizes in her book, and I feel guilty. But then I remember the seemingly endless stream of meetings with teachers and therapy appointments and the countless days of struggling to get Sky to do things that shouldn't be that hard, and I realize I am still a tiger mom. The tenacity is still there, but my fight is much different with Sky.

I'm still working out my new post-post-tiger-mom parenting paradigm. Maybe one day I will figure it out.


For the NY Times book review of Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, follow this link:

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