Monday, January 17, 2011

The Ballad of the Pom Mom or Why the Tiger Mother Has Been Licked on the Battle Field

This is a belated backlash to the backlash created by the sensationalist Wall Street Journal essay by Amy Chua, the fascistic uber-mama self-described as a "Tiger Mother."

Provocatively entitled, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," Chua's piece ran last Saturday, January 8th, my last day in Berlin. In yesterday's WSJ, a teeny fraction of reader emails were printed, just 16 of the 5700 comments generated by the article. An editor's note acknowledges that this is the largest amount of reader response ever generated by a single article that ran in the paper.

In her essay (and her book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) Ms. Chua reveals her recipe for raising Master Offspring. This secret formula includes the elimination of many of the childhood ingredients that most contemporary parents consider essential to emotional well-being. Chua confesses that her daughters were forbidden to:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.
The psychological wrongheadedness of this approach to childrearing struck me as so blatant that my initial response was not outrage but disbelief. How could someone so educated have such a narrow concept of success? I wondered. How is it possible to grow to adulthood in this culture and not realize that life is so much more than "being the best"...whatever that means? How could someone with as many degrees and pedigrees as Chua remain so narrow-minded and ignorant about what it means to have a full, happy life?

The second phase of response awakened my inner child advocate. Surfing the blogosphere, I noted I was hardly alone in my disgust; indeed, outrage and disgust appeared to be the predominant responses to the Tiger Mother's battle hymn and I was merely catching up with the rest of the world. Where was Chua's respect for the individuality of her children? Where was her curiosity about who her daughters actually were...apart from her own egotistical aspirations for them? Does she possess a spiritual dimension? Where is her sensuality? Her desire to snuggle, hug, love, play, have fun???

Having witnessed the tragic failure of Chua's method of hyper-driven parenting in up-close and personal ways (like some of the readers point out in their sobering missives) I was amazed that she had failed to notice the same. Chua and I are roughly the same age, products of a similar era. Being a member of a generation that understands success and achievement as holistic, stemming from many factors, it seems mystifying that Chua has managed to myopically cling to a model of success that is purely quantitative, based only on external markers of achievement.

At the same time, I am also compelled to point out that many of my generation are guilty of the exact opposite sin -- let's call it Pussycat Parenting. Indeed, it is largely the children of Pussycat Parents whom I am studying as they drift through their twenties and thirties in Berlin. In my interviews with them, most of my young American subjects credit their parents with giving them an appreciation for life as an open road but blame them for failing to provide them with a road map. Still, I've yet to read a tome justifying the Pussycat approach to parenting.

Maybe it is just a crass and clever commercial venture but Amy Chua has branded her dangerous childrearing method and so we must respond. Perhaps I've been spending too much time in Germany but by treating her kids as lab rats in her personal eugenics project, Chua seems to me a mad scientist of sorts...or worse.

Sadly, coverage of Chua's metaphysics of mothering competed with news of the Tucson shooting. Freshly returned to New York, I devoted most of this past week to re-acclimating myself to my family, preparing for my new semester at Columbia and contemplating the fruits of my research. L'Affair Tiger Mother seemed ultimately so depressing that I largely forgot about it for most of the week.

And then came the weekend, with the opportunity to reflect and read and react afresh.

Hundreds of reactions later (including one in yesterday's WSJ by the self-proclaimed "Bad Mother" Ayelet Waldman who sounds just as nightmarish as Chua and looks scarily frumpy in the accompanying photo, while her Chinese counterpart looks fit and fashionable in her publicity photos, most fitting for the mother of the Master Race) the initial shock of Chua's unapologetic POV has worn off but the conversation itself remains relevant, necessitating further response.

Because it is a sunny Monday morning and a holiday to boot, I will attempt to wrap up this post as I have BIG PLANS today, which include wandering through the Met and the newly-renovated Museum of the Moving Image and attending an MLK event at Symphony Space this evening where my soul-sistah Neshama Carlebach will perform with the Green Pastures Baptist Choir, in addition to various other church and synagogue groups.

So here's what I want to say: Chua, Waldman and their ideological cronies are sadly misguided in their missions as Tiger Mothers -- Chinese, Jewish and otherwise. Needless to say, Pussycat Parents are just wusses.

The path to true happiness belongs to the Pom Mom.

By which I mean the Pomeranian Mother.

My chief credential in forging this philosophy of childrearing is my PhD in Pomology, accrued after a decade devoted to studying the Path of the Pomeranian, an inherently joyful, adorable and loving creature.

Not to mention having raised three children of my own.

I dedicate the rest of this post to my spiritual guides Alfie and Nala, who are my gurus to the good life and to my kids, the Three Babes, who exceed my expectations for wonderfulness every minute of every day, even when I'm pissed off at them.

Here are some of the basic tenets of the Pom Mom, which find expression not in a battle hymn, but in a ballad:

Like her furry canine role model, the Pom Mom understands that in order to thrive, her little ones need ample opportunities to run, play, explore, snuggle, eat, sleep and receive treats and rewards for good behavior.

While the Pom Mom acts as the leader of her pack of pups, she doesn't exercise maternal muscle through bullying, demeaning, threatening or deprivation.

Her governing principle is nurturance.

Her basic belief is that love is a stronger motivator than fear.

She is big believer in the value of free play, of fun, of discovery.

She sees curiosity as a birthright.

The ability to perform tricks for applause is meaningless to her.

What matters is creativity and character.

She knows her offspring by their sweet individual traits and knows that the flip-side to a stubborn streak is often tenacity of spirit, that an overly timid pup needs to be taught the value of risk-taking.

She fosters sibling loyalty and is proud when her children act in compassionate, even selfless ways.

She glows when they master a difficult challenge and understands her important role as protector, teacher, enabler and cheerleader.

She scoffs at the empty designation "Best in Show."

She knows that the best part of life is to be found in the comfort of each other's embrace and that, as Peanuts famously stated, "Happiness is a Warm Puppy."

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