February 14, 2011
Dear Tiger Mom, aka Amy Chua:
I read with interest your column in The Wall Street Journal promoting your new Chinese-style parenting book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Your column, which spurred blogging and Tweeting not seen since Bristol Palin’s appearance on “Dancing With the Stars,” is to be praised for its clarity:
“A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do: attend a sleepover, have a play date, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, not play the piano or violin.”
I have no doubt that Sophia and Louisa will be more successful than my two kids if one defines success as perfect grades and violin or piano acumen. But if the definition of success is expanded to include happiness, contributing to making the world a better place, being a good friend, having a positive parent/child relationship, and finding a career that reflects one’s passion, my Jewish kids will leave your Chinese kids in the success dust.
So Tiger Mom, want to know how Jewish parents raise these kinds of kids? How Jewish moms produce so many entrepreneurs, Nobel Prize winners, artists, politicians, Academy Award-winning writers, directors, actors and just plain-old mensches disproportionate to our numbers?
Here are some of the things my daughter, Rachel, and son, Jake, are allowed to do: attend sleepovers, have play dates, be in school plays, complain about the four-hour rehearsals leading up to school plays, watch TV and play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get grades less than an A (and even less than a B!), play the instrument of their choice, complain about practicing the instrument of their choice. Now, here is why the Jewish Way works.
Sleepovers and play dates: There are very few careers in the world that don’t require two things: understanding human nature, and the ability to collaborate with others. And there is no better way to acquire those skills than to interact with other humans.
School plays: School plays are a huge time suck. In fact, I credit the ridiculous amount of hours that my daughter spent rehearsing for a play in ninth grade for her worst report card EVER. But, one day my daughter is going to have to stand in front of a group and give a speech, or make a presentation, and it will be a little easier for her because of the many talent shows and plays she has performed in over the years. And I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that a few of the famous Jews mentioned in Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song were permitted by their permissive Jewish parents to perform in their school plays.
Complaining: Yes, listening to your kids complain is annoying. But complaining is really just negotiating — an important real-world skill — in disguise.
Watching TV and playing computer games: On this one, Tiger Mom, you are partially correct. Ninety percent of what my kids watch on TV and the games they play on the computer are what my late Jewish grandmother would call drech and a ridiculous waste of time. But, some TV-watching, computer game-playing Jewish kid will write the next “Seinfeld,” or invent the next Facebook, and then donate the lion’s share of the money they make to a worthy cause.
Choosing their own extracurricular activities: Thankfully, the Jewish mothers of Barbra Streisand (“No, Barbra, singing is a waste of time; concentrate on your violin.”), Albert Einstein (“Albert, those ridiculous equations you are making up are not going to be on the test.”), and Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Seth Rogan and Mel Brooks (“Stop joking around and practice your scales”), permitted their children to choose their own extracurriculars.
Getting B’s: I have been an adult for quite a while now and in that time I have learned two things about grades. The first is that you don’t need straight A’s to be successful and the second is that straight A’s don’t guarantee success. What you do need, however, are parents like mine who lead you to believe that there is nothing you can’t achieve if you set your mind to it. The bottom line is that after you get your first job, no one cares whether or not you aced every history test since kindergarten. Or, for that matter, if you took history.
There is one other secret that Jewish moms know that apparently Chinese mothers don’t. The 18 years you get to spend under the same roof with your child goes faster than the speed of light multiplied by pi squared. (If you want to know what that number is, ask Sophia or Louisa to figure it out.) So instead of spending these precious years insisting that your children play Beethoven and then knocking them down because their music sounds more like “Chopsticks,” why don’t you take a page from the Jewish Moms parenting book? When our kids play “Chopsticks,” we tell them they can be the next Beethoven.
Mezuzah Mom, aka Wendy Jaffe