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Monday, February 7, 2011

The Soft Tyranny of Parenthood

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines Tyranny in part as:
: oppressive power
: a rigorous condition imposed by some outside agency or force
: an oppressive, harsh, or unjust act: a tyrannical act

I never grew up wishing to become a tyrant.  It’s not in my nature.  But I am proud to declare that when it comes to my children, I’m an unqualified tyrant.  I see no need to hide from this label.  In fact, I wish more parents would embrace it.  I believe our nation is worse off because too many parents have run from it.

On January 8th, the Wall Street Journal published an essay from author Amy Chua entitled, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, which is excerpted from her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”.  There are, as of this morning, over 7500 comments to this essay on the WSJ website.  It has caused a bit of an outcry in some circles, with many accusing her of child abuse and brutal mental torment.  Others, who may not approve of her methods or the extent to which she pushes her children, felt that there was much truth to what she said and we should raise the expectations for our children.  In the essay, she says

Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can't. Once when I was young—maybe more than once—when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me "garbage" in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn't damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I didn't actually think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.
The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, "Hey fatty—lose some weight." By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of "health" and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. (I also once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her "beautiful and incredibly competent." She later told me that made her feel like garbage.)

In another passage, she describes at  length, her efforts to teach a very difficult piece of music to her 7 year old daughter.  It was a very involved, weeks long process filled with a good quantity of physical and mental jousting with the child.  Ultimately, the child was able to play the piece and the author felt vindicated.

….parents worry a lot about their children's self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't.
I am not a tyrant on the level of an Amy Chua (nor am I a Chinese mother), but I don’t disagree with her conclusions. 

Key to parenting is to having a goal.  If the only goal is for you and your child to survive, then you are probably happy with whatever social delinquent you may produce.  If your goal is to raise a perfect child who will become the greatest person who ever lived, you plan on being disappointed.  Somewhere in the middle is where the rest of us reside.
One of the most basic lessons a parent will learn can be found in the Pixar animated movie, “The Incredibles”.  After being told by his mother, that everyone is special, her son Dash replies, “Which is another way of saying nobody is.”  I am not a father given to offer feint praise.  When I tell my children that have done well, they know they have indeed done well and can be proud of the acclaim.  When my mother tells her 7 year old grandson he played great at his basketball game, I know we need to temper that praise to match the results.  If average becomes great, what do we call great?  How do we encourage our children to try harder and do better when they are already great?  When words lose their meaning, children will not value the words we use.

Perhaps your child comes home with a B in science.  You rationalize that science is just not his subject and he tried his best.  But how do we really know when our child is trying their best.  Maybe they have simply been programmed to accept that a B is good enough, so that’s all they really aspire to achieve.  When my now 18 year old daughter was in middle school, she played on the school volleyball team.  After a poorly played game, the coach was putting the team through a grueling conditioning program.  The drill was intended to make the team suffer when it’s weakest link failed, so all the players had to keep going or the drill would be further extended.  My daughter kept pushing herself; she didn’t want to let the team down.  Finally, she hit a wall physically and with her body screaming, she began to vomit.  On that day, she learned what all out effort felt like.  When the coach offered praise for my daughter’s effort, she beamed because she knew that she had earned it and it meant something.  I’ve seldom seen her come home looking so proud.

When my teenagers entered high school, they were forced to choose a sport to play.  Whether they wanted to play a sport didn’t matter.  Despite what is seen in the Fox show “GLEE”, I feel that the constantly competitive physical environment and nature of teamwork found in athletics is different than that of the Vocal Music programs at school.  Both the arts and athletics can instill a sense of excellence and hard work.  But athletic competition offered something different - a moment when my child would be put in a high-pressure situation; fatigued, calling upon both her physical and her mental preparation with the collected efforts of her teammates riding on the result of her actions.

Even in the best of circumstances, the chance of failure is high.  Regardless of the outcome, my daughter will have learned something about herself from the experience.  Did she fight through or cave in under the pressure?  Had she prepared herself adequately?  How will she react to failure?  Will she give up or work harder?  It may be just a game, but the lessons of competition (like Algebra) are embedded within the realities of everyday life.

As my children age, the more tyrannical I become.  I’ve heard the teenage years compared to a cocoon whereupon becoming an adult they spread their wings and fly.  As I recently told my 18 year old daughter, my job as a parent is to make her want to leave the cocoon by making it inhospitable for her.  As my daughters like to tell me, other parents treat their teens as adults, who shouldn’t be told what to do when they turn 18.  I laugh and tell my daughters that as long as my house is their address, they are not really adults.  Adults have jobs and apartments.  Adults pay rent and utility bills.

My daughter is about to graduate high school and move onto college in the fall.  A few days ago, we were discussing the nature of man.  I explained that the our nation’s founders understood that man is a sinful creature.  The checks and balances written into our constitution exist because they were felt necessary to prevent the evil of man from infecting our government, hoarding up power and creating a tyranny.  When power collects unchecked, a tyranny exists.

I explained that her job was a tyranny.  I told her that my wife and I were a tyranny; all parents really are.  The only authority over us is the authority we place ourselves under.  Her mother and I have chosen to put ourselves under God’s authority and have sought to check and balance ourselves with His word.  I've often told her that the actions we've taken were an effort to raise a young woman prepared to meet the challenges that she will face in life.  Soon she will step out to succeed or fail on her own.
Unlike in sports, giving up isn’t an option in life.  One must press forward no matter what.  Too many parents have raised unprepared and undisciplined children, unable to meet the demands of life and then offer them a bailout by bringing them back into their home.  We have created a society of dependents by raising adults bred to be comfortably dependent.  As parents, our homes should be an oppressive and stifling environment for the average young adult to live.  Sadly, it’s not. 

I am doing my part to raise independent adults by reigning tyranically against their liberty.  Read that again (I promise that it makes sense).  As long as they live in my house, there are rules that they must live by.  Some are well reasoned, but others would probably be described as arbitrary.  It doesn’t matter though.  In Ritterland, my wife and I rule without question.  We have taught our children that true liberty flows from independence.  Thus my children, like the founders, yearn for their independence.  And once that independence is gained, they are not likely to relinquish it.  We can give them liberty, but we cannot give them independence.  Our children must fight and earn that on their own.

We love and adore our children.  We have a very loving home often filled to overflowing with their friends.  No one and nothing is unwelcome at our door.  At the same time, my girls can feel the cold metal of the cage lurking just under the surface, pressing against them.  They know that if they are to spread their wings and fly, they must break free of this cage that holds them.

As we watch national and world events unfold, we will see many people fighting for their independence, while others are quite happy to sacrifice it for the comforts of our childhood.  But when the government becomes the provider of those comforts, our freedom is taken from us, placed in a box and stowed away in the attic to collect dust with the other vestiges of our childhood.

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