My path intersected three times with Ms. Amy Chao this week. It started with a piece on NPR while driving home, followed by two printed articles on her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”. The author, American born of Chinese parents, wrote a memoir on how she raised her two daughters according to the notoriously strict precepts of Chinese culture.
Mothers all over the country are up in arms. What do you mean she wouldn’t allow sleepovers? And didn’t she really let her daughter go to the bathroom until the little girl could perform a piano piece to perfection? Did she really call one of her daughters “garbage”? The horror…
If it is true that Chinese parents turn out children bred to excel by adhering to a code of “super tough love”, I am not sure I could approve. Obedience and respect for the family seem heavily engrained in Chinese tradition, even today, sometimes at the expense of healthy subversion and constructive criticism on both parts. On the other hand, what I noticed when I first moved to this country made me shiver in disbelief. At one point, I found myself plopped in the epitome of a typical American bedroom community, pretty houses “Truman show style”, far away from the urban surroundings I was accustomed to – I found it scary mainly because I did not know what to make of it.
A common trend, shared by the young mothers who were also my lovely and generous neighbours, seemed to emerge – these women, mostly stay at home moms, spent the bulk of their time devising strategies on how to be better mothers. This involved shuttling toddlers or teenagers to endless streams of activities, planning play dates for three-year olds, hosting sleep depriving sleepovers and, the mother lode of American schools, volunteering.
Volunteering at your child’s school deserves a category all of its own. Amid catty women hell-bent on topping each other, the young woman has her pick between hosting bake sales, selling Christmas wrapping in July, participating in art classes, being a recess monitor, going on field trips and the like. On top of being the helper on preposterous homework assignments which involve building, cooking and the gamut of science experiments, the hapless parent is virtually trapped for the 13 years (or more if you include pre-school or have multiple kids) the child goes to school.
My first objection was that if one pays taxes, a good portion of which is devoted to the school system, why be asked to contribute what is undoubtedly an excessive amount of parents’ time and money? And why should a woman’s life be run by a child’s constant need for activity? Where is it written that the experience of childhood is enhanced by keeping a kid occupied all his waking hours? What is wrong with leaving a child in her room, with toys and her imagination? Or let her figure out who she wants to play with or which sport she wants to play?
Reading stories, family outings, an afternoon at the museum, swimming lessons a couple of times a week used to be enough, leaving room to breathe for both child and mother. When I uttered my opinion in my unself-conscious big mouth way, the kindest retort was that “I didn’t understand”.
What I do understand is that the sum total of what any child needs is love, support and respect. And the freedom to express themselves. With some parameters – maybe not as strict as those imposed by a traditional Chinese family – but limits nonetheless to make any experience safer, whether physically or emotionally. The rest will take care of itself.