1.17.2011

CHINESE TIGER MOMS? KITTENS COMPARED TO FRENCH MOTHERS. WHY ANY FEAR MODEL IS THE WRONG WAY TO GO, NO MATTER WHICH CULTURE DRIVES IT

Let me begin at the beginning, where parenting models are usually born. When my French mother, newlywed and recently arrived in Boston, learned she was pregnant, she developed a specific idea about what kind of baby she wanted. She cut a label off a Gerber baby box--the picture of the perfect, grinning, blue-eyed infant with white blonde curls--and taped it to the wall next to her bed. "It was the first thing I looked at every morning," she told me many times. "And the last thing I looked at every night. I wanted my baby to look like that."

And that baby did. At least for the first few years of my life, I had tight white curls all over my head. By the time I was three or four my hair began to change color. First it turned red. I was a straight-haired brunette by kindergarten.

My mother viewed this devolution with horror, as she would nearly every future development relating to my looks. When I needed eyeglasses, as the world looked like an impressionist blot and I was lost when anything happened at the blackboard at the front of the classroom, she was horrified. I was finally given glasses in fourth grade. When I wanted to wear pants, she was stunned. Pierced ears were beyond the pale. "Do you want to look like a whore?" This was not a rhetorical question.

"I made you beautiful," she would cry. "You are making yourself ugly."

I've been following the articles and the commentary in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times about Chinese mothers--and Jewish mothers, and all the rest. Oddly, the so-called defenders of different models actually reveal themselves to be variations on the same model. So while we're focused on the subject, let me throw in my nomination for the fiercest kind of mother: the French mother. But I don't want to join a Monster Contest. I want to talk about why this is such an important conversation, and what's at the heart of it.

Here's what the Chinese/Jewish/French Superiority Models have in common--and yes, I generalize, brutally--but that's because we're in a conversation that involves huge generalities:

Discipline. I wasn't allowed to choose how to spend my time. No play dates (American girls are bad influences) or sleepovers (waste of time) or participation in school activities (when will you practice your piano--and, by the way, half an hour? I was doing that when I was three.) I begged to be a Girl Scout (waste of time--why do you need to learn to cook, sew, and get dirty? And when will you practice your piano?) I begged to join the literary review (waste of time--why aren't you speaking French?). I begged to be allowed to date (waste of time, when will you practice, etc.) I begged to be allowed to wear makeup when my friends did (Do you want to look like...etc).

Control. A central concept. The French (Chinese, Jewish, etc.) model is all about control, authority, and permission. This sets up a dynamic in which the child has to learn to fight for any sort of autonomy--or forget about it as a possibility. "Boundaries" is not a relevant concept in this parenting model. Neither is "choice" or "self-discovery" or "autonomy". It is no wonder that the Chinese mother described her own "inability to enjoy life" or to be creative. If the development of those qualities has been stunted, or denied, they have to be learned--or relearned, if the child had a sense of them in toddler years--later. To this day, I can sit at the piano and play a Beethoven Sonata, but I cannot improvise one bar. I wonder if my inability to write fiction is related.


Punishment. These parenting models are fear-based. They're all about retribution by the authority figure for transgression on the part of the child--who is ultimately the victim. The Tiger Mother told her daughter she was garbage. That's typical of this model--you have to inflict pain. Sometimes it is physical. More often it is psychological. It will probably be years before that child can quiet the constant voice in her head that tells her that no matter what she does, she is trash, or an idiot, or in some way damaged. Nothing is ever good enough.

But here's the twist. The French parenting model, especially for girls, is laced with obsession about stylishness. How you dress, how you present yourself to the world, happens to be one of the things French women seem to be born knowing. When they have American daughters, who might adopt American styles, they are offended at the deepest levels of their being. Of course, this also meant that by the time I was eighteen, my mother was begging me to wear makeup. (Put something on your face...you cannot go out naked...) But by then, I had figured out how to rebel, and I had become a raging feminist. (And yet I always wore perfume, and a silk scarf.) This obsession with stylishness extended even into that completely uncontrollable realm--how one's body develops, as, of course, French women must be shaped a certain way.

Given our national obsession with dieting and plastic surgery, an obsession that has landed us in a chronic and aggravated condition of dysmorphia, I would guess that this is actually not a French thing, but  a mother thing--for mothers who wanted to live through their daughters. Many of my generation were raised with a rigid idea about what we were supposed to look like--and with its evil twin, the unattainability of that image. It is otherwise hard to understand how and why a generation of feminists has become a generation of Botox addicts. What's worse, we are modeling that lack of self regard and acceptance for our own children.


Chauvinism.  Nothing is superior to French culture--ask any French person. But I would bet that Jewish mothers feel that superiority, as do Chinese mothers, as do Catholic mothers....Chauvinism is common to all these models--they are basically founded on the idea that the mother's sense of superiority is backed up by, if not founded on, a cultural superiority. And that gives legitimacy to domination of the child.

And now, for compassion.....I can imagine what it must have been like to be a new mother in a strange country, alienated from every cultural norm around you, and without any support at all from like-minded parents. My mother built a moat, and lined it with high walls, around her children; she was scandalized by the permissiveness of American culture.  She wanted to hold onto a way of life in which she had been raised. We certainly weren't allowed much television; radio was verboten, and newspapers? I was the kid who could never do the current events homework--but I was too embarrassed to explain that we weren't allowed to read the newspaper, because it was full of information inappropriate to someone my age. Which, by the way, was thirteen or fourteen.

Difficult? It certainly was. I look back on my mother's child-rearing instincts with astonishment. Once I had my own children, I could not even fathom how she did what she did. Probably, many of us go through such an inward journey when we move from being daughters to being mothers. And of course, not all French/Jewish/Chinese and etc. mothers are the same, not by a long shot. What is the same is the general pattern of that Top-Down/ Fear/ Authority model--no matter who it belongs to.

Finally, after years of thinking about it, I have some sense of why my mother wanted to maintain control over creatures--other human beings--who ought to be beyond anyone's control. I like to think that her parenting was based on love and hope. I need to think so--and I'm sure it was, if misguided. One enormous thing was missing: respect. And respect is what makes it possible to move from being the parent of small children to the parent of adult children--something I've been thinking a great deal about, having just crossed the country on a train and driven the California coast with my twenty-something year old sons.

Most of us, as parents, like to think we do the best we can. There isn't any guarantee, of course, that any "method" is better, just as there isn't any guarantee as to what sorts of adults children will become. That's because good parenting shouldn't be about methods. It is about values. My mother's way of raising us was, to put it kindly, eccentric. But with the benefit of therapy and hindsight, I can tease out the values she was determined to instill. The value of working hard, of perseverance, of determination. The value of connecting to the sublime in music and art. The value of not being a slave to fads and trends. And I taught myself some values in response, too: The value of self-nurturing and solitude. Having compassion for where she was coming from went a long way toward softening my heart about it all.

The problem was in the concept of "instilling" by discipline, as though we needed to have values poured into us as children, or forced on us, rather than modeling, and letting us find and build our way to those values. My friend Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has been working on a book about what she calls Childism, and in a fascinating piece she recently posted online, she makes an intriguing connection between the way we raise children and the way we understand, and nurture (or don't) our democracies. There are profound consequences to the choices we make with regard to the way we build trust and respect in our parent/child relationships. That is why this conversation about parenting is such an important one. The Fear Model is clearly not the way to go.

I am sure that my sons harbor complaints about things I did or did not do. I worry that, in reaction to my childhood, I wasn't strict enough about practice, and grades, and the rest of it.

But there's one thing my children will never doubt--and that's the most important thing of all, I think, in raising children. They know they are loved, respected as individuals, and honored in their selfhood. They didn't have to earn this cherishment; it is their birthright. There's no method to it, only expression of it. Perhaps we can all agree that it is what matters most--and start from there.

39 comments:

Watercolor said...

I think this idea that the Fear Model is not the way to go can be extended to society's treatment of troublesome youths and the desire to lock them up in prisons as adults to both punish them and serve as an example to other youths. Doesn't work and wastes good young lives when nurturing and care and respect and involvement would do so much more good.

Peg said...

Every mother, and I mothered six children, wants the best for them but eventually we all expect to lose them to the culture they grow up in. Your mother made the best try I have ever read of to impart to her daughter(s) the culture she came from and believed in and without that effort you would not be who you are today. I am totally an American, a first generation Irish American, and that culture did not even respect women enough to demand or impart strictures that would help them to grow into viable successful women. My mother born in l907 was educated only because she was handicapped in terms of hearing and would need to be independent. Your mother, Dominique, gave you the French sensibilities that she thought you needed. Unfortunately, she did it in America where you were exposed to different values. I wish for all Americans that they could appreciate the European values that so many of my European friends over the years have shared with me. I had an educated mother but she was limited in her view of what I could become. Your mother was not limited and that has made all the difference in who you are today!

siana said...

A friend of mine forwarded your blog to me (probably because I I have a Jewish-French mother and am a mother myself). I read your article and could not connect to what your were saying at all, except the very last section about style/looking good. My mother (who also moved to Boston from France) had a very different approach to raising me than what you describe. She was a very open, easy-going mother. She respected my individuality so much that she spoke to me as an adult from the moment I was born (so my dad says-he's an American), so much so that he was surprised by this. She allowed me to make all my decisions, I had more sleepovers and parties then any of my friends. She let me follow all my whims...was in ballet, softball, gymnastics, etc. Though she was severe at times when she was disappointed, it never lasted long and she was VERY EASY to speak to. I shared (and still to this day share) EVERYTHING with her...all my firsts, etc. She is my best friend because she is so accepting about WHO I AM. The most wonderful thing about her is that she has allowed me to be me. And yet, we argue all the time. Why? Because in raising me she made a space for that. She allowed a space where I could express myself as I wanted...and we might not agree at all (and often we don't) but there is a sense of mutual respect that makes it ok. However, the section about appearance...YES, this has always been an issue. She was always obsessed with her weight and with mine. And I ended up obese most of my life and then anorexic and still struggling with finding a happy medium with that. Now, she could care less...just wants me to be happy. And she never said mean things to me before, it was just my observation of her and how she looked at herself that probably had the biggest influence on me and noticing her worry so much about my weight gain at such a young age. But that makes sense when you come from a country where (at that time) everybody is thin. And, also, I was always the most stylish kid in school since I bought all my clothes in France and they were light years ahead in fashion at that time. But, I have to ask you to be careful...please do not generalize french.jewish mothers. All mothers have their individual ways of being...and they are not all dominated by culture and society. And let's not forget the father's influence on the daughter and on her mother. If there was a father, he also has a voice.

Dominique said...

SIANA, you are so absolutely right. The point is NOT to generalize, and I'll make that clear. I didn't talk about fathers, and mine was critical to my development. But it was considered my mother's job to raise us, and she was the one home all day....Many thanks for your commentary. And your point about your mother accepting you, and "making a space" for the back and forth was spot on--that's what I meant in referring to respect for the child.

I hope the point came across that I deeply appreciate so much of what my mother was able to give me.

Madgew said...

Having just a Jewish mother was enough for me. Control and style. Style never caught on with me even though my Mom tried desperately. On thenextfamily.com we are right now in a heated debate between our readers about parenting styles and time outs. Well worth the read. This was very interesting and I enjoyed reading about your growing up.

Toad said...

I was blessed with having a VERY laissez faire mother who believed in giving her children enough rope to hang themselves.

Today is her birthday and I miss her terribly.

JB said...

An aside - please tell us the book from which the illustrations came. The first picture grabbed my attention. My grandmother taught French (and tried to teach us). Was this book around in the early 70s?

Thank you

William said...

Forget the Chinese model or the Jewish model or the French model, what I say to women is to look to as a model for raising themselves and for raising their children is to look no further than the 'Real Housewives of Beverly Hills' model. Forget 'Real Housewives of New York' - too whiny - forget 'Real Housewives of New Jersey' too thuggish - 'Real Housewives of Beverly Hills' has it all for you gals. There you gals will learn what cars to drive, how to decorate your houses, how to give dinner parties, how to give $60,000 kids birthday parties, of the importance of plastic surgery while you are relatively young (a little now means preventing a lot later) - and on and on and on. OK lets all agree that Camille is a bitch and move beyond that and focus of the real lessons about life and how to live you gals can learn from that show.

Dominique said...

I had meant to note the illustrations, as this series was one of my favorites when I was young--and as my Los Angeles niece and nephew, Eva and Dexter, are in possession of the books these days, I just saw it again recently. Le Journal de Veronique by Maud Frere. 1965

funkEpunkEmonkE said...

Dominique -

Your blog URL in the Feb 2011 issue of Good Housekeeping is incorrect.

I googled you to both let you know, and to start reading your writing. I also live, mend, and garden in RI (and I keep my sewing supplies in a tackle box).

Warren said...

Perhaps I have finally given up my inherited control tendencies and learned to be 'tight/loose' because I only parent my teen daughters every other week.
I seem to get further with my girls when we cook together and then eat together. And I talk (sometimes too candidly) about growing up and my mistakes.
It's nice to be at an age where one recognizes the limited value of one's advice. And why should I think my advice will be any more relevant than what my mother insisted I learn as I headed off to college in 1967? How to type, iron a shirt and make Hollandaise. Only Hollandaise seems still valid.
What's my advice to one daughter and their 9th grade class? Learn the danger of compounded interest, update your virus SW and get a pre-nup. Learn to cook and keep your knives sharp.
In the early days of cellular, when we were brainstorming the future, no one foresaw that TEXTING would replace a phone CALL. That email would be labeled as an old person's tool. That's what the kids are teaching US.
Is it presumptuous and even dangerous to instill honesty and integrity when Hollywood, Washington and Wall Street are celebrating lying, cheating and greed?! That's the big one that keeps me up at night.
Perhaps the greatest gift is to teach our kids to evolve gracefully. Our 60s gen tried revolution and that sure did not work.
Enough already. I gonna go cut up vegetables with a really sharp knife -- an outcome I can control.

Emma said...

Thank you so much for your post! Having been raised by a Catholic, Belgian mother, I have been able to so relate to what you wrote and the affects on you, as both a child and an adult, as well as your own personal decisions in child-rearing. I think you've lived my life!!!

quintessence said...

What a complicated topic, rife with so much emotion. Who knows what the right answer is. You are of course right in that the most important thing is for children to feel loved and respected. Beyond that I always find it such a difficult line to walk between motivating, disciplining, setting boundaries and letting go. It's close to impossible to find the exact right combination. As a mother, we will always be blamed for any missteps and rarely praised for any successes - it is at once the greatest and most thankless of jobs.

Jane said...

I actually understand and agree with most of Chua's points. I used to be another Barbie-obsessed American girl living in a “children-please-do-as-you-wish-and learn-what-you-want-society,” until I had the opportunity to study abroad. Only when I lived overseas, did I see the bubble we Americans live in. I wasn’t ready for the culture shock or the very competitive academic environment. I wanted to come home, back to my comfort zone, but my parents encouraged me to “grow up”, to see the world from outside the bubble, through the eyes of other cultures. Fifteen years later, I am still very grateful to them.

When I was overseas I met my now husband (who’s a very educated man and doesn’t have a clue about American football or Budweiser). Today, my children know who the parents are and the discipline standards we have at home; even my 4-year-old knows we have non-negotiable rules at home, and needless to say we have very high academic expectations. Rule number one: no TV without parental consent (never in the morning). Rule number two: mandatory reading (school or non-school related) every day after supper (at least 30 mins). Rule number three: never (absolutely never) open the door of mommy and daddy’s bedroom ;o)

Think about what sports mean to Americans, that's what Education means to some cultures.

-- An American mom who learned to be a mom overseas

david terry said...

Dear Ms. Browning,

NOTES ON MOTHERS (French and Otherwise):

1. One of the first topics over which my partner and I "bonded/clicked" was a discussion of our equally weird (and eerily similar) mothers. His is an alarmingly observant, intelligent, 70-something Frenchwoman of a readily-identifiable class and upbringing. Mine is, basically, the exact same thing/product....all you need do is to take "upper-middle class, socially-conscious, respectably religious, not particularly humorous (if often VERY unintentionally funny), lady from an old Tourraine family" and insert “old Southern family”.

Neither of them in the least comprehends all this current fuss and worry over raising children (not insignificantly, both have produced 2-3 sons, and no daughters....which, as I've reminded them, is a whole different kettle of fish these days).

Herve's mother (whom I know well, see often, and talk to regularly) can't imagine being held directly "responsible" for how a child turns out. She (a very accomplished academic since her 30's) never seems to have considered that "raising" the children was solely HER job. Basically (and like my mother) she obviously thinks that, if those boys are ALIVE when they've turned 14 or so....well, then she's done her job.

I can't sufficiently emphasize the degree to which my partner and I are just plain-old FRIENDS with our mothers (who happen, by this point, to also be friends with each other)....find them amusing, very interesting, etcetera. Oddly enough, both are still married to our fathers.

When either of us speaks to current friends about our upbringings, we're inevitably countered with some variation on "No!.....but that's HORRIBLE!" or "How COULD she?..or (best of all, and I can promise you that I've been asked this) "Do you still speak to her?????" (actually, I've talked to my mother, usually on the telephone, for at least fifteen minutes everyday since I left home at 17).

Both Herve's mother and mine were raised in circumstances that some would call "STRICT". Both women would simply say that it was a necessarily regulated environment. Herve's mother grew up in a household from which the father had been taken to Auschwitz for three years (he came back, by the way). My mother grew up in an orphanage. Both of them are quite small, very pretty ladies who simply don't understand indulgences (that's what they'd call it), but are nice-as-pie to everyone they know. Herve's mother married well, and my own mother was adopted into wealth at age 14. Financial good-luck didn't change a THING about either of them, though.

I recall standing with my brother-who's the-same-age and realizing that, as ever, there just wasn't any point in telling our our mother that we were STARVING, and asking if we could have a "snack" after school????... (she would respond blankly, and ungratifyingly, by telling us that Florence would have dinner for us at 7:00, and we could have an apple before then, if we needed it). Nor did we ever get anything even resembling an "allowance" We would whine and say that EVERYONE ELSE got money from their parents....and my mother would say "Oh, that's odd. Anyway, you boys have everything you need. If you want something special, just write it down, and I'll let your father know. That'll make Christmas easier."

WHAT?!?!?!??????

She also sat each of us down at various times (giddy me, in particular) and delivered announcements such as "You said you wanted to be on the tennis team. Now, you want to take piano lessons also, and be in the school play? No one has the time to drive you everywhere, mister. You need to pick out the TWO things you want to do, and that'll be just fine. Thank you.....?"


Bemusedly as ever,

David Terry
www.davidterryart.com

david terry said...

P.S. Oh...in accordance with The Equal and Fair Representation Act, I should add that I've often listened to my peers while they tell of some terrifying corporeal punishment their parents visited upon them sometime around the Johnson Administration.....and I always respond by saying "That's HORRIBLE!....my parents never did so much as slap me!"....

...and folks at the table inevitably respond with "Yeah....and it SHOWS...."


----david terry

Emom said...

Thank you.....smiles.

Barbara said...

Ambition driven woman meets man who finds her attractive and, after courtship still finds her attractive, so they marry and have children. Since it is reasonable to assume that both of these parents carry powerful genes for ambition, perhaps their offspring will thrive as a result of an upbringing that pushes them to the limits of that state.
However, if the Chinese Method leads to children who are BEST in everything, where are those millions of first-place piano & violin competition winners? & what do you do with the contradiction that the assumption that you can take a million children and produce a million first place winners from them?
This lady was smart enough to write a book that will make her some money, but I'm sure glad that I didn't have one of her ilk as a mother.

Barbara said...

Whoops! I'm listening to an interview with Amy Chua right now. Apparently, the book was written tongue in cheek.

Scribbler said...

I read your article and all the comments with a great deal of interest because I am turning my book about my own mother over to a publisher TOMORROW.

My mother was Southern, the daughter of a Baptist preacher and far from well-to-do or genteel, but Honey, CONTROL was her name!

Like you, I was permissive and encouraged my son to follow his own creative genius. He is a film producer and teacher of same, and is very much the man he is in spite of me, not because of me.

I think our parents thought the Fear Model was the way to go because that is they way they were raised. It was not until the 60's and 70's and Dr. Spock that another approach was considered, and we actually were granted the freedom to try a different approach.

Sometimes I wonder, though, if we would have all the societal ills of today if we had followed the Fear Model. The last couple of generations do not seem to be afraid of anything -- including Law and Order and Work! Maybe some of the fear we were raised with might be a good thing.

david terry said...

ADDITIONAL HORRORS:

I forgot to mention what seems to upset folks most of all....both of our mothers, living an ocean apart from each other, told their sons that they could each pick ONE program per week to watch on the television. Just one for each son. So, in our family, that meant we could watch television for, at most, 3 hours per week...and that was IF we cared to sit around with our 7-years-younger brother and look at Sesame Street. Neither of our mothers bothered with television, and our fathers only watched shows like "60 minutes".

MY mother claimed that watching television wasn't "doing anything".

Neither Herve nor I watch television now. What a surprise....


Both Herve's mother and mine did, however, allow their sons to order as many books as we wanted from the book clubs we belonged to.

Lastly? Although both of us grew up in houses with multiple unused bedrooms, both of us were made to share a bedroom with a brother until we went off to college. Our mothers (both of whom essentially grew up in istitutional dormitories)thought that it was a Very Bad idea to let boys have their own bedrooms....that makes boys grow up "sloppy". Whenever I mentioned the possiblity of moving into one of the spare bedrooms, my own mother would simply say that she'd SEEN what bedrooms looked like when boys were allowed to have them as their "own".

End of all such discussions.
---david terry

david terry said...

MORE APPARENTLY ATYPICAL BEHAVIOUR:

1. I'm not avoiding my work today. I simply finished all of it yesterday and don't have to do anything (i.e., am not particularly needed by anyone at all) for at least 4 more days. So, I'm typing....

2. Both Herve and I recall being regularly sat down by our mothers and being told that NO, you would not be allowed to compete in some school, church, or community (we both lived in very small, country-towns) project/tournament....or that, if we WERE allowed, we were to make a point of "letting someone else have a chance". Competing too-publicly was regarded as r-e-a-l-l-y unattractive, unsuitable, "not the way we act" behavior.

I distinctly recall being appalled when my mother told me that I had to throw the 7th grade spelling bee and let LaVerne Benner ( still remember her dreaded name) win, since I had already won something else that year, and she hadn't won anything yet.

Somewhat similarly? When I accepted a scholarship I'd won to the state university in some "college bowl" (I was 16 at the time), I was treated to a full-force chewing-out from both my parents because, when accepting the prize, I'd non-thinkingly let it be known that I'd already won a scholarship to the college I eventually attended. I was told that I should have thanked my teachers and my school, and gone back to my seat.

Basically, we were not supposed to "win" very often and, if we did, we were not to take credit for doing so.

Oddly enough, I suppose, I don't regard any of that as "strict", although I do gather my upbringing was unusual by most standards. I should emphasize that this was in the late 1960's and 70's, not a hundred years ago.

Significantly, both my partner and I had much a much younger brother who spent all of his early years being extremely sick and occupying the majority of our mothers' time/energies. Our grandmothers (who lived with us) were, respectively, the Superintendent of a school district and the head of an orphanage. Both had spent decades managing hundreds of children and basically thought that all children were present to have their tastes&opinions formed, not consulted. Both of us had it made extremely clear (by age 6 or so) that there was absolutely NO margin for causing our mothers any trouble, that doing chores and behaving at school were our JOBS, thank you, your clothes would be chosen for you, "preferences" regarding food were not going to be tolerated in the least (not that either grandmother did any of the cooking whatsoever), and we did not personally "own" anything about the house or its furnishings. Anything we regarded as "ours" could and would be taken away the moment one wasn't "responsible" with it (that included "my" first horse).

Herve and I both ADORED our grandmothers (I know...someone out there in the blogosphere is murmuring "Six year old boys with Stockholm Syndrome?..."), and we thought our friends' grandmothers were silly or fairly stupid.

These days, neither of us has children, but our eight nieces and nephews (all twelve or under) visit/stay constantly. I expect most people would regard us as horribly strict, do-it-the-RIGHT-way, that's not ALLOWED, no-you-can't uncles. All I know is that the children BEG to stay here, which is kind of a pain.

One of them (the 8 year old nephew) recently made the mistake of telling his mother (I heard about this later) "Uncle David's is better, because everyone does the same thing, and you can always find things where they're supposed to be."

Go figure....

----david terry
www.davidterryart.com

karensandburg said...

i sometimes think that who i am is because of how i reacted to those people (my parents) rather than because of them. in my little corner of the world -- long island, ny -- i was definately an outsider (weirdo). my parents were buddhists (not catholic, not jewish like everyone else), my father travelled frequently and was a textbook Swede (serious, depressed, hauty about being european, looked down on americans) and my mother, who was jewish but never told us (another story!), couldn't be bothered with such a pesky job as mothering, so left us pretty much to our own devices as the rotating door of foreign, live in housekeepers changed frequently -- we grew up in a big house, but it was empty of life, and we felt abandoned and very lonely... a loneliness that never left me until i met my husband and made my own family

...as i found my own happiness, i was able to take from my parents what they gave me through osmosis -- a passion for the arts and all things aesthetic, enthnic cultures and a general interest in what is different, outside the norm ... never the conventional. my father, always with a book in his hand, taught me the joy of solitude and contemplation but was unable to connect as he was so locked in his head... wisdom comes from within, pop, not a book...

both my parents are dead now, but one thing i realized about them both before, but especially after they died was that sadly for them they only expanded so much during their lives and didn't connect with those around them in a meaningful way nearly as much as they probably should have. i am acutely aware of the luxury of connection i have in my life -- my family and friends -- my dogs, my neighbors...

as a mother, i'm aware my job is constantly changing as my daughter gets older. i watched as she exhaled on the sidelines after her volleyball coach quietly berated her; watched her move away from him, saw her body give way to deflation. i recognized the bully i had glimpsed at the beginning of the season and offered her the exit if she wanted it. she is 16 and one of my jobs is to be a finely tuned receptor. at other times, especially when she was younger, it was to expose her to things she might latch on to that could ignite her passion.

the old style -- mothers as petty dictators -- is not the way to get the flame inside our kids going. a simple blowing ... a little kindling does quite nicely...

david terry said...

Dear "KarenSandburg"

As idle as I've been all day, I just returned to this blog and read your really lovely, thoughtful response.

Ms. Browning's blog is as interesting (for me, at least) as Salon.com, particularly in that the letters/responses are quite often just as interesting and evocative as the initial articles.

And one last remark on mothers?....(1) My French mother-in-law is utterly fluent in English...(2) my mother is prone to malapropisms....(3) I've just heard from my partner, in an email from the office, that my own mother has told his mother that I have a "genital" defect. Presumably, this came about during some conversation regarding my eyesight. My mother's done this regularly and quite publicly for as long as I can remember.

I intend to write to my mother-in-law and clarify the matter, but I don't intend to start, at this age, schooling my own mother on the difference between "genital" and "congenital".

To paraphrase Allan Gurganus?: "Mothers...Can't live with 'em, but you can't get born without 'em...."

Bemusedly as ever, and thanks for your lovely posting,

David Terry
www.davidterryart.com

mary said...

I relate so intimately with this post--I had a somewhat crazy and controlling mother, was raised overseas and attended a catholic convent boarding school and (of course) a top ten college. So control was something that was exerted upon me at all times. I am still healing--but have finally come into myself--I'm not afraid to be creative, joyful, crazy, funny, sick or imperfect....but this has been a lifelong struggle and I'm definitely still a work in process. Thank you for opening the conversation.

mary said...

I relate so intimately with this post--I had a somewhat crazy and controlling mother, was raised overseas and attended a catholic convent boarding school and (of course) a top ten college. So control was something that was exerted upon me at all times. I am still healing--but have finally come into myself--I'm not afraid to be creative, joyful, crazy, funny, sick or imperfect....but this has been a lifelong struggle and I'm definitely still a work in process. Thank you for opening the conversation.

Thea said...

the best gift my mother ever gave me was to throw up her arms, drop the big spoon, tell us not to dare disturb her for four hours, then lock herself in her bedroom with some Good and Plenty and read a book. That's a woman who knew how to chill out from being the mom of 6. When I had my first child, wow, it was so hard. Took me a long time to have the courage to get another. I love my kids and all, but they sure could be pains in the you know where. Sometimes they just didn't know how to have fun. Everything was a fight, wasting my time arguing over brushing teeth and hurrying up to get their homework done. Thank goodness for summer vacations - I needed a rest. And snow days - I still love snow days. Just recently, my older son complained that I made him take piano lessons. And I made him go to boy scout meetings instead of hanging with his friends. Okay, piano didn't work out for him, but he did become an eagle scout. I also wouldn't let him quit college in his senior year - heck, i paid out all that money, by golly he was going to finish. Amazingly enough, I raised two decent, wickedly funny humans who are good citizens (i.e., employed, paying taxes, not living with me) I don't take all the credit. Their bad habits I gladly attribute to their fatha.. I can only say, behind every good child is a nagging mom with a pitchfork. Moms make it happen, whether the kids go peacefully or not. All I can say is, they're lucky there is such a thing as unconditional love, or it would have been 'to the moon'.

Anonymous said...

Couldnt agree more with that, very attractive article

American Hausfrau said...

Wonderful! As I was reading this, I had a feeling you were going to get to the heart of good parenting: respect. Where respect and empathy are present, parents and children (at any age) can disagree on certain things, but the love that is based on that respect and empathy is always underlying everything--so there's no shouting, cursing, ill will toward each other, that type of thing. It's working well for us--we have a pre-teen and a teenager. Incidentally, I believe that all of this starts with proper attachment in infancy.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy following this blog daily, and, Mr. Terry, your humorous and thoughtful responses to Ms. Browning are always a delight.
Dominique, I, too, read (with horror) these recent articles about the Chinese parenting style. I am the daughter of a Jewish Mother, and am the mother of 2 grown children.
In my experience growing up, my mother’s expectations of perfection were communicated more subtly and without using the damaging tactics of fear and domination. I learned much by her example- she worked and kept the house running smoothly, took great pride in appearance, valued education above all else. She had high standards for herself and others. But she was also loving and patient, quiet and well mannered in all of her interactions, even with my brother and me.
Mom was also of the liberal, progressive, even “permissive” school. An educator, well read in the latest child rearing techniques of the early 50s, she ruled less with an iron fist and more with a disapproving look and gentle nudge.
If memory serves, by the time I was in grade school my motivation for achievement and success was mostly self- directed. I begged for piano lessons at age 5 and then practiced daily by choice. I cleaned and organized my room without threats from my mother. The approval and even accolades of teachers and unspoken pride of my parents that was elicited by my successes, even the small ones, motivated me to do well.
Rewards were never withheld, nor was a hand ever raised to hit me. I was encouraged to try new things (thus my lifelong love of sushi and home horticulture). I think, as you said, what was so important was that I knew that she respected me enough to let me make my own choices, even if she felt they were mistakes. I was never called “stupid” or “ungrateful”, although the suggestion that I might want to temper my “big mouth” or “strong will” was made more than once.
Sometimes I marvel at the breathing room I was allowed. As a teen in the late 60s I took the train from Westchester to Manhattan and marched in the big anti- Vietnam War demonstration. I was finally permitted to drop out of Hebrew school (horrors!) long before Bat-Mitzvah age and went ice skating on Friday nights with friends. I sewed my own dresses from Indian printed table cloths and spent hours on my bed with my beloved guitar listening to Joan Baez and plunking out songs by Joni Mitchell. A waste of time? Perhaps. But it was MY time. I was allowed unstructured TIME- to explore, to try new things or just to hang out and be a teenager.
These over- programmed Tiger-mom offspring are, sadly, missing the lessons that unstructured time allows. And how can they ever learn the skills of negotiation, group dynamics, sharing ,etc. if they are never allowed to hang with their peers?

My friends who witnessed my upbringing would say that at 58 my memory of my long- gone mother might be a tad skewed. My mother was hard on me, they say. She did watch my diet like a hawk, as I was prone to chubbiness. She and I had a secret code word TTI meant “tuck tummy in” if she caught me slouching with gut protruding.(Dominique, the charming illustrations from the French book you posted sparked that memory!) As a pre-teen she bought me my first panty girdle so I would have a smooth line under knits. I dutifully ate one hard-boiled egg and carrot and celery sticks for lunch all though high school and maintained a healthy weight (till I went away to college and finally escaped her watchful eye.)
Her behaviors, I realize, were driven by her love. There was no yelling, no locking of horns, any strict rules or punishments. I was allowed to make mistakes and find my own way. So there was no need for truly serious rebellion.
I’d like to think I, too, raised my kids with guidance and example as the primary teachers and love, freedom and respect as core values.

karensandburg said...

thank you for saying so, david terry... your thoughts are always eagerly devoured by me...

and likewise, i love this blog for the conversation it illicits from the readers. dominique manages to stir us deeply and get us to share our "findings". her honesty is that spark and i love it!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I am reluctant to enter this conversation, as I have no children myself. However, it seems to me that if the "Tiger Mother" herself owns up to her "inability to enjoy life", then her methods are suspect. Our time on this planet is so short. If we do not spend it in self-discovery, if we strive only for "perfection" (which is a rather hazy state anyway) and some sort of outside definition of success, well then, I think we've missed the point of the whole thing.

I've always loved the Einstein quotation, "Imagination is more important than knowledge", for I think the man knows what he's talking about. To think that creativity and improvisation could be lost in childhood saddens me.

But then again, I am raising dogs. But they've turned out quite well!

david terry said...

Hey there, Pamela Terry (fellow North Carolinian, from time to time).....

I expect you'd enjoy another quotation from Einstein (which I first learned in French and from a postcard of my great-aunt's, back when it didn't occur to me that this wasn't, probably, the original language):

"Un homme qui n'est plus capable de s'emerveiller a pratiquement cesse' de vivre"

In English?..."The man who has ceased to marvel/wonder has practically ceased to exist"

I don't think that's an entirely off-topic quotation (if one simply subsitutes "person" for "man") in regard to approaches towards child-rearing. Or getting to know other people or one's self, for that matter.

They all seem much the same thing to me.

You have a really gorgeous dog, by the way, and my January to-do list includes sending you those Ruth Draper monologues. (for those who don't know?....Ms. Terry's comments on this blog sent me to HER entertaining blog(s)..etc.etc... I've never actually met her, and we're not related, insofar as I know. "Terry" was the surname of a welshman who was married to my grandmother for 8 months in the early 40's).

Bemusedly as ever,

David Terry
www.davidterryart.com

Lisa Stockwell said...

I think most parents are at the mercy of what their own parents modeled for them, regardless of what culture they come from. We can either raise our kids as we were raised or reject that model and wing it on our own. (Admittedly some cultures are more rebellious than others.)

The rest comes down to personality and how we relate to other people. I think that if you're someone who respects other people's individuality and boundaries, chances are you're going to do that for your own children. If you are open to criticism and can admit when you're wrong, when you do screw up, your children will more likely appreciate how much you're trying.

I was struck by your question of whether your mother's strictness made it impossible for you to write fiction, since I've struggled with the same issue myself. I think it wasn't so much parenting style as my mom's personality. She tried very hard to let her five kids find their own interests and passions. She exposed us to as many different opportunities as she could and surrounded us with beauty and creativity. But she was also a perfectionist who had strong beliefs about the right way and wrong way to do things (and if you were going to take the time to do something, you better do it the right way). Non-fiction is about observing what is (you can't get that wrong) whereas fiction involves taking the risk that you might write something that is total crap. I think it's still possible to be a fiction writer, but it doesn't feel as comfortable when you have the voice in your head suggesting that what you're writing might not measure up.

Of course one has to be a bit of a perfectionist oneself to self-judge and care about what other people think of your work. So is it your mother's parenting style or an inherited trait that makes you a superb wordsmith when it comes to observing the world around you? And is that any less valuable than being a great novelist or short story writer?

Some believe that we are born into the families we need to become the people we are meant to be. I kind of like that thought and thank both my parents for the benefits and challenges they provided.

Dominique said...

Fascinating thought, being born into the families we need to become who we were meant to be....I've also thought a lot about our chosen families...the mother and father figures we adopt along the way, depending on who we see ourselves becoming, perhaps. And sorry, Warren, but I can't imagine how ironing a shirt could be an obsolete art. That tight/loose management style (which I subscribed to as an editor I think) works really well in so many situations--work, family, friendship, even gardening and writing. You learn what you can control, and you learn how to be open to happy accident...

Thank you all so much for writing. Your posts are gifts.

Helen Yoest @ Gardening With Confidence said...

Well said. I am the product of my Polish mother...I hope I gleaned the good, to build my base. Motherhood is the hardest job I ever held.

Anonymous said...

A woman I have not yet met forwarded this article to me. I write French songs for children and have a degree in French Language and Literature.

In any event, I found the writing refreshing, heartfelt and gut-wrenching all at the same time. I am a
plain old American woman raised in South Carolina. I probably didn't meet a Jewish or Chinese or Latin person, much less a French woman, until I went off to Boston to college, so my exposure to other
cultures as a child was very limited.

And yet, somehow I knew that this world requires an open mind and a fearless heart. Before we speak of "fear-based" models of teaching and disciplining, we
as women, as people, need to remember how much we simply need each other, in such profound ways. Since having children, I have been on a quest for women who share the idea of being open and fearless, of exploring why it is we do what we do and to find compassion for the choices we make. What I have run into often and again is some fear-based mode of living in general. Or maybe some silent world where we struggle and hurt and don't quite know what it is we are doing... in our relationships, in our lives. We are all busy beings. Especially
mothers. And if one happens to have a career to boot... And yet, so few that I have met have willingly
brought to the table the most difficult subjects, the experiences we all face but turn away from as if from a mirror.

So, this little discussion of parenting and cultural styles reminds me that I chose well the course of my own parenting behavior. In the end, I too shall wonder at what I may have done less than well, but I do know I am owning my role in the shaping of my children's psyches. I acknowledge my limitations but always try to inspire in them open minds and fearless hearts and a respect for all who tread upon this small, beautiful globe full of amazingly
different people.
The discussion is always worthwhile. Thank you.

Nathalie said...

Being French born in Paris from 2 French parents, I could not relate to anything you said about your mother except, just like Siana said, the very last section about style/looking good.

However as a mother who herself moved to Australia when my kids were 7, 14 and 14 (twins) I can relate to the difficulties of raising children in a society whose values I didn't always share. Too laid back, too permissive, not challenging enough, I tended to try and maintain standards that sometimes made my kids feel uncomfortable.

There's no easy answer to this but yes I'll fully agree with your last statement : my kids know they are loved, respected as individuals, and honored in their selfhood.

And it's all that matters!

Dandy said...

I would add "dignity" to the debate. No human being has the right to take another human's dignity away, and that is what the fear model does. That is the relationship it creates between mother and child. Simply put, it becomes abuser and abused, not parenting. What she describes is child abuse, and the fact that her children defend her, I see as little more than a type of Stockholm syndrome, where the abused becomes hopelessly attached and an apologist for the abuser.