In a marketplace flooded with options for the consumer, even parenting has been reduced to a ‘How to …Manual’ .
I was gifted a book before my child turned one, ‘How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk’. There are many more on the shelf, those that address a parent’s anxiety about every aspect of parenting. And ofcourse, it goes without saying, parenting instructions are mostly addressed to the mother.
Amidst that deep, dark tangled jungle of advice stands the crouching tiger mom. Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymns of a Tiger, needs to be located amidst the books that have the soft furry feel of the rabbit, or the gentle nuzzle of the deer, or at best the taut stance of an animal sniffing danger.
Chua sticks her neck out and declares that she is in a jungle – not of parenting, but in the parenting books industry. She sets out to define a Chinese tiger mom in opposition to the warm, fuzziness of the American parenting model. She says the Chinese Tiger Mom is a personality type trying to push children towards success, with no padded punches, in an America that she perceives as being lazy, laid back and cushy. She creates a scary picture but the usual sweet and spicy flavour of happy American parenting is no pretty purple plum either. To come back to the books on my shelf- most veering towards the juicy plum type- I avoid them because they show me up to be inconsistent with the beautiful, straight drive, at the same rock steady speed, that these books promise.
My own parenting, as I would imagine is the case with every other human parent in the world, responds to the constantly changing terrain charted by the child, her parents, and the other significant adults and children in the picture. The book about how to make the child listen stays unopened, because I really think it is okay for a child not to listen at times, and equally for a parent to turn a deaf ear at times.
To Chua’s credit she has refrained from listing out instructions on parenting to make your child dizzyingly successful. That is her unabashed aim but she talks about her journey with her girls who had their own personhood. She declares quite openly that she did not account for that, her girls were meant to be an extension of herself. The elder daughter went along, the younger one resisted. Pretty commonplace I would imagine. To me it always seemed that the entire enterprise of parenthood was all about superimposing your self onto the child. Apparently not, given the uproar to the book. People are not supposed to be that selfish.
An excerpt from the book published in the Wall Street Journal created a storm. The article went viral on the WWW. My comfortable routine of visiting one or two mommy blogs to peep into grim moments of despair and a cozy Karan Johar brand of sweetness was rocked vigorously. Everyone was reacting to this one article. Friends who felt let down by my blissful preoccupation with parenthood were linking this article on Facebook, or sending it in the mail. How perverse is this mother, how cruel is this parenting model, the book is outrageous, everyone declared. She rejects her daughter’s hastily sketched birthday cards, bans them from the simple joys of childhood like sleep over’s, she makes them practice their music lessons late into the night and at day break even on vacations, their days are ordered around achieving excellence to the point of a break down, both emotional and physical. But the very next day you are meant to pick up the pieces and start again.
Adults brought up by Chinese parents were screaming that they were scarred, Chua’s daughter shouted they loved their mom, Chua said in measured terms, I was self mocking. The storm had me, as usual, feeling like I had bent down to pick up the shining shell and missed hitting my head on the cloud of static above. What was the outrage all about, I can only see versions of tiger moms all around me. Hell, I battle with the frightened deer inside me and try to make her crouch like a tiger. I am afraid I am becoming like my content parents, and clearly in today’s world I might not survive.
My parents were criticized for not being pushy. Everyone gasped that they seemed to be proud of the fact that I pointed to pretty sunsets rather than be ashamed that I was never the topper in class. Entire households around us were always in mourning because their child has missed getting the first rank at school. I saw mothers set alarms for 3 am, so they could sit with the child cramming in dates, formulas, and theorems. Warm, happy moments of family time around the dining tables were not spent on meals but on revising the mugging up that happened at 3 am. ‘We are a happy family’ was one extended tuition class.
Now that I am a parent I see friends send their kids to classes to groom their four year old for the admission test to a “good” school. I hear neighbours complain that their five year old is unable to write sentences. Before the child has got used to a routine at school, she is being enrolled for dance class, drawing class, mental math class. “Mental Math?” I asked, when I got a call from a school offering my 5 year old child admission into their summer camp. My child has just figured that those shiny coins in her hand can add up to the amount needed to buy a kilo of potatos. That is as much math as she can enjoy now, it takes us pretty long to be done with the vegetable shopping, but that is fine. She does not need to prepare now for the math test she will probably do at age 7 or 8.
Chua insists that her girls stay ahead of their class, they should be able to solve math problems taught to students two grades above them. Chua is talking about her expectations from her children, and she sits with them and leads them through the lessons herself.
In India, majority of our “good” schools have adopted this ‘staying ahead’ as conventional practice. I spoke to a retired school teacher who told me that she was helping her grand daughter in her fifth grade maths lessons. “She is bright, diligent and yet she can not cope because the school is making them do lessons meant for the seventh grade”, she said. I met an 8th grade child in my building lift, “Arent you in an ICSE school? You will really enjoy the literature texts you will study in 9th and 10th” I said to her with nostalgia for the Shakespeare, Nirala and Manto we were introduced to. She gave me a withering look, “We have already completed the 9th and 10th grade syllabus, for the next two years we will only revise so we can max our board exams papers.” Enjoy the literature texts? What a strange expectation from the syllabus!
I will have to fortify the frightened deer inside me to make my child fit into a school system that makes the tiger mom seem like a circus joker. Most parents enlist the help of tuition classes, special coaching, alarm clocks that will ring at 3 am and limited tv, computer, friend, sport, sunshine and fresh air time. I might attempt to opt out of this circus by trying to find a school that sits in a comfortable niche and declares it has a different philosophy.
But I will still need to deploy the tiger in me and learn something from Chua. She says she pushed her children toward rigorous training in classical music as an option to the consumerist, mall driven culture all around her. Seeing my child taught some heavy duty pelvic thrusting moves by an innocuous MC at a regular birthday party hosted in a typical play area in a mall had me running to seek out a classical music class or classical dance class that my child could sit in when she was four. I just wanted her to sit in, and get a sense of another kind of rhythm, a certain discipline. I thought she was too young to start learning unless she wanted to. I was willing to pay so she could sit in! Ofcourse it did not work out. Either I would have had to agree to have her moulded into the next child prodigy, or I should let her enjoy the easygoing, fun, bollywood dancing classes. Hey, every birthday party was giving her that training free of cost, why bother with another paid class I would ask.
I realized why the classes were important- mine moved and shook to the beat randomly. She picked up the pre-ordained steps only after apeing the rows of hrithiks and kareenas around her. She must have felt embarrassed that her mother was moving as randomly as her instead of prompting the “correct” step so the kid could get the best dancer prize. I was the idiot mother who wanted to pay to let her kid sit and watch older kids learn Kathak and Hindustani vocal. Or worse I begged the organisers of high culture programmes to let my kid in assuring them that she was not disruptive. But this is not a child friendly activity I was gently informed by organisers and fellow parents.
Upwardly mobile nuclear families from our generation have adopted the term child friendly with great enthusiasm. Loud, saucy film music is acceptable. (Never mind that most parents are struggling to explain the meaning of Munni badnaam hui to their toddlers) Children programming on acceptable channels are appreciated despite being filled with the most disturbing, aggressive advertising spots targeting the consumer through children. Play areas in gated communities, malls and resorts are meant to be the high point of ‘child friendly’.
Childhood is all about primary colours and the well rounded edges of prefabricated plastic slides. The tiger mother has to don her camouflage, not show her stripes the way Chua does.