Wednesday, March 02, 2011

PUMAs,Tiger Mothers, and Grizzly Mamas, Oh My!

I've been meaning to write a post about this controversial parenting style that has been making waves in the literati class. There have been critiques written and posted on The Huffington Post, book reviews, a cover story in Time magazine, and just last night, the author Amy Chua (a Chinese-American professor at Yale Law School) was interviewed by Charlie Rose. Very informative and gave me a better understanding about her that her critics failed to do.

First, for those who are confused by the post's title, I just thought of the classic line from The Wizard of Oz uttered by Dorothy when she's afraid. What is it about these predator type animals that have caused people to compare themselves to them? For those who recall the exciting Democratic primary in 2008, PUMAs were supposedly Hillary Clinton supporters who were so offended by the apparent "sexism" against her during the campaign that they claimed that they would be voting for John McCain in the fall. The acronym stood for "Party Unity, My Ass." The reality was that the group was invented by a Republican woman who claimed to be a Hillary supporter but was more likely a paid operative trying to lead disillusioned Hillary supporters into defecting to the Republican camp. Epic fail! Due in large part to the cynicism of Republicans thinking that offering an ignorant, inexperienced female candidate was enough to gain female Democratic voters.

Then last fall, one of the major news magazines featured a cover story about the Mama Grizzlies: Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell, Jan Brewer, Michelle Bachmann, Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, and that joke in Nevada whose name has long been forgotten. I had meant to write a post about that phenomenon, as well, but never got around to it. I think its silly to compare oneself to a predator type animal. It gives a bad impression: you're wild, unreasonable, and dangerous. Not exactly admirable qualities. If Barbara Walters asked me what kind of animal I'd be or choose to represent myself, I'd pick either an owl, a dolphin, or a prairie dog.

But forget the PUMAs and the Grizzly Mamas. Now a new predator metaphor has entered the public consciousness: Tiger Mother. Promoted by the current best seller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.

When I first heard about this book, through various essays that critiqued this strict parenting style, I was outraged. Chua sounded less like a mother and more like a fascist prison guard. The controversy focused on her demands of her two daughters that they must only get A's on their report cards, they could not act in any plays, they had to play an instrument (and only the violin or the piano), and they could not have any sleepovers or go to any. No playdates when the girls were younger, either. Perhaps the most outrageous claims in the book was Chua calling her daughter "garbage" and refusing a home made Mother's Day card!!!

Sounds like the Mom from HELL!!!

However, on the Charlie Rose Show, she came across as reasonable, if a bit strict. She is right that children need routines and to know what's expected of them. Adults have to set boundaries and parents who are too lax in their parental style are doing society a huge disservice. One family I know, I'm shocked by what they allow their child to get away with. It can get annoying with the child's bad manners. I wouldn't tolerate some of the things I've seen go on, but I keep my mouth shut since its not my concern. I'm not a parent (yet) so its probably much easier to talk than actually do. Still, I'd love the challenge of parenthood someday (soon!).

Chua claims that her parental style is quite common in China as well as among immigrant communities in the U.S. I know that this is true, because in the high school I graduated from, which had a large population of foreign students, the students from Vietnam, Korea, and India were quite studious and serious about their studies, while the American students were all about the social life. Part of the problem with childhood is that children often have a strong will and want to do whatever they want to do. Its up to the parents to provide guidance.

My parents made me do things that I absolutely HATED. What they were trying to do is see what I was good at and what I had a passion for. Many failed to take hold, but one thing that was a big conflict was that my parents made me take piano lessons. There were days when a half hour at the piano felt like eternity and I would cry as I played, wanting the half hour to be overwith. Yet, in the 6th and 7th grades, I had an excellent piano teacher (a Mormon lady, even!) who entered me into recitals where I scored the highest level, which was more a reflection of her than me (she had a great track record of her students scoring at the top level). These were complicated pieces that I had to play without the sheet music in front of me. When my family moved to Germany, though, I stopped playing the piano because of the lack of a teacher. Now, I can't play at all and I consider that a shame. I wish I had kept up with it. Its a fun instrument to play. Oh, and playing the piano is not like riding a bicycle. I can ride a bicycle after years of not riding one, but I can't play the piano at all, other than really basic stuff.

While I believe that Amy Chua made a great case for herself and her parental style, there are a few critiques I have. She perpetuates the stereotype about Asians. In my job, I deal with music and often have to contact various record labels to get permission to use their songs on the CDs that the company I work for distributes. One such record label represents classical music performers and when I looked at the roster of musicians they represent, most of them were Asians and they played the violin or the piano. Why only those two instruments? Its almost a form of snobbery and a bad stereotype.

Recent winner of the Grammy Awards Best New Artist is Portland-native Esperanza Spalding, a dynamic young African American lady who oozes charisma.What instrument does she play? The BASS!!! Its even bigger than her!! She's distinct and is gaining national attention with her surprise win. If she had gone the hip hop / rap route, would we have heard of her? She'd be just another young African American in a crowded genre. Instead, she picked to play an instrument that many don't volunteer to learn and it has worked wonders for her career (she's performing at the Cape Town, South Africa Jazz Festival this summer!!! She's already performed for the Obamas in the White House FOUR TIMES!!!).

I also think its unrealistic to expect all A's on a report card. Sure, many people get them, but does it really mean that they are intelligent? In college, I lost out on one A for the class grade because I had forgotten to quote an author from our reading assignment in my paper. It was a class that I really loved, too: Political Geography. I had the most creative final exam (it was a take home test about an imaginary continent and we had to write about which imaginary countries would be likely allies and which would have conflicts, etc.). I actually named each country and city on the map!! Still, that one mistake of not using a quote from an author in our reading assignment meant I got an A- instead of an A. I was upset about it, but it wasn't the end of the world. I realized how subjective the grading system is anyway. It generally proves that some people are able to jump through the hoops the professors hold out for them. Regurgitating data back to the teacher is not a sign of intelligence to me.

My biggest critique, though, is that this Tiger Mother shows no indication that she has intuitively figured out what her daughters were interested in. Like my parents for example. They put me into all kinds of activities: gymnastics, ballet, cub scouts, soccer, piano, trombone, boy scouts, evangelical Christian youth groups...but did not seem to notice the one thing I was constantly doing: writing. Writing has always been my passion. I've wanted to be a published author since I was 11 years old. I even attended a Young Author's Conference twice in the early 1980s when we lived in Nebraska. Cartoons were another passion, but my dad always criticized me, saying that I should draw real art, not cartoons. I did want to be a cartoonist at one point, too.

If I have the privilege of being a father some day, I plan to pay attention to what my children are interested in or show interest in, and encourage it. The point of children is not to live our lives or allow us to live vicariously through them. Its to nurture them in their talents and interests and that requires an attentive parent who really knows his or her children. Amy Chua seems to be pushing her daughters into conformist, stereotypical lives: overachievers who are academically superior and virtuosos in the standard instruments of the elite class: piano and violin.

On Jimmy Kimmel Live after the Oscar telecast, actor Tom Hanks had a special video played where he acted as the over-involved Beauty Pageant dad. It was hilarious (shades of Little Miss Sunshine). He was more into it than his beauty contestant daughter (not sure if he really has a daughter that young, since his sons are all grown now). This self-involved parenting style that does not pay attention to the child's natural interests and talents could very well backfire someday. Like all else in life, balance is good. Guidance and direction for children, while allowing some freedom to explore and have fun.

At any rate, I plan to read the book at some point. Probably check it out from the library or something. I buy way too many books, so I need to use the library more for books like these. For now, I'm reading Senator Scott Brown's autobiography and I am really impressed by his writing style (or his ghostwriter's style) as well as his sad youth. Reading about his childhood only makes the Republican Senator even more likable. I'll write a review when I finish reading it.

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