Tough love and pushover parenting
I was in a bookstore when my daughter Caroline held up Amy Chua's tough-love book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." It's a new book written by a Chinese-American mother about raising her children the Chinese way and looking down on the weak Western way of raising children.
I started looking at the book and silently compared her child-rearing methods to ours. If her children misbehave, she threatens to burn their stuffed animals. Our strategy is a little bit different. My girls own about 100 stuffed animals, many of which are different kinds of bunnies. I have never threatened to burn any one of them, but one time when the girls were younger, we were hosting a birthday party for one of the stuffed bunnies. The girls were misbehaving, so I threatened not to pick up the carrot cake at Stop & Shop that was being used for the bunny's birthday cake. I eventually did pick it up, but I only had the bakery put "happy birthday" on the cake without the bunny's name. I can be firm.
According to the book, the "Tiger Mom" makes her daughters practice the violin and piano four hours a day. Caroline's viola was in the back of my wife's car for six months without moving. Julia's cello is constantly on the way out the door, so it is kicked at least three times a day. On average, it trips one of us each day. I have heard my daughters practice about four times total in the last four years. My daughter Julia claims to practice constantly "in my head." I wonder how far that would get with Ms. Chua.
The girls used to take piano lessons. They dropped out and soon framed photographs of dead relatives appeared on the top of our piano, then pictures of relatives who were still alive multiplied on the piano, too. Soon knickknacks loaded down the piano.
Eventually, it got to be such a hassle to clean off the piano just to play it that we got a Casio electronic keyboard. It came programmed with songs that we could play with one button. Songs like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the "Wedding March."
This last one came in handy when they dressed up the bunnies for mock weddings.
Tiger Mom has called her children names. This was the biggest thing that bothered me in my brief perusal of the book. My parents used to spank me. Sometimes with a belt, but they never called me a name. They never called me "stupid" or "garbage." They would differentiate me from the action. My dad would say, "That was a very stupid thing you did. I'm going to beat you for it."
I never understood the distinction until I went over to a friend's house and his dad repeatedly called him "stupid." I remember being shocked. I had never heard an adult talk that way to a child.
My parents were strict. Much stricter than Laura and I are. Ms. Chua and her husband are not in perfect agreement on how to raise their children. She is stricter than her husband is. In our house, Laura is the Good Cop. I am the Bad Cop.
Once I asked my mother if she and dad ever played Good Cop, Bad Cop with me and my siblings. She said, "No, we played Bad Cop, and Really Bad Cop." Comparing ourselves to our parents and the Tiger Mom, Laura and I are Good Cop, Really, Really Good Cop. Or Good Cop and Accomplice.
I would like to think that we are preparing our children to compete in a global world. We may be kidding ourselves. Like the Tiger Mom, I want my kids to accomplish something. I just don't know what. They will have to figure that out themselves.
Last week the Chinese New Year began. It is now the Year of the Cute Cuddly Little Bunny. So, I feel slightly vindicated. Thank god that our Casio piano had "Auld Lang Syne" programmed into it. We were able to make it a party.
Thomas Lawlor's column appears Wednesdays in the Fairfield Citizen.