Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Amy Chua, You've Got Nothing On My Mom

The whole world is going gaga over this article.

But to me, this is old hat. Clearly Amy Chua has never met my mom.

Yeah, Chinese moms may be tough. But you want to know from tough? Welcome to the Uzbekistani mother, shipped straight from the Old Country, tough as nails, opinionated, realistic, someone who calls it like it is and takes no crap from anyone. This is a woman who taught herself English as a god-knows-what-number language (she already spoke Farsi, Russian, Uzbek, Italian and so forth), took the TOEFL, got into Princeton, turned it down to go to Stern, worked her heart out to go to nursing school and raised a daughter who got an 800 on her verbal SAT. I'm an immigrant's daughter who arguably should be speaking heavily accented English and stumbling over words. But that's not what my mother wanted and that's not what she allowed.

The only difference between me and Amy Chua's kids is that my mother expected more from me than Amy expects from her children. I had to get straight As in everything and I was permitted and expected to participate in extracurricular activities as long as this did not bring my grades down. Furthermore, if I was going to do something, I had to do it in the best way possible. If I was trying out for Drama, I had better land the lead role. This pressurized environment wasn't always easy, as I wrote:
    I remember angrily accusing my mother that she was too strict with me, that I never had friends because of her high standards (she believed in friends who would challenge you, not people who you were always benefiting), that she didn't give me enough candy, the way the other parents did, that her idea of a birthday party wasn't "cool" enough. I hated her rigid attitude and how she disliked me "enabling" others (a favorite word of hers, or so I thought), her demands that I finish what I start, that I take what I touch. I hated the way she cared so much about grades and was displeased if I brought home an A- or B+ instead of an A. Oh, I hated many things. Let no one ever accuse me of being grateful.
In my house there were also no sleepovers, playdates, TV or Internet, a grade less than A, the ability to quit my Tae Kwon Doe lessons. The first four were considered luxuries and only happened on weekends when I didn't have to study for a major test. The latter two were non-negotiable. On the other hand, my mother never called me "garbage" in public or otherwise and she showered me with gifts of books, beautiful jewelery and exquisite clothes at all times. I felt loved even when I was furious at her. She also never forbade me to go to the bathroom until I got something right, although I did have to do many, many hours worth of math during my summers and evenings when everyone else was outside playing. My father went through the entire geometry book with me- I did every problem in that book, and it was hundreds of pages long- when I was in 9th grade. My mother was strict, extremely so, and very disciplined. She didn't reward what she saw as bad behavior and the most common statement in my house when it came to discipline was the calm: "This is not a threat. This is a promise I intend to keep," which was filled with foreboding.

But with her strictness my mother raised a disciplined, intelligent girl who got straight As through elementary school, high school and most of college. That girl read the canon of great classics (Russian, English, French) by age 14 and the entire 'David Copperfield' by age 11. She had mastered Lord of the Rings by 9, when she was in fourth grade. She won awards for her writing and was consistently published in various forums. She attended a fancy prep school and caught up on a trimester's worth of work when she was 15. The girl managed to do this while participating in drama performances, taking Tae Kwon Doe, writing for the school newspaper or acting as its Editor, participating in Israel Club, Medical Ethics Club, NCSY, the Honors Society and an assortment of other clubs and conferences. She managed to keep her head above water even when faced with great adversity and injustice. And this is only one out of the four children, each of whom possesses outstanding qualities far and away removed from others of their age.

It's true my mother mellowed a little when it came to Dustfinger and the Boys, mostly because I pointed out that she was making our lives as social individuals very difficult by refusing to conform to certain norms. But the core 'Boss' is still there. And I don't know about you- but I prefer the way I was raised to the mollycoddling and neglect that passes for parenting in certain parts of the world today. My mother was strict, but I see her as the blacksmith who forged me on the anvil, pounding away until I could become who I was meant to be. I may not have appreciated it then, but boy, do I ever appreciate it now. Amy Chua goes a little overboard in her parenting, especially when it comes to being hurtful towards her kids and calling them names. But the essence of what she is trying to do is good. My mom grew up in a world where every student who had failed had their name called publicly at assembly during their elite KGB School homeroom. These kids were shamed into doing better. That shame culture isn't something I think is good or healthy for most children- but the expectation that the child can do better and what is more, owes it to her parents to do better than she knew was possible- is one that I welcome. The fact that any grade below A was not acceptable in my house made me hate my mother at times. But it also made me try harder. And the end result was that I was empowered when I realized I could do much more than I had formerly imagined.


Irina Tsukerman said...

I'd agree with almost everything you say here except for one big thing: I don't want my children working hard to please ME or thinking that they do that because they "owe" me good grades. I want them learning to appreciate effort and hard work and discipline for their OWN sake and the sake of their future children. The only thing they owe me is respect and effort of becoming upstanding individuals with good values. But I want them to have those same standards for themselves, I want them to aspire to the kind of life I envision for them, not because it'll please me (though it certainly will) but because that's what they should want for themselves and the future generations.

Irina Tsukerman said...

P.S. And yes, I think there is a vast difference between having high standards for your child's choice of friends and their routine (i.e. restricting playtime to weekends/after they are done with work), and having the child not learn any social skills. I see plenty of people around me who are intelligent, and hard workers, and who've accomplished things in life... but who don't know how to behave in a social settings and aren't capable of maintaining normal relationships with people.

Anonymous said...

This works if your child is naturally intelligent. However, if a child has a learning disability or simply does not have the intellectual ability to reach the top of his class, this method of parenting could be seriously hurtful.

Chana said...


The way it worked in my house is that everyone had jobs. My parents' jobs were to go to work and earn a living and put food on the table. My job as a child was to study hard and get good grades. This is what we each owed the other; these were our responsibilities. I don't think children can necessarily understand at young ages that they need to learn for their own sake.

Anon 2:01,

You're right, although it depends. Rebbetzin Greer, for instance, turns out brilliant children every year with her teaching program, despite the supposed differences they possess. That having been said, I agree that there may sometimes be actual limitations that need to be respected.

RT said...

It's understood that the principle of 'to each child according to his/her abilities 'must rule when it comes to effective parenting. Needless to say, it's important to validate children's emotions,show respect, love and acceptance for who they are. By the same token, if a child is capable of doing better academically and/or socially, but is not willing to put the necessary time to achieve the results or wasn't taught the proper skills- it's appropriate for a parent to state to a child ‘I expect you to do your best' and provide/help develop the right tools in order for the child to succeed. When a child is properly stimulated, his interests and the various opportunities his education provide him with will help him learn more about what he's good at and how to integrate areas of weakness so that they do not become debilitating.

To Irina:
I agree with you. Children should not be working hard to please their parents. They do need to appreciate "effort and hard work and discipline for their OWN sake and the sake of their future children".

Irina Tsukerman said...

Chana: I agree with you in the sense that it IS the children's job to be doing whatever they need to prepare themselves for life/higher education/future jobs, so in that sense it's their role and their job. But again, the parents should make sure the children understand that it's for their own benefit in the long run. If the only reason they are doing that is to please their parents, they will not get very far.

RT said...

Irina, Chana makes a valid point in saying:" I don't think children can necessarily understand at young ages that they need to learn for their own sake." It takes time and effort on a child's part. You might want to read the following:

Anonymous said...

What a post!
I know what your parents did for you and why. In your case the results were and continue to be very good.

Irina Tsukerman said...

Anonymous: Well, I guess ultimately parents know their own children best, so whatever works. I guess if a child is very young they can't understand the long-term consequences of their actions, but I think depending on their level of intelligence, etc. school age children (especially now) tend to become more aware of the world, etc. Honestly, I look at kids and am surprised by how in tune many of them are, and not just in terms of gadgets, but everything else!

Anonymous said...

Please read David Brooks in today's NY Times.
Joel Rich

PS remember that what works for one doesn't always work for all, and vica versa - I think your High School experience probably is a good example

Yosh said...

I second that, look at Brook's NYTimes column today.

I remember in my (public) high school - the one in the rich/Jewish/Asian suburb) - there were a ton of obedient little Asian girls in my honors/AP classes who never said a word and diligently got A's. Frankly though, none of them had any idea what the material was actually about. They'd be perfect perma-associates at a law firm, or medical technicians etc, but they don't know how to land a client, or make a creative diagnosis.

That said, being tough with a smarter understanding of necessary life skills is probably a good idea.