Saturday, December 7, 2013
Theodora J. Kalikow
I'll bet a lot of you know Amy Chua, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."
This is the mom who revealed the extremely demanding regimen she used to raise her daughters. You might not recognize her if you met her on the street, but you know her.
I do! Chua was my mother. She was my father, too. Different name, different ethnic background, but for many of us who were the first or second generation born in this country in the 1940s, our parents said: You will achieve all As in school. You will play at least one musical instrument. You will go to Hebrew school (or whatever the appropriate religious instruction is for your faith). You will go to college, preferably Harvard. (Most of us failed at that, but we achieved Wellesley, or Salem State, or Northeastern, or University of Massachusetts, or MIT.) You will be groomed for success, and you will succeed. Otherwise your parents will be so ashamed.
Fortunately for our country, the syndrome repeats itself in new generations. My parents were slightly more subtle than Chua seems to have been, though.
In my case, for example, they waited to see what musical instrument I chose. It was, God help them, the bugle. First, they made sure I was serious. I proved it by saving up my allowance pennies for the bugle. Then every week, my mother shlepped me to downtown Lynn for my lesson. I had to practice assiduously and perform in public with sickening regularity. I hope they hated that part even more than I did.
There were other areas of choice. Ballet, bad. Ballroom dancing, good. Fencing didn't make a hit. Archery did, and it also supported fantasies about Robin Hood and William Tell.
Whatever I chose, there were lessons and expectations. Once you chose it, you had to be the best. That was the way it was.
Both my father and mother taught me their skills. From the time I could barely see over the kitchen stove, my mother had me cooking and baking, not to mention washing dishes. Meanwhile, my father taught me tools, household repair projects and engineering-style problem-solving.
The food had to come out well, and the projects had to be completed in a workmanlike fashion. Heaven help you if you left the kitchen or the workroom messy. Everything had to be clean and back in its place, or your life would not be worth living.
I am happy that Chua has inspired the latest round of discussions about parenting. This goes back to my previous columns about schools and testing. What's the connection?
The first consequence of tiger parents is kids who are prepared for school and who strive to achieve. The striving is terrific, but the preparedness is fundamental.
Tiger parents read to their kids, make sure they have opportunities to learn, praise them for their real achievements, make learning and performing a wide range of skills fundamental to children's view of what their lives are supposed to be, and let them know that they have to keep on doing this forever.
My parents are dead, and I am still at it.
Tiger parents have high expectations. They expect self-esteem to be built on a solid foundation of achievement. It may be a kid-sized foundation, but it had better be there. You don't get praised if you don't deserve it. Schools can build on what the parents expect.
The second consequence of tiger parents is tiger kids. These are the ones whose teachers ask, "Are there any more at home like you?" These are the ones who are motivated to get a good report card, and know how to persist to achieve it. If these students get tested, they try as hard as they can to get a high score. Anything less would be a family disgrace.
But tiger parents and tiger kids mostly come from the tiger world. Families have good jobs. There's enough food. Enough money. A warm house. Decent clothes. Opportunities to explore and build skills. Reading and learning. An appetite for new things. In Maine and the United States, every part of our world is not the tiger world.
Do we want reading and math scores like those achieved by students in Singapore or Sweden? Then we need to look beyond schools. Schools cannot do it all by themselves. Early childhood education for all certainly helps.
Bring on the tiger parents and kids! Bring on the world that sustains the tigers!
Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Maine at Farmington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org