Thursday, February 24, 2011

One question: Do the Tiger Mother's children make their own lunches?

I haven’t yet read the new book by Amy Chua, long known as a scholar within the legal and academic community but more recently achieving meteoric fame for her controversial parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I’ve read plenty of blog posts and articles devoted to the topic since the Wall Street Journal first excerpted it back in January, though, as well as numerous book reviews. And, of course, I read the Wall Street Journal excerpt itself.

But one question that remains unanswered for me is how much of a priority Amy Chua put on self-reliance. Because while I understand that she has proved herself nearly infallible at molding her children into straight-A students and musical prodigies, what I’d really like to know is how much she did for them and how much they learned to do for themselves along with the five-hour piano practices and the all-night study sessions. Could they make their own breakfasts or run a load of laundry? Did it matter to her whether or not they could?

It’s easy for me to say I don’t care that my kids, unlike hers, will probably never take the stage at Carnegie Hall; that’s far enough out of the realm of likelihood that I can afford to be nonchalant about it. What would make me as a parent envious – and what would probably make me subscribe to a different parenting approach from my own – is if it turned out her children were simply more self-sufficient, back when they were the age of my kids, than mine are.

I realize this is something of a recurrent theme with me, and when I gripe about it, there are always a few well-meaning readers who say “Well, you really could do something to change this, you know.” Yes, I complain a lot that Tim would rather stay thirsty than pour himself a glass of water if I’m not around to do it for him – and people respond with “So let him get a little thirsty.” But it’s hard to find a reasonable response to Holly’s perennial unwillingness to dress herself in the morning; I can’t just say “Fine, if you don’t dress yourself you won’t go to school today.” That wouldn’t get the job done, and she needs to go to school.

Yet it continues to vex me that morning after morning, she insists she needs my help in order to get dressed and brush her teeth, just as it vexes me that Tim will wait an hour or more after getting out of bed to have breakfast if I’m busy rather than just slide the bagel into the toaster himself.

As I often remind myself, I was not only able to do things for myself but was taking care of other people’s children as a regular babysitter when I was Tim’s age. Other parents trusted me at the age of 12 to make their children’s lunches and get them to bed on time, in unfamiliar houses; so surely this isn’t too much to expect of my own child. But it’s a very slow process around here. I’m trying to phase in one expectation at a time, and I’m making a little progress: Tim now understands he can’t have seltzer – which is almost all he drinks – unless he operates the seltzer maker, and if I ask two or three times he’ll set the table before dinner. Holly feeds the dog, when I remind her. But neither one of them is exactly brimming with initiative.

I don’t mean to complain; it’s just a point of comparison between my parenting priorities and those of other people. It’s not only author Amy Chua; I’ve observed in other families we know that kids who are developing significant talents in music or sports tend to have a lot done for them along the way. Maybe it’s just envy, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Amy Chua or someone under her hire was making sandwiches for her daughters and folding their laundry while they did their five hours of piano practice.

I realize it doesn’t have to be either/or; I’m just interested in looking at it as a matter of prioritization. I’ve been dressing Holly almost every day for eight and a half years; right now I’m more than ready to give up that particular pleasure. True, she hasn’t developed the self-discipline to practice a musical instrument or even study her multiplication tables for more than about fifteen minutes on end. But if she’d comb her hair and brush her teeth without me asking, and if Tim would make his own breakfast now and then, I’d feel that I’d conquered a quest of my own. The reward would for me seem even better than a headline at Carnegie Hall. Right now, anyway.

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