Monday, April 11, 2011

She's a Girl, Not "Garbage"

Some girls don't get to have fun. Life can be tough when you're raised by a tiger. Yale law school professor Amy Chua, a self-labeled "Tiger Mother," never allowed her daughters, Louisa and Sophia, to have play-dates, to participate in school plays, to complain about being left out of school plays, to play video games, to attend sleepovers, to be less than the top student in every academic subject, to receive any grade less than an A, to play any musical instrument other than the violin or the piano, or to refuse to play the violin or the piano. Though several months have passed since Ms. Chua's provocative essay, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," first appeared in the Wall Street Journal, setting off a firestorm of controversy, it's a timely subject to address in this final week before the annual Passover holiday. The contrast between the traditional Jewish view of parenting (similar to the view that has been accepted throughout the Western world) and Chua's view is never as stark as at Passover time.

Chua espouses the notion that successful parents are those whose children are successful academically; this perspective seems to have guided most or all of her parenting decisions. According to this view, Chua succeeded by raising two academic high achievers who had mastered musical instruments. (The complete sacrifice of social and communication skills, critical in Western society, was apparently of no consequence to Chua.) In the Amy Chua school of parenting, a child's very worth is defined by the value of what he or she can produce academically and musically (violins and pianos only, please), not by emotional, spiritual, moral or social qualities. This approach is not only rigid and demanding; it is dangerous to the very people whom it targets, and to the rest of their society.

In the February 22 issue of Family First, the women's supplement to the Jewish weekly magazine, Mishpacha, Malky Heimowitz astutely points out the perils along the road to achieving Chua's vision of success.  "Successful parenting," Heimowitz writes, ". . .is about raising happy, well-adjusted kids who have a strong sense of right and wrong." Chua, however, appears to have perpetuated her own family's pattern of verbal abuse, threats, temper tantrums, and dread that she experienced in childhood (and absorbed from her own parents). She confesses to having called her daughter, Sophia, "garbage" when the girl behaved with disrespect; Ms. Chua had learned the use of that pejorative from her own father, who had hurled it against her under similar circumstances. Another of Chua's gems is, "Hey fatty - lose some weight." As Heimowitz notes, calling children "garbage" and "fatty" is not exactly a sure-fire way to teach them to treat others with respect. The lesson: insulting your children will lead them to insult their own.

Heimowitz points out a number of contrasts between Chua's attitude toward education and the attitude of the Torah and the Jewish people. Chua claims that children are obligated to spend their lives making their parents proud of them, as repayment for bringing them into the world and caring for them. The Torah teaches otherwise; children are raised not to be their parents' slaves, but to live upright, morally and spiritually fulfilled lives. Bringing children into the world must be an act of pure giving. Chua also asserts that her knowledge of what's best for her children overrides all of her children's preferences and desires. The idea is that every parent is entitled to suppress her children's individuality entirely. Such tyranny breeds a home environment characterized by "eimah yeseirah," excessive dread, a trait that the Talmud warns Jewish parents to avoid.

In a revealing account, Chua describes her attempts to force her seven-year-old daughter, Louisa, to master a particular song that she had been learning to play on the piano. After numerous attempts, the girl was ready to quit, and resisted her mother's attempts to command her back to the piano. Her mother somehow managed to get Louisa to sit down in front of the instrument, and then resorted to every parent's least effective tactic for enlisting cooperation: she threw a temper tantrum. She threatened to donate her daughter's dollhouse to charity, insulted the girl, screamed at the girl until losing her voice, and forced the hapless Louisa to practice that song until she had learned to play it right. The girl was not allowed to eat dinner or to use the bathroom until she had succeeded. Where's the United Nations Human Rights Commission when you need them?

The Jewish people, and most of the rest of the Western world, reject the notion that the ends justify the means. "Even if Lulu becomes a world-famous virtuoso as a result of her mother's intimidation," comments Heimowitz, "Chua is still accountable for her deplorable behavior." She further notes that intimidation does not produce a child who actually wants to learn any subject, or who enjoys learning any subject. A child may absorb information despite an unpleasant learning experience, but no child will develop the motivation or the desire to teach himself or others unless his or her education is a sweet one. Every teacher also must be prepared to deal with his students' failures; the Talmudic relates the story of a particular rabbi who patiently taught his student each lesson four hundred times before the student could learn it successfully.

Less than one week from today, as we have done every year for over thirty-three centuries, Jewish families around the world will gather together on Passover night to relive the experience of our national redemption of crushing servitude and spiritually destructive exile. The central feature of this experience, known the Passover Seder, is the education of our children and ourselves regarding this national experience and the faith in G0d that it is meant to foster. Overwhelmingly, this education is transmitted from parents to children, and is a pleasant one. Parents embellish the basic story with myriad details, and the Seder itself is designed to include songs, questions, and special foods as tools that make the experience both real and enjoyable. In many families, including our own, toys will be used to enhance the story with some hands-on experiences that make it come alive. Children's questions are both welcomed and encouraged; in fact, facets of the Seder itself are designed to elicit questions. We welcome our children's continued inquiries, and value their contributions and opinions, as they persistently seek to arrive at the truth and to understand the traditions that they are given.

We will teach our children because we love them, and because we desire to share our precious and rich heritage with them. The loving, kind, transmission of our Torah from parents to children has been the hallmark of Jewish education throughout the ages. Passover night will be a wondrous, uplifting, educational experience for all who participate. And it will be a blast.