What I do these days at the library is breeze past my favorite shelves in the adult non-fiction section, grab what looks appealing, and then let myself be dragged to "where the toys are," as Marko puts it. I steal a glace at the YA section to see if the next book of the Hunger Games is in (it isn't) and then I plop in the play area and leaf through my books to decide what to check out. My "sections" of the non-fiction are gardening, farming, babies, homeschooling, families, and miscellaneous parenting stuff.
This week's picks were Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Home Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Daycare, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes. So, one about overparenting and one about underparenting.
Tiger Mother surprised me. I was prepared to hate it, because I can clearly see that tiger mothering is about as un-me as it's possible to be. 100 math worksheets after school? Three hours of violin practice? I refuse to even teach my son his letters, because I want him to work on normal toddler skills first and I believe there's plenty of time for him to learn to read. (I could read at four, as most of my siblings have ... and honestly, it's no great shakes. Just two more years of reading books instead of having them read to me.)
But instead, the book was astonishingly humble. The tone I got from Amy Chua was, "Well, I thought this was the way to go ... but it didn't really work all that well ... and look how crazy I got about it ... well, what do I know?"
For me, it was mainly a lesson in "what not to do." Chua pushed her daughters into music, where they both excelled. The one just plugged along and did well, without a whole lot of pushing needed (though she got it anyway). The other, though ... she fought the whole project, kicking and screaming, her whole childhood. She was brilliant, and ended up being a prodigy on the violin. It seemed she really loved it. But she eventually put her foot down and refused to keep up with it. One of her final words in the book is, "You ruined the violin for me." And from what Chua writes in her book, it seems she really did kill her daughter's joy in the violin -- after all those years of getting her good enough at it to love it. Chua is honest enough that you can clearly see where she went wrong ... the fights that she insisted on winning, where the only winning strategy would have been to let her daughter win.
I don't believe, as you know, in going head-to-head with a stubborn child. I say this, but isn't it usually the case that a stubborn child comes from stubborn parents? Right now I am trying, and trying, and trying to potty-train Marko. I could give up, but he refuses to give up. So I stick with it, but it's such a careful balancing act. If I don't remind him, he forgets. If I push too hard, he digs in his heels. I have never worked so hard to gently influence this child in my life And yet my own stubbornness pops up again and again, and I shriek, "NO! Not on the floor! In the potty! You have to go in the POTTY!" The second I do it, I know I've made a big mistake. And I'm right ... he refuses to sit on that potty for the rest of the day, and every time I turn around he's ripping off whatever protective clothing I've put him in.
If you are blessed with a child like that, all you can do is love them and work with them. Have you ever tried to swim across a river? If you battle the current, you're just going to end up with a faceful of water. If you don't battle the current, you'll be swept out to sea. The only option is to move across it, angling toward shore, so that you're always working with the current and not against it. That's the way it is with a child like Lulu Chua (or like Marko).
That is my conclusion from the book. Amy Chua's is a little different. She says, in short, "Well, I might not have been the best mom ever, but at least my children are successful." And yet, I think the main problem is that she never seems to give any reflection to her definition of success. Her children are successful because they get straight A's, are musical prodigies, and get into good colleges. She considers herself successful because she went to Harvard and eventually became a law professor at Yale. And yet she admits that her first interview at Yale, she was so overwhelmed with anxiety that she became too tongue-tied to make a good impression. She also admits that she went into law for no particular reason, because it seemed like a good subject to choose, but found herself with no enthusiasm for it and no particular ideas for papers. Meanwhile her husband, also a Yale professor but raised by a much more laissez-faire system, loves law and writes 100-page legal papers for fun. One doesn't get the impression that Chua does anything for fun, ever. That just doesn't fit my definition of success. I want my children to find out what they love, and do that. You don't need a pushy tiger mother to tell you to practice violin for three hours if you love it so much there's nothing you'd rather do. I think part of why I'm so happy with my life is that I've determined that there is nothing I'd rather do. I don't have to be the best at it, or win the most accolades. I love it; it's its own reward.
The other book I read, Home Alone America, was more scholarly. What it lacked in eloquence, it made up for with statistics. The basic thesis: we've justified spending less and less time with our kids, whether because of divorce or because of double incomes, on the grounds that our kids were all right -- only they're not all right.
Overall I agreed. The chapters about aggressiveness in daycare, behavioral drugs in school, sex, divorce, and boarding schools were all pretty impressive, building a strong connection between how much time kids get to spend with their parents and how well they do. The focus was mainly not on how kids turn out when they grow up, but whether they are happy and successful as children. There were two sections I had reservations about, though: the section on mental illness and the one on obesity. For obesity, yes, I can clearly see that children who are home alone all afternoon will be eating more junk and playing outside less than children whose parents are home. But blaming the entire obesity epidemic on that fact is a bit much, considering we are also given very suspect dietary advice, and considering the many unhealthy foods that we are led to believe are good for kids (take breakfast cereal, for instance). And in the mental illness section, I can see how kids with a tendency to ADHD would do better with a parent around during the day than otherwise ... but the author gives absolutely no evidence for her suggestion that absent parents are to blame for the autism epidemic.
The section on punitive boarding schools for "troubled" teens was fascinating to me. It also made me think that maybe I've complained too much about my own experiences ... as bad as they were, there apparently are lots of kids who have it way worse. Apparently these schools are becoming more and more popular -- increasing tenfold in the last ten years. Many are in foreign countries to avoid government scrutiny. And their methods are so abusive they have (as our school has) forums full of angry adult graduates, even while parents give glowing testimonials on the school's website. Eerie.
Another thing I found a little iffy about it is that the author goes on and on and on about how bad daycare is for kids under five, and how bad after-school care is for kids over six, and how bad boarding school is for teenagers ... but she never mentions school itself as a problem. Her own children, she mentions, are in school or she wouldn't have time to write this book. But what magical thing happens at six to make kids magically ready for a six-hour separation from their parents? As she mentions, being in foreign territory with groups of other kids is a stressor ... are we sure that much stress is good for kids? I suppose there is no method to study this, though -- homeschooled kids are such a minority. If all schooled children had the same illness, we would assume it was just a feature of being a child.
One thing she says, though, is definitely true: it's a bit taboo to talk about this stuff. Since many mothers don't have a choice about leaving home to work, and since many couples really can't seem to stay together (even if one partner may be trying their hardest), no one wants to hear that daycare or divorce are bad for kids. This is especially true when so many adults have been raised this way themselves, and take it for the norm. However, she writes, if there's really no choice, there's no need to feel guilty because it isn't our fault. Her book is to urge those who do have a choice to stay with their kids, not just for the sake of their own kids, but because society as a whole benefits from having more adults around where the kids are, keeping an eye on things. It's definitely an idea I can get behind.
In the end, both of these books left me feeling like I'm doing the right thing. Not battling Marko tooth and nail may mean he'll never be a concert violinist, but perhaps it won't stop us from getting along well. And staying home to be with my children really is a valuable job, even if not everyone in society appreciates it.
Now if only my hold on Catching Fire would come in ...