Monday, January 24, 2011

Tiger Mothers in the Eighteenth Century

There are no dearth of commentators who are taking a crack at the new book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. But so far, at least, I haven't seen any who have really dealt with it from a late-18th-century perspective.

I should say, first, that I'm about a third of the way into the book, and so far, I don't think Chua is quite the child-abusing witch that others have made her out to be. Much of the time she actually seems to be poking fun at herself and the lengths she goes to in her efforts to ensure that her kids become driven over-achievers. Still, like many 21st-century non-immigrant American parents, I can't imagine myself doing some of the things that seem to come pretty naturally to her (threatening to throw her toddler daughter into the freezing cold because she won't follow instructions about how to play the piano, or threatening to burn her kids' stuffed animals -- but her stunts have already been heavily chronicled in the press, so I won't delve into them in detail here).

But taking a historical perspective, if you look back a couple of hundred years, parents said all sorts of things to their kids that we (by which I mean American parents like myself) would find emotionally abusive today. Of course there were expressions of love and praise by parents, just as there are now, but there were also injunctions to, for example, "be good so that Daddy [or Mommy] will love you." (I did read something like that in a letter from the 1790s -- unfortunately I can't locate it now. But I do recall leaving it out of the novel I wrote that was set in the 1790s because I thought modern readers would find it repellent.)

Of course, the obverse of that injunction is the threat that if you're NOT good, Daddy or Mommy WON'T love you. I doubt that 18th-century Mommies and Daddies actually did stop loving their kids when they misbehaved, but of course the kid on the receiving end of that veiled threat didn't necessarily know that.

Nowadays we take great pains (unless we're Amy Chua, who called one of her daughters "garbage") to make sure our kids know we'll love them no matter WHAT they do. We may be saddened, we may be angry, we may be disappointed -- but we'll still love them. In fact, our kids may need to hear that message even more when they do misbehave. (I'm reminded of an extremely touching story one of Sargent Shriver's sons told at his funeral this weekend: back in the sixties, when he was 14, Bobby Shriver was arrested for smoking marijuana. Given the Kennedy connection, this was a huge deal, with the police coming to the house, "a thousand" reporters hovering outside, the story running on the front page -- above the fold -- in the Washington Post. Bobby felt indescribably awful for letting down his entire family. Sarge, who was ambassador to France at the time, came home and called Bobby into his room for a talk. With great trepidation, Bobby entered the room. And Sarge leaned forward and just said, "You're a good kid, and I love you." Bobby says that hearing that from his father "saved his life." I shudder to think what Amy Chua might have said.)

But I digress. My point is, in previous eras parents did all sorts of things we wouldn't approve of today -- worse things, probably, than Amy Chua. And nevertheless, the human race has managed to survive. Through the centuries there have been over-achievers, under-achievers, people who were depressed, and people who were constantly sunny and cheerful -- probably in about the same numbers there are today, although I don't have those statistics handy. Kids are pretty resilient. And, by the same token, they can be pretty impervious to parental influence. In this context, I highly recommend a book called The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Rich Harris, which essentially argues that aside from contributing their genes, parents have very little effect on how their kids turn out.

So it's really impossible to know how Amy Chua's kids would have turned out without all the Sturm und Drang. Maybe they would have been pretty much the same -- and maybe the atmosphere in the Chua household would have been a lot more peaceful.

Of course, that's what I want to believe, since I wasn't exactly a Tiger Mother with my own kids. I didn't stand over them and make them do practice tests when they came home with an A minus, and when they didn't want to practice their musical instruments I made only token efforts to convince them otherwise. But now that they're young adults, I have to say, they seem to be turning out just great. I'm not sure I can claim much credit for that. But then again, if they'd turned out to be axe murderers, or just slackers, I'm not sure I'd want to be the one held responsible.

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