In early January, the Online WSJ online, published an article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” That article received over 1 million views, and along with her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, continues to ignite thousands of comments worldwide. As one of these million viewers, I have to opine, not all tiger-moms come from, came from Asia. Reading that article in its entirety, Amy and Lulu are the 2011 version of myself and my mother in another era.
And so I shake my head as I read through people’s comments to Amy Chua’s article and book. Parents, mothers, are “monsters” because they demand and expect excellence from their children? “Where’s the acceptance, the love?” asks another commenter. When I wanted to settle for less than my best, my dad would routinely ask me, “what are you going to do when you get out in the real world and have to earn a living?”
We want our children to be well-rounded, to accept people as they are, that it’s okay not to be perfect. Perfect is not the issue here, folks. It’s not the issue for Amy Chua, and it wasn’t the issue for my mother. The issue is whether you let your children go through life only dreaming about what can be, or prepare them to live their dreams. And that preparation can mean making some tough parenting decisions, and that your children may “hate” you for a while. I know. I had that love-hate relationship with my own parents, well, mostly my mother. My dad thought I walked on water.
My parents were the first born generation of Polish immigrants. My maternal grandmother came to the US alone in 1905 at the age of 18. Within seven years she had mastered English, married and was running her own business as a seamstress. Grandmother “Busia” and grandfather eventually purchased their own home, a 9-flat apartment building on Chicago’s Northwest side, which they lost on Christmas Eve in 1932, at the point of a gun over a mortgage balance of $4000. It was the classic Depression-era style eviction. My mother told me, grandmother looked at her furniture on the lawn, her house and told the sheriff, “I’ll have another.” And she did. But the devastation of that evening stayed with my mother for the rest of her life, and even at 90 years of age, she could recount that evening as though it happened yesterday. And my father – or as I always refer to him, my dad – he never finished high school. Worked all his life, and at age 55, when most people are preparing for retirement, he started his own business. He grew the business, built a factory, employed a number of people, and retired in his seventies. These were the people who shaped my life. I am the woman today because of them.
And so, when I read through Ms. Chua’s article, I smiled through several paragraphs as I saw the similarities to my childhood. Now, my mother never called me “garbage”. But when she was displeased with me, her facial expressions and body language elicited a similar non-verbal communication. At other times, when warranted, the discipline was swift and severe by today’s standards. I once told her “shut up”. I got my head put over the bathroom sink and a bar of soap in my mouth. I never spoke those words to her again in my life. She was also good at verbal discipline in the high decibel range as well as the spanking. Now I really had to act up to get a swat on the rear, which was immediate and at the scene of the crime. There was no “go to your room” or “wait until your father gets home.” She frequently told me in one of her disciplinary modes, “if it wasn’t for me, your father would spoil you rotten.” She made sure he never got the chance.
But do I consider myself raised in the Amy Chua-style? Well, consider my version of “The Little White Donkey”. I began piano lessons at age five. By age 10, I was playing piano pieces such as Chopin’s Polonaise in A-Major, but not without turning our living room into a verbal, tear-stained battlefield along the way. How many times I remember my father coming home to screaming matches between my mother and me. Practicing piano, like Amy’s daughters, was a multi-hour activity, 7 days/week. If I stopped playing for longer than two minutes, the voice would reverberate from somewhere in the house, “I can’t HEAR you!” If I couldn’t get a cadence or rhythm after numerous attempts, I’d quit and walk away. “Get back to the piano! Read the music, think it through, and you can do it!” Then I’d start crying, pound the piano keys in anger, with the familiar, “I CAN’T”. Mother always disagreed and she’d infuriate me to the point of my “I’ll show HER routine”. Then I actually concentrated and practiced until, whoa! I’m playing the piece! Then I’d smile and she’d smile with a “see, you can do it if you make up your mind you can do it.”
Mother also had a patent set of rules which Ms. Chua could relate to. If I wanted to use the telephone, or get a snack from the fridge, it was permission first. And my calls were limited in minutes “you see her every day in school”, and my snacks to “have a piece of fruit and glass of milk”. Soda pop, candy were on a request-only basis, and infrequent at that. Homework was reviewed every night, and if there were too many erasures, “you’re not handing your homework in that way; do it over.” My room had to be neat at all times, because mother inspected. And yes, she looked in drawers and under beds.
Helping around the house was expected, and not rewarded. And while I did receive a modest allowance, 50% automatically went into the savings account. When it was time to make purchases, mother was right by my side. “Some day when you earn your own money, THEN you can buy what you want.” Girlfriends? On an approval basis. She let me know discreetly if there was someone she disapproved of, as in potential negative influence, not based upon race or status. Boyfriends? “Not until you’re 16. And I want to know him, AND his parents.” I still remember the boy, who after he met my dad, asked me if he owned a gun. And while other kids tried cigarettes, and some, drugs, I didn’t. By that time the foundation had already been laid, and I wasn’t intrigued by either.
Despite what can be called overly strict discipline by some, I know Mom loved me with all her heart. Some of her methods were old school, and I would occasionally point out other friends’ mother/daughter relationships. Her response was, “I’m Not Your Friend. I’m Your Mother”, or, “I don’t care about ‘xxx’. I care about you.”
Both my parents were always there for me. I never knew a moment when I didn’t ask for their help and not receive it. I could never fool mom, though. She always knew when I tried my best and when I was being lazy. And she let me know she knew. “You can do better.” When I got rewarded, it was usually beyond my expectations. I wasn’t allowed to have a television in my room until I was 16, and the deal to get one was straight A’s. I succeeded and was surprised with a Sony Trinitron. When I graduated from high school, I was driving a new car. I went to college and dad paid the bills, but I was working part-time through school, so I was also responsible now for paying mother room and board. Room and board!?! That’s what I thought, too, until mom and dad gave me the money back with interest, when I bought my first home.
So with that lengthy preface, is there an upside and downside to my life? Am I scarred, neurotic, insecure?
The upside? I’ve lived a life most people read about in books (see About Me). My parents, my grandmother, laid the foundation that has helped me face the good times with grace and thankfulness, and given me the stamina and courage to believe in myself and never give up through times of hardship.
The downside? Wondering if my best is/was ever good enough. Was my mother proud of me? Did I live up to her expectations. Mother was never lavish with the praise. For every compliment I received, the sentence always somehow ended with a “but, you could have …..” Let me tell you, those piano recitals were brutal.
So, in closing this piece, I would say to everyone reading, what do you deem important for our children and for the future of our country that they will be responsible for. Our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents built this country into greatness. Will our children, now immersed in the culture of Justin Bieber, and whose social skills are being forged by how quickly they can text with their friends, forego individual achievement because of “feel good about yourself,” “ reach a consensus” and “team-building” – the mantras of our educators over the past decades. I have nothing against teams, and as the saying goes, “no (wo)man is an island”, but every team needs a leader. And preparing our children to be responsible for themselves, to be resourceful, to think critically, to be our future, means you have to love them enough to give them a hefty dose of strictness and discipline. Thank you, mom. Thank you, dad. Rest in peace.