Was there really ever any doubt that I was going to write about the blogospheric debate swirling around us this week concerning Amy Chua, aka "the Tiger Mother," and her somewhat controversial methods of childrearing? I could not enter a conversation, attend a meeting, log onto my computer or walk down the street without someone invoking the Tiger Mother and her harsh, linear, bordering-on-abusive, high intensity parenting style.
However, from the moment I picked up Wendy Mogel's new book, "The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers" a couple of months ago, there was never any doubt that I would be writing about her parenting advice as well.
For anyone who has a pre-teen, a teen, or simply wants to understand what makes teens tick, Mogel's book is pure genius. I will admit that while I was a fan of her first book, "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee," which was more about parenting in general, "B Minus" hit home like nothing I've ever read in all my parenting years.
I am a hands-off parent. Despite the issues in my own nuclear family growing up, one of the many really good things my parents did was to foster independence in both me and my sister from a young age. There was no hand holding over homework, there was no gentle prodding to get that book report done, study for that final or hand in that college application on time. There was an understanding that we were responsible for ourselves and our actions.
With this responsibility came a lot of independence and freedom. I walked to my elementary school, by myself, six blocks away, from the time I was 8. I was allowed to ride the subways from the time I was around 11. I was a city kid, one who was street smart and well versed in fending for myself. I took myself to dance classes after school, I got home on my own when working on the school play until dinner time.
It is not surprising, therefore, that I have adopted aspects of this method into my own parenting style. My family's life today is a little more suburban and car-reliant, but not entirely so. My teen never wants a ride from me if he can get somewhere by foot or by public transportation. My younger kids walk to friends' houses in the neighborhood by themselves and my middle schooler walks to school, about ¾ of a mile each way.
Further, until we were slammed with a ridiculously intricate and difficult reading project for our 4th grader this year, which almost demanded parental involvement (and which I resented mightily) we almost never interfere with our kids' schoolwork. We check in, ask if it has been done, but I do not follow their curricula. If you asked me today what each one is studying, say, in their math classes, I wouldn't know except in the broadest strokes.
I believe their job is to go to school and learn and play and make friends and enjoy their activities and do their homework to the best of their ability. I believe my job is to make sure they are doing their job, and occasionally help them do their job if it is warranted.
I am not Tiger Mother.
I went to a non-competitive high school that had no grades (collective gasp!) It was a very 1970s-style experimental education, and it was fabulous. I understand why we no longer have programs like that, but I benefitted enormously – in many ways it forced me to take responsibility for my own education, which in turn, allowed me to place great value on what I was learning.
We live in a neighborhood that is a bit of a by-product of that era – it's pretty crunchy and down to earth. Our sports teams reflect that ethos. Everyone is a winner. Although the teams do keep score and the kids certainly know who won the game, the coaches work hard to instill a recognition that every player is an important player.
Not Tiger Mother territory.
My kids have each played instruments, with varying degrees of success. Their band concerts squeak away, and none of them have practiced terribly hard at home. But they all really enjoy their music, and don’t want to give it up.
No Tiger Mother here.
Reading "The Blessing of a B Minus" affirmed that in fact, despite opinions to the contrary, what we are doing in our family, by allowing our kids to take responsibility for themselves, is a really, really positive way to raise teens. The author advocates detachment as a necessary parenting technique in the teen years. She notes, "Detachment, practiced properly, is neither cold nor unloving. Quite the opposite. Detachment is a balancing act that requires both rachmanut (compassion) and tsimtsum ("contraction of divine energy.") This is an effective spiritual model for relinquishing control over children… As leaders of our children, it is essential for us to step back from the urgency, the mistakes, the heartbreaks, the rejection. … By taking a deep breath and withdrawing, you make space for your child to grow."
She goes on to talk about how to honor your child's true nature, how not to take rudeness in teens personally, how to accept and love your child for who they are. She describes the incredibly rewarding and soul-developing experience of a teen having his or her own summer job, and recommends this as a summer activity over a parent-paid community service summer program (and describes a conversation with one college admissions officer, who said "we laugh at Africa.")
She talks about sex, and sexuality, and drugs, and alcohol, and dealing with these issues with your teen. She discusses materialism and selfishness, bad attitudes and carelessness, and the influence of the media. She describes how to harness your teen's yetzer hara -- in Judaism, the aggressive impulse that every individual has lurking inside. The yetzer can lead to greed and selfishness and even violence, but it is also a source of incredible animating energy. Anyone with a teen knows what that animation can look like on a day when your teen is eager to talk about the debate he just won in social studies or the perfect pitch she mastered at a softball game. Managing the yetzer is a critical aspect of parenting teens.
Ultimately, the book is filled with nuggets of assurance that the best thing you can do for your child is to allow them to make their own mistakes and to gently and lovingly let them go.
Whew. I feel like this is what I've been waiting for. An affirmation of the way I have looked at my children from the day they were each born. It reminds me of the famous Khalil Gibran poem, put into beautiful harmonies by Sweet Honey and the Rock:
Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself
They come through you but they are not from you and though they are with you
They belong not to you
You can give them your love but not your thoughts
They have their own thoughts
You can house their bodies but not their souls
For their souls dwell in a place of tomorrow
Which you cannot visit not even in your dreams
You can strive to be like them
But you cannot make them just like you
In the end, I feel sorry for Tiger Mother. It seems that her dreams for her children were proscribed by feelings of personal inadequacy and a desire to try to house both their bodies and their souls.
I can only hope that my dreams for my three favorite people in the world are based on an understanding that their souls have been flying without me from the day they each were born.
Photo by orchidgalore via Flickr