Over Thanksgiving Break, I decided to read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. When this book was originally released, all the moms in town were talking about it. I didn’t even bother reading it, because I was sure it would infuriate me. Rumors had Amy pegged as the Worst Mom of the Century because she forced her daughter to practice piano so incessantly that the child started gnawing on the piano’s wood. People said she wouldn’t accept her daughters’ homemade birthday cards because they weren’t representative of their best work. These ideas absolutely floored me. To not accept a sweet handmade card? How cruel! How unmotherly! How blasphemous!
Then I read the book. And I now I get it. I get why she made her daughters practice: she wanted them to get better at their respective instruments. She wanted them to understand what it was to work hard. She wanted them to be the best. This concept presents such a problem for us Western moms. We are more prone to wanting our kids to find their passions early, always volunteer to practice, and then tell them it doesn’t matter if they are the best at something, as long as they tried. The thing is, my kids, given this set of parameters, will choose to be slothful. It’s no character-flaw of their own: they’re kids. They don’t want to work. They don’t want to spend time doing something difficult. They’d rather have a play date and have snacks brought to them on a sparkly pink plate.
Even the birthday card scene, when put in context, made good sense to me. Amy had gone completely Western-mom-style-overboard on the kids birthdays: balloons, petting zoos, the whole-nutty-shebang we find ourselves mired in when our little Sally turns three. So when she received two tossed together pieces of paper, penned so recently that the ink hadn’t even dried, she stood up for herself. She said, No: I deserve more. She forced her kids to consider their lack of generosity toward their mother in light of her generosity toward them. I read that passage and thought, Hell yeah! Go Amy!
Tiger Moms, it turns out, are on to something. Children are not, by being born, perfect in every way. They are young, nascent beings that need to be taught to work hard, to respect their parents, and to not expect the world will revolve around their needs and wants.
This Thanksgiving break, as I finished the book, I looked over at my eight-year-old daughter and considered her work ethic, which is failing at best. (Let me clarify that this is no fault of her own. We don’t exactly challenge her. We want her to be happy. This seems to be our first mistake.) I decided to get tough. She is supposed to have her multiplication facts memorized by now, but every time I say, “Hey honey, want to work on math for a little bit?” She says, “No, I’m too tired.” Or, “Mooom, it’s Saturday!” Or, “No, but I want to have a play date.” We were on vacation in a quiet place, with no friends or distractions. So on Thanksgiving morning, I forced her to sit down and work. I didn’t ask. I stated, “We are going to practice multiplication right now. For one hour. Get a drink if you’re thirsty. Go to the bathroom if you need to. Then we get started.”
You would’ve thought I’d asked her to build me a mansion out of toothpicks. The kid writhed around on the floor, moaning and complaining, and I watched my prior methods of gentle nudging fly out the window, far, far away. I channeled Amy Chua. I didn’t offer to wipe her tears with a soft tissue. I told her to sit down, make her own multiplication flash cards, no excuses. Seriously, the kid cried buckets. Buckets! She slouched. She sank to the floor. But I sat next to her unmoved and said, over and over, “Get in your chair. Sit up straight. Finish your work.” Finally, after about forty-five minutes, when the multiplication facts started sticking in her head, she had a moment where she felt something, a tiny glimpse of an accomplishment. I showed her a card that said 7×7 and she put a finger on her lip, then punched her hand in the air and shouted, “49!!” It was a triumph for both of us. All thanks to a bit of Tiger Mom training.
I don’t think I’ll go to the extremes that Amy did, making her kids practice so long they start chewing the furniture. But I do see the value in being a tough mom. You’d never think it from my past cookie-love postings, but I think there are times it’s imperative to make your kids struggle. To show them that they can do difficult things and that hard work can be incredibly rewarding.