I am a Cub Mother

I just finished reading “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua.

It is a book that brought up a lot of controversy in the recent past in the media. She got a lot of flack about some of her tactics.

I have to admit, I did gasp at many of her examples, and dropped my mouth in horror at a few others. I shared some of her examples with my kids on our little road trip down to Cape Hatteras. They were pretty mortified and strangely fascinated. I liked sharing with them though because it made me look so much nicer. They were actually begging me for more stories from her book. Gabe even wants to read it (passing phase I know).

But there were a lot of things I found myself nodding my head with agreement, and then sharing them with Rob, and then sharing them with the kids as well.

I have always thought of myself as more of a “strict Mom” – in some things. And I know I am compared to some people in some things. Not compared to Amy Chua, but compared to some of the other Mom’s I know. Not that it is a bad thing – it’s just the way things are.

I emphasize some things, because I think we all choose our battles and choose what is important to us. Then, we are strict in those areas based on our own values. So I don’t like to generalize to say “I’m strict” because in some things, I am not strict enough. I guess it’s all relative.

In the book, she compares and contrasts the “highly generalized” Chinese mother: strict, demanding, unrelenting; with the “highly generalized” Western mother: less consistent, less demanding, more permissive.

So if Amy Chua is a Tiger Mother (Tiger = the living symbol of strength and power, generally inspired fear and respect), perhaps I can say I am a Cub Mother? Does that work? I think of myself as pretty demanding and strict, with some consistency, compassion, fun and love thrown in the mix. I checked it out with the kids, and they agreed being a Cub Mom – strict but cuddly too – could work. (And yes I know when she refers to a “Tiger” she is referring to the animal of the year she was born…I myself am rat according to the Chinese year I was born – but I don’t want to call myself a “Rat Mom” – it just sounds so very wrong – so I’ll stick to my own spin on the Tiger thing).

Some of the things I loved in the book:

The Birthday card story: I loved this story and shared it with my kids because I think her point is extremely valuable. Her husband makes dinner reservations at some mediocre restaurant for her birthday (because he had left it too late to get into a really good restaurant) and her daughters give her some lame, half hearted, thrown together, handmade birthday card. Now many mothers would praise anything their kids give them, and shower them with gratitude for the card. But instead she says:

“I don’t want this, I want a better one – one that you’ve put some thought and effort into. I have a special box, where I keep all my cards from you and this one can’t go in there”….” What if I gave you this for your birthday – would you like that? But I never would do that. No – I get you magicians and giant slides that cost me hundrds of dollars. I get you huge icecream cakes shaped like penguins, and I spend half my salary on stupid sticker and eraser party favours that everyone throws away. I work so hard to give you good birthdays! I deserve better than this. So I reject this.”

Wow. Hard core. But think about it…is it not true?? Why do we as mother’s lower our expectations and allow our kids (or other people for that matter) to treat us like that? Do we not deserve better? Do our children not need to learn how to treat us – which in turn influences how they treat their future spouses? Whenever I think I am being hard on my kids, I ask myself, do I really want them to accept the lowest common denominator? Or should I not teach them to expect more as they deserve more? I am trying to teach them their value – their infinite worth – so why should I undervalue my own?

I shared the story with my kids, so from now on I expect incredible birthdays….

She goes on to say “It’s too idealistic to expect children to do the right thing on their own”. They need to be taught the proper way of doing things -and sometimes that means letting them know (maybe not so harshly though?? Although sometimes that seems to be the only way to be taken seriously?!). We teach people how to treat us – so if we want to be treated well, we need to demand that. Of course, I think we can make a much better point by not acting so poorly in demanding that respect. But the main point is valuable I think.

Other points I loved:

“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you are good at it. To get good at it you have to work, and children on their own don’t want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences….Things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Westen parents tend to give up”.

Or even worse, we allow our young children to give up. We struggle with this in our household. We have a firm policy that you stick with what you start. If you don’t like it, we won’t sign you up again (after some serious discussion), but there is no dropping out halfway in between. Unfortunately we have no say in what happens outside our home; we have seen all the kids drop activities in the middle because they are “too bored” or “didn’t like it” or “it was too hard”. Since we have no say for these activities, there is not much we can do except reinforce that we don’t support that.

And why don’t we support that? Because of another point the Tiger Mom makes that I love:

“Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t”.

I also think you need to teach your kids about committment, reliability and responsibility – all things that can get shoved under the rug when you let them drop or give up on things.

She goes on further: “Western parents try to respect ther children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passion, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and nurturing environment”.

I think that sounds spot on about how I want to be as a parent. At the same time, I agree with what she says next:

” By contrast, Chinese parents believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they are capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can take away”.

Hmmm, I want to be this parent too. There must be a way to marry the two ways? Something to really think about how to balance….

She does do a little rant about getting good grades, and while I certainly don’t believe in the tactics of verbal abuse, shame and a hair tearing explosion, I certainly feel this is an area I can improve on. Kids need to be clear on our expectations, and when we set mediocre ones, they will rise to mediocre standards.

This past year, Rob and I have upped the ante on grades. It was a little hard going in as a blended family for this one, as again, both sides have different expectations. (OK- I have to admit, my ex is pretty much on the same page as Rob and me with most things – so it is always easier for that side of things). We decided regardless of what is tolerated in the other home, we have certain grade expecations that need to be reached. And guess what, almost everyone met our expectations this year. Everyone certainly made big improvements towards those expectations, so we think of “raising the bar” as being a real success. And the bar continues to be raised (we felt we had to do it a bit more gradually to help them develop the study habits they were lacking to be as successful as we now expect). We are rewarding the process and effort and not just the grades as we know grades can be arbitrary. But clear expectations are the way to go. Then supporting them in meeting those expectations. That certainly was very clear in the book. While the expectations are high, the Chinese mother is there every step of the way – no child is left to fend for themselves.

Those were some of my favorite parts – parts I guess that resonate well with me because I felt them, but she verbalized them so well!

There were parts that I clearly did not agree with: empty threats. This woman is crazy with her threats! I’m good with threatening my kids, but also very careful to only make threats I can follow through on. I have a running list in my head of “what is important to that specific child” i.e. their currency, – so if I threaten to take it away – it is meaningful.She threatens outrageous things that she can never follow through on. I am a big believer in consistency – the kids always know, if I say it, I am prepared to do it. I think in the end it gives the kids security – they always know where they stand. No surprises.

She also has a very odd view on happiness:

“Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on. Chinese parenting does not address happiness“.

She then goes on to say she questions whether children raised the Western way are any more happy? She thinks not. I’m not so sure.

What I do know for sure, from my own belief system is that happiness is the whole purpose of everything. Happiness – although hard to define – is the absolute goal. A state of peace. Being content. Being loved, admired and adored. Feeling grateful. Feeling secure. Feeling satisfied. Laughing. Learning. Loving. Having joy. Giving all those things right back freely to the ones we love. All those good things I associate with happiness – that to me is the ultimate goal. I think she completely missed that. Although ironically near the end of the book she comments while watching her daughter play the piano, “That’s my girl – she’s happy; the music is making her happy. Right then I knew that it had all been worth it”. So I guess happiness is the ultimte goal afterall.

One last thing that struck me. She tells her husband at one point while forcing her daughter to practice her music:

“I’m willing to put in as long as it takes, and I’m happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games”.

That to me was such a sad statement. I’m all about saying to my kids “My job is not to win the popularity contest. My job is to be your mother – not your friend.” But I don’t think that means being hated. I don’t think one parent should be the only one providing the structure and discipline while the other gets to be the “fun parent”. There is joy in being the fun one – but there is joy in being the strict one too. I don’t think it’s an either or situation. You need to have a balance of both.

I love reading books like this as it really makes you think about how you parent and why you do the things you do. There is nothing that compares to parenting. We have been entrusted these children for such a short period of time, and we have a responsibility to teach them the best way possible. So that means we need to brush up on our skills and make sure we are the best parent possible – set our own expectations high and put the effort in on a daily basis.

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