In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom
Ayelet Waldman on the virtues of letting kids quit, have sleepovers and find their own way.
By AYELET WALDMAN
JANUARY 15, 2011
Here are some of the things that my four children of a Jewish mother were always allowed to do:
• Quit the piano and the violin, especially if their defeatist attitude coincided with a recital, thus saving me from the torture of listening to other people's precious children soldier through hackneyed pieces of the juvenile repertoire, plink after ever more unbearable plonk.
• Sleep over at their friends' houses, especially on New Year's Eve or our anniversary, thus saving us the cost of a babysitter.
• Play on the computer and surf the Internet, so long as they paid for their Neopet Usuki dolls and World of Warcraft abomination cleavers out of their own allowances.
• Participate in any extracurricular activity they wanted, so long as I was never required to drive farther than 10 minutes to get them there, or to sit on a field in a folding chair in anything but the balmiest weather for any longer than 60 minutes.
• Quit said extracurricular activities, especially if their quitting coincided with league finals that might have demanded participation on my part exceeding the requirements stated above.
In the days since this newspaper published Amy Chua's simultaneously entertaining and infuriating excerpt from her new book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," my two elder children, 16 and 13, have devoted a remarkable amount of time to raging against the essay and crafting compelling and bombastic rebuttals to be delivered to Ms. Chua herself, should they ever encounter her.
I am more than a little astonished. I say with confidence that neither of my children has ever before bothered to read a single word of The Wall Street Journal. I don't think that I could have screamed or threatened them into doing so, not even if I'd tossed them outside in the middle of winter, to cower barefoot and freezing on the front step. So to Ms. Chua I express my gratitude. It seems to take a Chinese mother to force my Western kids to read the paper.
Were I crafting my own bombastic and compelling rebuttal to Ms. Chua, I might point out, as others have, that Asian-American girls aged 15 to 24 have above average rates of suicide. I might question the hubris of taking credit for success that is as likely to have resulted from the genetic blessings of musicality and intellect as from the "Chinese" child-rearing techniques of shrieking and name calling. But I have a feeling that she knows that.
More importantly, if I did write such a rebuttal, I'd risk being called a hypocrite by my own children. Sophie, my oldest, would remind me of the recent evening when I stared in stony silence at her report card, sniffing derisively at her father's happy congratulations.
"What?" she said. "I got 5 solid As."
"Ayelet," my husband warned.
My daughter narrowed her eyes at me. She knew what was coming.
I pointed at the remaining two grades, neither a solid A. Though there was not the "screaming, hair-tearing explosion" that Ms. Chua informs us would have greeted the daughter of a Chinese mother, I expressed my disappointment quite clearly. And though the word "garbage" was not uttered, either in the Hokkien dialect or in Yiddish, it was only because I feared my husband's opprobrium that I refrained from telling my daughter, when she collapsed in tears, that she was acting like an idiot.
The difference between Ms. Chua and me, I suppose—between proud Chinese mothers and ambivalent Western ones—is that I felt guilty about having berated my daughter for failing to deliver the report card I expected. I was ashamed at my reaction. But here is another difference, one I'll admit despite being ashamed of it, too: I did not then go out and get hundreds of practice tests and work through them with my daughter far into the night, doing whatever it took to get her the A. I fobbed that task off on a tutor, something I can afford to do because my children reside in the same privileged world as Ms. Chua's.
I am, actually, grateful to Ms. Chua, and a little in awe of her. I expend far too much of my maternal energies on guilt and regret. Reading her essay definitely put some Chinese iron into my Nerf Western spine, and though I eventually apologized to my daughter for failing to acknowledge, right off the bat, all those tough classes in which she had excelled last semester, and for expressing my disappointment at the others too vigorously, I have also refused to back down from my expectation that she devote extra time to those two subjects in which she is "underperforming."
In her book, Ms. Chua tells a story of coercion that resulted in a certain kind of success with one of her daughters. Let me tell another kind of story. My Rosie is mildly dyslexic. By the time she was diagnosed, in second grade, she was lagging far behind her classmates. For years I forced her to spell words in the bathtub with foam letters, to do worksheets, to memorize phonemes and take practice tests. My hectoring succeeded only in making her miserable. Eventually, and totally out of character, she had even stopped loving school. She suffered from near-constant stomachaches and broke down in tears almost every day. At last we heard about a special intensive reading program that required students to spend four hours every day in a small room with an instructor, being drilled in letters, sight words and phonics. It sounded awful, but Rosie insisted on doing it. She loved books and stories. She wanted to read.
Every day when we picked her up, her face would be red with tears, her eyes hollow and exhausted. Every day we asked her if she wanted to quit. We begged her to quit. Neither her father nor I could stand the sight of her misery, her despair, the pain, psychic and physical, she seemed far too young to bear. But every day she refused. Every morning she rose stoically from her bed, collected her stuffies and snacks and the other talismans that she needed to make it through the hours, and trudged off, her little shoulders bent under a weight I longed to lift. Rosie has an incantation she murmurs when she's scared, when she's stuck at the top of a high jungle gym or about to present a current events report to her class. "Overcome your fears," she whispers to herself. I don't know where she learned it. Maybe from one of those television shows I shouldn't let her watch.
At the end of a grim and brutal month, Rosie learned to read. Not because we forced her to drill and practice and repeat, not because we dragged her kicking and screaming, or denied her food, or kept her from the using the bathroom, but because she forced herself. She climbed the mountain alone, motivated not by fear or shame of dishonoring her parents but by her passionate desire to read. She did it herself, without us, and it is no exaggeration to say that we were and remain stunned with pride. What's more, she came out of the experience with a sense of herself as a powerful, tenacious person, one who is so proud of having succeeded despite her dyslexia—"like Alexander Graham Bell, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein," as she likes to say—that during her school's "Care Week," on her own initiative, she gave presentations to her classmates and to groups of other students about living with dyslexia.
I have a feeling that had one of Amy Chua's daughters suffered from a learning disability like Rosie's, Ms. Chua would have channeled her admirable perseverance into finding a solution that worked for her child. She would have been just as dogged and determined, but in an entirely different way. Roaring like a tiger turns some children into pianists who debut at Carnegie Hall but only crushes others. Coddling gives some the excuse to fail and others the chance to succeed. Amy Chua and I both understand that our job as mothers is to be the type of tigress that each of our different cubs needs.
—Ms. Waldman is the author of "Bad Mother" and the novel "Red Hook Road."