kitchen table math, the sequel: daughter of Chinese mom

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

daughter of Chinese mom

Dear Tiger Mom,

You’ve been criticized a lot since you published your memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” One problem is that some people don’t get your humor. They think you’re serious about all this, and they assume Lulu and I are oppressed by our evil mother. That is so not true. Every other Thursday, you take off our chains and let us play math games in the basement.

But for real, it’s not their fault. No outsider can know what our family is really like. They don’t hear us cracking up over each other’s jokes. They don’t see us eating our hamburgers with fried rice. They don’t know how much fun we have when the six of us — dogs included — squeeze into one bed and argue about what movies to download from Netflix.

I admit it: Having you as a mother was no tea party. There were some play dates I wish I’d gone to and some piano camps I wish I’d skipped. But now that I’m 18 and about to leave the tiger den, I’m glad you and Daddy raised me the way you did. Here’s why.

A lot of people have accused you of producing robot kids who can’t think for themselves. Well, that’s funny, because I think those people are . . . oh well, it doesn’t matter. At any rate, I was thinking about this, and I came to the opposite conclusion: I think your strict parenting forced me to be more independent. Early on, I decided to be an easy child to raise. Maybe I got it from Daddy — he taught me not to care what people think and to make my own choices — but I also decided to be who I want to be. I didn’t rebel, but I didn’t suffer all the slings and arrows of a Tiger Mom, either. I pretty much do my own thing these days — like building greenhouses downtown, blasting Daft Punk in the car with Lulu and forcing my boyfriend to watch “Lord of the Rings” with me over and over — as long as I get my piano done first.

Everybody’s talking about the birthday cards we once made for you, which you rejected because they weren’t good enough. Funny how some people are convinced that Lulu and I are scarred for life. Maybe if I had poured my heart into it, I would have been upset. But let’s face it: The card was feeble, and I was busted. It took me 30 seconds; I didn’t even sharpen the pencil. That’s why, when you rejected it, I didn’t feel you were rejecting me. If I actually tried my best at something, you’d never throw it back in my face.

I remember walking on stage for a piano competition. I was so nervous, and you whispered, “Soso, you worked as hard as you could. It doesn’t matter how you do.”


Another criticism I keep hearing is that you’re somehow promoting tunnel vision, but you and Daddy taught me to pursue knowledge for its own sake. In junior year, I signed myself up for a military-history elective (yes, you let me take lots of classes besides math and physics). One of our assignments was to interview someone who had experienced war. I knew I could get a good grade interviewing my grandparents, whose childhood stories about World War II I’d heard a thousand times. I mentioned it to you, and you said, “Sophia, this is an opportunity to learn something new. You’re taking the easy way out.” You were right, Tiger Mom. In the end, I interviewed a terrifying Israeli paratrooper whose story changed my outlook on life. I owe that experience to you.

There’s one more thing: I think the desire to live a meaningful life is universal. To some people, it’s working toward a goal. To others, it’s enjoying every minute of every day. So what does it really mean to live life to the fullest? Maybe striving to win a Nobel Prize and going skydiving are just two sides of the same coin. To me, it’s not about achievement or self-gratification. It’s about knowing that you’ve pushed yourself, body and mind, to the limits of your own potential. You feel it when you’re sprinting, and when the piano piece you’ve practiced for hours finally comes to life beneath your fingertips. You feel it when you encounter a life-changing idea, and when you do something on your own that you never thought you could. If I died tomorrow, I would die feeling I’ve lived my whole life at 110 percent.

And for that, Tiger Mom, thank you.

Why I Love My Strict Chinese Mom
New York Post


Catherine Johnson said...

high joy / high discipline

works every time

LynnG said...

I'm half way through the book and loving every minute of it -- particularly the part where she attempts to impose Chinese parenting on the dog.

Kids are smarter and more resilient than we sometimes believe. They know when they've "phoned it in" and are not particularly troubled about being called out on it. You don't need to maintain a fiction that every work of art is a masterpiece, when it is clear that they don't believe it themselves.

My ten year old is reading the book too. She loves it.

Glen said...

There is a value conflict between the little people my kids are today and the adults they will one day become. The little people fight for what they value today, but who represents the adults they will become?

That has to be me. I'm like an agent representing the interests of faraway clients with whom I can't communicate. I have to do my best to figure out what they would want me to do and act on their behalf while still protecting the interests of the kids in front of me. I can't let either side take too much advantage of the other.

Many years from now I'll meet those adult "clients" face to face and have to justify my actions. There will be some second guessing. They'll have the benefit of hindsight and won't fully understand how things were. But, overall, will they be pleased at how I took care of their interests?

That's a question I try to keep in mind when deciding how hard to push.

SteveH said...

Love matters.

"Well, that’s funny, because I think those people are . . . oh well, it doesn’t matter."

Exactly. I'm convinced that many people are unable or don't want to see details. Perhaps they can't see how this approach might work in some cases and not in others. I don't think the marketing of the book helps, however. It tries to push buttons.

"...but who represents the adults they will become?"

That's a good way of putting it.

My wife and I have struggled with how much to push since our son was born. I think it makes a big difference to start early. My son might get annoyed about our pushing when he looks at his friends, but that is superficial. Deep down, he likes who he has become. We could be looking back now and realizing how badly we screwed up, but there is a risk in not pushing. We also paid attention along the way to adjust our pushing. It's easier to push and then back off rather than the other way around.

My nephew had some learning difficulties when he was young, but my sister pushed him and worked with him to overcome them. He now has a degree in computer science and is quite proud that he knows how to work much harder than many of his co-workers. If my sister didn't do that, where would he be today?

"If I died tomorrow, I would die feeling I’ve lived my whole life at 110 percent."

Pushing can be empowering or it can be enervating. This isn't as simple as the difference between self-pushing and parent-pushing. I think the evidence clearly shows that there is no guarantee of reaching your potential naturally.

One of the complicating issues is supply and demand. Many will push well past your limits for a limited opportunity. In sports, this goes with the territory, but in academics, it seems wrong. Should Harvard base entrance on some absolute standard, not supply and demand? How many alumni would not be accepted today? Leaving alone the question of whether Harvard is a good goal or not, I see this as an issue. People feel like they are pushed to compete with others and not themselves. That's the real world.

Anonymous said...

"Everybody’s talking about the birthday cards we once made for you, which you rejected because they weren’t good enough."

I wonder how many times Amy told her to rewrite this letter.
I'm all for pushing kids...but not like this.


Anonymous said...

"I wonder how many times Amy told her to rewrite this letter.

I'm all for pushing kids...but not like this."


My rule of thumb when it come to penmanship (my child's greatest academic weakness) is to insist on high (well, hopefully) quality when we are doing penmanship "for school" and require rewrites as needed. But when the child chooses to write ON HIS OWN, I will only comment if I think the penmanship is extra bad.

My thinking is that it is easy to turn him off to writing on his own. And making this writing extra work is probably a good way to do this.


-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

There is also a whole universe of kids who are born with interests other than academics, who can push themselves but not be pushed by others, and who will end up with achievements that their parents never imagined as worthwhile, much less acceptable. Let's be sure to keep these kids in mind.