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."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bye Bye Berlin

This is the view outside my living room apartment at 7:30 a.m.

For anyone who wants to understand some of the key differences between Berlin and New York City, this photo is key. In Berlin, it is rare to find a shoveled sidewalk during winter. In Berlin, the snow piles and gets icy and you are forced to tread gingerly on an slick surface dotted with sand at the very most.

Here, there is a sensibility promoting safety and comfort (and there are lawsuits when people fall) so the walks get shoveled. Our penchant for safety is the object of some scorn abroad. On my last night in Berlin, I sat in a Neukolln bar talking to a German about the local jazz scene when he started railing against America's infantilizing safety codes and rules and restrictions.

Oh, I don't know. I'm kind of happy about much of it.

For instance, I like the fact that it is illegal to throw lit firecrackers at people here on New Year's Eve.

So, I'm back in New York and reflecting upon my nine-day Berlin adventure, preparing for the new semester at Columbia, morphing back into a mom and wife, feeling sickened by the violence in Arizona, grieving over the untimely death of Debbie Friedman, resisting the work I need to do, embracing the sunshine that bathes the piles of snow beyond the shoveled walks of my campus, pondering the fact of my identity as a 21st Century global citizen, missing my oldest child whom I bid farewell to at the bus stop on Yorkstrasse on Sunday morning, seeing everything that is right and wrong about my country through the lens of having been somewhere else.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Winter Sun in Berlin: A Postscript

Just to set the record straight about today...technically the sun was shining but the temperature dropped precipitously, hurting my nose when I breathed in, making me practically shake with shivers, though I wore a ludicrous amount of layers.

I hear snow is due tomorrow.

It's the middle of the Berlin night and I'm back home now, after checking out the scene at King Size, a narrow, smoky and fashionably overcrowded club on Friedrichstrasse.

Allegedly there was something called "Artist's Night" there, but I don't know what that meant. I ordered a shockingly overpriced 5 Euro white wine and sat at the bar hoping I looked mysterious instead of rejected. After an hour of wondering if people took me for a spy, I fought my way out of the front door (a process that took more than 10 minutes, seriously) and jumped into a cab after missing the night bus by about 15 seconds.

That's me the night after New Year's Day...bundled up in bed.

About to do the same now.

Guten Nacht.

The Sun Also Berlin

Here's the view outside of the Kreuzberg apartment I'm staying in during my research trip to Berlin.

The vista is hardly remarkable except for one detail: it features sunshine casting SHADOWS.

After nearly a solid week in Berlin, this is the first time I have seen anything resembling daylight or shadows outside of the Moholy-Nagy exhibit at the Gropius.

Bathed in sunshine, Berlin looks radically different. Though I had only a handful of hours of sleep last night, I am instantly awake.

The abundant sunshine is big news for those who live here, especially the young American expats who talk of the onerous experience of the Berlin winter. Just as the Hungarian-born Laszlo Moholy-Nagy came to Berlin as a young man in the 1920's, they are drawn to this city with its world-weary cosmopolitanism, its edgy culture, its demimonde, its scent of gritty sophistication, its clustering of the creative class. There are somewhere between 10,000 and 14,000 thousand Americans living in Berlin now. Whether they are casting any shadow on the life of the city remains to be seen.

The Kreuzberg apartment I am staying in belongs to Big Babe, who left today for Vienna to interview John Malkovich. In the absence of my son's stewardship, I'm on my own for the next couple of days, hoping to get lost in a creative way to discover some aspects of Berlin I hadn't seen in my previous five visits.

I am hoping to stumble upon young Americans during daylight hours because, thus far, I have only had luck meeting them after clubs and bars and house parties. When I pressed Big Babe yesterday to recommend some cafes where the American expats hang out, he shrugged and said he didn't think they were awake during the day.

Though I was skeptical of that claim, I note that the Berlin winter produces a feeling of daytime hibernation...or at least of sleepwalking through a dreary landscape.

In about one minute I will tear myself away from my laptop to shower and seize the day myself, possibly walking to my appointment instead of taking the U-Bahn.

When the sun shines in Berlin during winter, you got to capture it, bottle it, drink it in.