The blurb, right at the start of the book, was interesting. “This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. It’s also about Mozart and Mendelssohn, the piano and the violin, and how we made it to Carnegie Hall.”
I looked at my seven-and-a-half-year-old conducting ferocious, universe-shaking Beyblade battles with a steel plate surreptitiously filched from the kitchen, his mouth open wide enough for flies to wander in, and I knew that I was never going to be a piano or violin mother. A Bollywood dance mother maybe, but definitely not the Indian “Chinese” mother that Amy Chua talks about.
According to Yale professor Amy Chua, as written in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the unique style of boot camp parenting practised by most Chinese parents (and Indian parents, among others, she adds) is what ensures their children are the ones acing the tests, winning spelling bees and becoming musical prodigies before they’re out of diapers, and cracking all professional entrance exams and landing obscene pay packages. As for the rest of the un-Chinese moms, their offspring struggle to discover the meaning of life and vacillate through careers, and have us parents tearing our greying hair out and demanding they settle down in career and life before we go to the playground in the sky.
Her book, I must admit, had all my quills up and quivering. But it doesn’t take much to get my quills up and quivering. Her list of what her children were not allowed to do, which made it to every parenting blog discussion ever since The Wall Street Journal excerpt last month, did the job.
Her daughters were not allowed to attend a sleepover, have a play date, be in a school play, nor complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, nor allowed to choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than A+, not be the No. 1 student in anything except gym and drama, and it went on. I gasped in horror the first time I read it. I gasped again and reread it.
Where were the children expected to have a childhood in the midst of all these dos and don’ts? I did some frothing at the mouth on my blog, and on a BBC World live discussion on the topic, being the Indian mom who didn’t fit into the “Chinese Mom” stereotype.
Albeit admittedly I hadn’t read the book yet. And then I did. There was a method to Chua’s madness which got me questioning my parenting style which has been, err, laissez-faire at best. Reading the accounts of how she got her daughters to train at the violin and piano, instruments she had picked for them incidentally, had me wondering in bits whether, horrors, I had got it wrong. Whether I was setting my son up for a lifetime of failure given his report card was an unblinking procession of Bs and Cs. And I wasn’t spending more than an hour each day with him on his classwork, and we watched Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa (on Sony TV) and Rocky Balboa movies together. Blasphemy!
After all, I could see it all around me. Mothers who had “devoted” themselves to their children, mothers who sat teaching their children for a good 3-4 hours every single day before the child was allowed any downtime, and these are pre-primary children. Children who go to mental math, spelling bee, science and memory classes, in addition to regular tuitions. These are my son’s peers. Mothers who go through their child’s assessment sheets at parent-teacher association (PTA) meets with a marker and berate the hapless pintsizes on “silly mistakes” and losing “a mark” and then quibble with the teachers on the grading.
I looked at my son, looking as weed-like as the way he was growing up, and despaired. Would he grow up and need years of therapy because he had a mom who didn’t believe in “pushing” him enough?
Being a “Chinese Mom”, let’s face it, is a lot of hard work. You need to be singularly focused on your child’s academic performance, and if like Chua you have your child take up a musical instrument, that requires more hours of practice than a child might enjoy unless, of course, the child is internally motivated. That takes up a lot of time.
I am a lazy mom. The only thing my son has done apart from studying at will is Bollywood dance and drawing classes, these too because the teachers come to the complex and he is the best thing to happen to dance since Michael Jackson. I kid you not. Some months ago, he decided he had had enough of dance and quit the dance class. In typical un-Chua fashion, I agreed instantly, much to his surprise; he had anticipated I would put
up a fight of sorts and drag him kicking and screaming to the dance class and sit there grim-faced until the hour was up. He stayed without dance class for a couple of months, and then came up to me shamefacedly last month asking if he could rejoin. Of course, Chua might have an apoplectic fit about dance class to begin with, and definitely no Carnegie Hall invites will be sent out by me ever, but rejoin dance class he did. The other day, he went on an all out begging and pleading endeavour to be allowed to join karate classes, and so he began karate yesterday. He spent all evening after his first class kicking and practising the moves he had learnt, much to my exasperation, and some nifty saving of about-to-crash artefacts.
Chua’s narrative of how she trained her children and tried to adopt the same principles with her Samoyed dogs made me really rub my eyes in wonder. And when her younger daughter rebelled and gave up the violin for, gasp, blasphemy, tennis, I silently cheered for the child. Thankfully for her, Chua has added a coda at the end of the book which tells us that we as readers will never be able to really get the complete picture, so I am hoping that there were good times, and that the girls did have a childhood apart from academics and music practice.
But no. I’m never going to be able to call my son “garbage” nor reject anything he makes for me, even if he calls me “The Best Mutter in the World” on a tinsel tiara. I would rather see him mediocre and bursting with confidence the way he is right now, than see him excel academically but with an ego that I have battered down relentlessly in a bid to make him excel. Plus, since he gets to choose my old-age home, I better ensure he has nice memories of his childhood and doesn’t grow up resenting me.
Kiran Manral is a writer, blogger and founder of India Helps.
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