Monday, January 24, 2011

Parenting A Princess Or Pushing A Prodigy?

News shows and articles have been full of parenting book drama lately.  The biggest hoo haw has engulfed Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which alternately repels and compels parents to re-evaluate their own parenting choices.

In my opinion, books that make me really sit down and think about my own rote assumptions are good things.  But Chua makes that difficult, writing in the Wall Street Journal:
Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough. That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)
While I didn't have a Chinese mother, my own mom came close on this point, and I certainly have more than a passing familiarity with this as a means of forcing perfection from a young age.  And I can say, quite honestly, that while this may work in terms of grades and accomplishments while in school, it teaches your child that other people's expectations and wants are to be exceeded and put ahead of everything else and that the child's own are to be suppressed.

This is not a recipe for happiness in later life, let me tell you.  Nor does it give you the personal skills to overcome that without a lot of work on the back end, something I have worked very hard not to visit on my own child for very good reason.

But our child does have to live with expectations.  It's not all spoiling and whatever you want to do at our house -- academically, she is expected to do all of her work to the best of her ability.

The WSJ had Ayelet Waldman do a rebuttal piece to Chua's that comes closer to my own position:
The difference between Ms. Chua and me, I suppose—between proud Chinese mothers and ambivalent Western ones—is that I felt guilty about having berated my daughter for failing to deliver the report card I expected. I was ashamed at my reaction. But here is another difference, one I'll admit despite being ashamed of it, too: I did not then go out and get hundreds of practice tests and work through them with my daughter far into the night, doing whatever it took to get her the A. I fobbed that task off on a tutor, something I can afford to do because my children reside in the same privileged world as Ms. Chua's.
Failing to do the work assigned to you in class is unacceptable in our house. As is failing to study. But if you try your hardest and only bring home a B-? Then I chalk that up to my method of working with her at home, and we come up with something new in terms of how we study the next time to see if we can pull that grade up a little.

Honestly?  She's pretty hyper-competitive about grades on her own, so maybe it's a genetic thing in our family even without the obsessive parental push.  How can you know?

And as a parent, how can you ever know if what you are doing is helping or hurting?  Isn't that the constant, internal nag for all parents:  "Am I doing this wrong?"

But with all the hype of Chua's book, I have a feeling that marketing persona is a lot of it and that her reality as a mother in her own home was something a bit softer.  You can't get a bestseller merely by appearing milquetoasty in your marketing, now can you?

Contrast that with a book whose premise I am finding infinitely more intriguing: Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.

As the mother of a girlie-girl 7 year old, this book appears to hit me right in my mothering sweet spot. From the NYTimes:
Orenstein finds one such enlightening explanation in developmental psychology research showing that until as late as age 7, children are convinced that external signs — clothing, hairstyle, favorite color, choice of toys — determine one’s sex. “It makes sense, then, that to ensure you will stay the sex you were born you’d adhere rigidly to the rules as you see them and hope for the best,” she writes. “That’s why 4-year-olds, who are in what is called ‘the inflexible stage,’ become the self-­appointed chiefs of the gender police. Suddenly the magnetic lure of the Disney Princesses became more clear to me: developmentally speaking, they were genius, dovetailing with the precise moment that girls need to prove they are girls, when they will latch on to the most exaggerated images their culture offers in order to stridently shore up their femininity.” For a preschool girl, a Cinderella dress is nothing less than an existential insurance policy, a crinolined bulwark to fortify a still-shaky sense of identity.

Orenstein is especially sharp-eyed on the subject of what comes after the princess phase, for in the micro-segmented world of marketing to children, there is of course a whole new array of products aimed at girls who begin to tire of their magic wands. These include lines of dolls with names like Moxie Girlz and Bratz: “With their sultry expressions, thickly shadowed eyes and collagen-puffed moues, Bratz were tailor-made for the girl itching to distance herself from all things rose petal pink, Princess-y, or Barbie-ish,” Orenstein notes. “Their hottie-pink ‘passion for fashion’ conveyed ‘attitude’ and ‘sassiness,’ which, anyone will tell you, is little-girl marketing-speak for ‘sexy.’ ”
We're entering the "sassy" marketing phase of our child's development, since she is 7 going on 8 and just beginning to notice stuff like that because she's a little behind that curve in her own development. While momma might like to keep her naive and outside the "slutty kid clothes" marketing bracket, I'm not certain how long I can hold that off, frankly.

She certainly went through the princess phase, with all the dress up clothes and tea parties with momma wearing a tiara and feather boa, too.  Since both her parents love Disney World, it was probably inevitable, but her girly girl-ness is pretty assertive all on its own.

I'll definitely be picking up a copy of Orenstein's book, if for no other reason than I've been asking myself a lot of the same questions through the years.  As a feminist who grew up as rather a tomboy for part of her formative years, what does it mean that my child is already obsessed with lipgloss and pink, frilly everything?  Maybe nothing at all, or maybe that we aren't doing enough to foster her independence and have, instead, worried too much about how she fits in with the rest of the kids her age.

As a child who stuck out, that's a concern of mine.  Am I somehow forcing that to be her concern as well?  Or am I making way too much of all of this?  Again, how can you know?

What I do know?

Parenting is not for sissies, especially when you really love your child and want the best for her.  And although I have have feeling I'll spend a lifetime revisiting all of this, I wouldn't trade it for anything.

(Photo via Who Nose.)

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