Op-Ed

Hey, tiger mom, it can be fun to be second-rate

I can walk pretty far along Amy Chua's road.

Like the now-famous Yale Law professor and author of the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I think that often we are rewarded when we put in the tedious, demanding, dreary work that it takes to do most things well.

As a mother, I've never had much patience with complaints that something is too hard or someone else is to blame for failure or misbehavior. As a teacher, I see too many students who believe they are destined to succeed by the very fact of their unique existence.

So I can understand Chua's disdain for what she perceives as the laxness of "Western" parents (and teachers etc.) who focus on children's self esteem while dooming them to a lifetime of half-hearted effort leading to second-rate performance that will, in turn, destroy self esteem. A non-virtuous cycle, for sure.

I'm not even sure that I can muster much horror over Chua's strong-arm mothering tactics, the most noted include calling her daughter "garbage" and threatening to haul a dollhouse to the Salvation Army if a piano piece wasn't mastered. For most of us, parenting is a messy mix of love, guilt and confusion.

What seems to cut Chua out from the herd is her absolute lack of guilt or confusion about her mothering. Someone once told me that guilt is a selfish emotion, and I think that's right. So if Chua has struck that one from her mothering repertoire, more power to her.

Where I part ways with Chua is when she writes, "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it."

First of all, I'm bothered by the logic. Does this mean that nothing is ever fun when you first try it? This might work for children who have parents to make the choices for them, as Chua does. But what about adults? Are we condemned to choosing between engaging only in activities where we know we can excel or being doomed to a life of second-rate misery?

My more bothersome concern goes to the value of knowledge and experience. I think it's fun to do things you'll never be good at but that enrich your life, challenge your point of view, teach you something new.

In case you're thinking I'm just another lefty, everything's cool Western underachiever, a little background is in order. I don't come from a family of losers, and I am rarely accused of being uncompetitive.

Three of my four older siblings were National Merit finalists or semi-finalists; one vivid childhood memory is the shame of coming home with a C in penmanship. Good children of parents who hadn't graduated from college (or, in my father's case, high school), we became lawyers and a doctor and hang advanced degrees on our walls.

We weren't self-indulgent; but fun we liked. If I'd stuck to the excellence-is-fun formula, I wouldn't have studied French or run marathons or gone hither and yon on birding trips for over a decade.

I grew up in a tiny town in Arkansas, but I was fortunate that a great French teacher in high school (she was both demanding and fun) opened a bigger world to me. I made A's, but my accent was never great and I wasn't going to win any French competitions. French led me to traveling and living abroad, which allowed me to see the American experience from the outside.

As for marathons, I'll admit I finally cancelled my subscription to Runner's World because I just couldn't take any more stories about people decades older than me who ran sub-three-hour marathons. In Chua's world, that would have been the end of that.

But, after slogging through those 18- and 20-mile training runs in the dark and the rain, I was always excited at the starting line. I knew it was going to be almost five hours before I finished, but it was so much fun being there.

It was fun running with my friends and it was fun having random conversations with other runners during the 26.2-mile journey. The most memorable was the woman who, in an effort to run a marathon in each of the 50 states, had run back-to-back marathons on Saturdays and Sundays two weekends in a row. Perhaps Chua would consider that fun.

And birding. I got into birding purely for the fun. I'll never forget my first good view of a harrier or a green flycatcher or a painted bunting, but I still can't identify their calls or call them on the wing.

A deep secret: One of my friends fills in my bird list at the end of each trip, that's how not-good I am.

Birding made me a heartfelt environmentalist in a way I could never have been staring into a microscope. Sitting by a pond in South Carolina one hot day I was suddenly mesmerized by the variety of life in each acre of wetland. No water means no algae, no insects, no frogs, no snakes, no turtles, no alligators, no birds, and on and on.

So this is my take as an Italian-German-American mother: Work hard, you won't be happy unless you do. But never, ever rule something out just because you're not good at it. It could change your life, and it might be fun.

Jacalyn Carfagno, a former Herald-Leader editorial writer, is a teacher and writer. Reach her at jacalyncarfagno@insightbbcom.

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