Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
The best response thus far to Amy Chua’s screed against the soft, indulged style of American parents, “‘The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” was by David Brooks of the New York Times. Chua decries American parents as wimps who capitulate to their kids. Not Amy. She has threatened to burn her children’s stuffed toys if they don’t excel at piano, withheld food, water, and bathroom break to teach piano to her seven-year-old, called them lazy, stupid, and fat, denied them play dates and sleep overs, TV and video games, and has slowly molded Carnegie-hall protégés with straight A’s. Thunderous applause. To which Brooks responded that the hardest cognitive skill that any child confronts is learning group dynamics and how to get along with other people, interactions which Chua seemed to dismiss as beneath her kids.
Touché. The man has a point. America as a nation would probably get an overall A in the success department but a D minus in getting along with each other. With half the population divorced, families disintegrating all around us, and some nutjob shooting up innocent bystanders about every other week, we clearly have demonstrated something of an inability to master interpersonal relationships, both with those we love most as well as strangers.
But I have a variation on Brooks’ argument. The draconian parenting advocated by Chua in her book breeds a real and potentially toxic narcissism. In essence her argument is that we must raise children with an extreme focus on self. Our kids are brought into this world not to be a blessing to others through a life of service but to become immensely successful, with success defined narrowly and almost exclusively in terms of personal achievement. A success is a concert pianist and a Nobel prize winner, an Olympic Gold medalist, a billionaire businessman, and a powerful politician. Great. Knock yourself out. But I counsel some of these “successful” people. Their lives are often ill-balanced and given their egos’ strangle-hold on their happiness, they often struggle to find meaning and purpose beyond the dictates of their ambition.
Sure, we can all agree with Chua that TV and video games are a waste of time and I endorse her call for far greater discipline in parenting. But where does selflessness figure in the values by which she raises her children? Should every child really be raised believing that the greatest gift they can give the world is to inflict their vast achievement on it?
Indeed her book has generated such a wide readership precisely because American parents seem so much more interested these days in raising successful rather than good children, kids who excel at making money rather than making friends, at obtaining status rather than obtaining wisdom, at winning championships rather than championing a cause larger than themselves.
I wonder what the Amy Chua’s of this world do when one of their kids expresses a desire to be, say, a Rabbi, Priest, or teacher? Do you rent your garments and don sackcloth and ashes? Or do you simply them, OK, but only if you rise to be Chief Rabbi, the Pope, or the secretary of education?
Here’s the thing. I want my kids to be successful, sure. But more than anything I want them to be soulful and moral. Yes, I would like to see them prosper, afford nice things, and earn the admiration of their peers. But damn it, if money and status become more important to them than being ethical, altruistic, and giving then I have utterly failed as a parent.
My friend Dennis Prager, the radio host and author, tells a story of a woman who bragged to him that her children were top doctors and lawyers. He asked her, “Are they good people?” “Why of course,” she responded. And then his clincher. “Then why didn’t you tell me that first?”
I am proud when my kids show me a good report card. But I receive real joy when people who have met them tell me how respectful and warm they are.
Let us reemphasize the point. If you raise kids who get into Julliard and Yale – Chua’s favorite playgrounds – but they are selfish egotists, you blew it.
To the Amy Chua’s of this world I ask this question: Is America really missing success, or are we beginning to squander that success through an erosion of values? Success without values always ends in misery and failure.
That does not mean I dismiss many of Chua’s important points. I too have been mostly opposed to sleepovers because they involve no sleep before they are over. The kids come back dead tired and blow the next day. And often there is no parental supervision to speak of.
Kids should not be veging in front of TV’s and the last thing a child needs for their healthy development is to beat up a hooker with a lead pipe on a video game.
I do believe that American kids are spoiled and indulged and that far too many parents seem to be afraid of their kids. Afraid of saying no, afraid of giving simple, unalterable rules, afraid of giving them chores and responsibilities around the house. Why? First and foremost because we have such bad marriages these days that for many a parent their principal form of affection comes not from a spouse but from their children. And the last thing they’re going to do is bite the hands that feeds them. Second, we can’t say no to our kids because we feel guilty about how we neglect them as we ourselves veg in front of a TV. And finally, discipline takes a lot of out of you and we’re so tired and stressed from our jobs, where we invest the major part of our creativity, that we arrive home a depleted wreck, scarcely able to muster the strength to stand up to our children.
But there is also an overarching, pernicious American belief that the essence of good parenting is giving your kids all the things you yourself didn’t have as a child. But by giving your kids all the material things you lacked, you are robbing them of the one big thing you did have, namely, pride in your own effort and achievement. We’re not supposed to give our kids everything. They’re supposed to earn it.
But what Chua doesn’t seem to recognize is the need, as Maimonides expressed it, for moderation in all things. And this is especially true of parenting. Effective child-rearing involves finding the balance between how much we ought to actively chisel our children into what we believe is the perfect image versus passively allowing their own personalities and gifts to unfold.
But what most rubbed me the wrong way is Chou’s seeming insistence that having a kid who can play the piano or the violin is the ultimate in success. I believe in developing a child’s potential. But our kids aren’t a bunch of circus monkeys that we’re just supposed to train to impress teachers, ace exams, and perform in front of admiring audiences. They are people too and we have to help then find a personal truth that accords with their unique gifts and disposition. King Solomon expressed it wisely: Educate a child according to his way.
In the final analysis what Chua exhibits above all else is considerable insecurity. She tells her children that they risk becoming losers, which is what she terms anyone who is second-best. Life is a winner-takes-all competition and Chua’s ambition rules her like a demon. Yet she thinks nothing of coercing her children into the same cult of demonic possession.
At Oxford I met many people like Chua. They inevitably ended up, like her, as professors at elite universities. Their rigidity and obsession with success ensured that they never took real risks, preferring tenured and comfortable positions for life to the rough-and-tumble of entrepreneurship. For all their ambition people like Chua would never go into politics, for example, for fear of allowing a force outside themselves to determine their fate, the fear of failure precluding the ability to take real chances.
And are we really be loving to our children when we raise them in a climate of overarching fear?
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has just published ‘Honoring the Child Spirit: Learning and Inspiration from Our Children.’ He is previously published the critically-acclaimed parenting manuals ‘Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children’ and ‘Parenting with Fire.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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January 3, 2011 | 11:42 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
America seems to be running out of gas. Lethargy is creeping into the national DNA. We seem beset by problems that we can’t fix and won’t go away.
First, we’re going broke. With a deficit of $13.9 trillion dollars, every American child is now born saddled with debts of $33,000. Economists believe that the trillion dollar Federal bailout of the banking industry is chicken feed compared to the coming bailout of state and municipal governments whose profligate ways have all but bankrupted them as well. Forbes reports that New York City alone has a debt of $64.8 billion, or $7,760 per resident.
The American human rights agenda is stymied by debt, with China successfully preventing even American beneficiaries like Afghanistan and Iraq from attending the Nobel prize ceremony for dissident Liu Xiaobo. The Chinese have embraced the values of thrift, hard work, and excellence in education that once made America great while we become more indolent and ignorant.
Rather than focusing on personal development, Americans seem obsessed with the lives of others. Social networking sites addict us with the goings-on of friends and acquaintances we haven’t seen in decades and the internet is cultivating among our youth the trifecta of exhibitionism, narcissism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Nielsen observed that online social activity of consumers increased from about three hours per day in 2008 to five and a half a year later.
Reality TV is assaulting the very notion of human dignity, with millions of Americans regularly prepared to subject themselves to public humiliation to garner attention. There is even a growing trend among teen girls to get pregnant just so as to qualify for MTV’s Teen Mom and Sixteen and Pregnant, where the cost of fifteen minutes of fame is a lifetime of responsibility.
Our schools are a shambles with American High School students now ranking 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading worldwide. While we trail Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Liechtenstein, China is the world number one in reading.
American families are fractured and marriage is a rapidly deteriorating institution with forty percent of Americans now saying that it is obsolete.
Our kids are raised on junk food and junk TV, the lack of substance in the diet breeding a uniquely American form of insatiability. We eat but we’re not satisfied and we have an epidemic of childhood obesity. And when we grow up we continue the trend of leaving no itch unscratched, no thirst unquenched, rarely asking ourselves what hole has opened up inside that is so bottomless that no matter what we shove inside it cannot be filled.
But where the American malaise is most felt is in the area of human happiness. Skyrocketing levels of depression seem incongruous in a nation with the world’s largest economy and highest standard of living. Yet we consume three quarters of the earth’s anti-depressants and one out of three American women is on one. Still, the number one cure for unhappiness in America remains shopping, which explains why, even with credit cards maxed we cannot curtail our spending addiction. On Black Friday 2010 millions of Americans got up at the crack of dawn to spend, according to ShopperTrak.com, $10.66 billion on things they may not need because it was twenty percent off.
I know, I know, we’ve had bigger problems before. During the Civil War we killed each other. During the Great Depression a quarter of the population was unemployed. And during World War II we faced a threat to civilization itself.
But there’s a difference.
Previous crises always had an identifiable, external cause that could be remedied, however painfully. During the Civil War it was slavery, the Great Depression high tariffs. In the Second World War it was Hitler and the Japanese.
This time there is no external cause. The enemy is us. Americans are suffering from corrupt values. The Tea Party blames our problems on spending-addicted politicians. But other woes in America belie a similar lack of discipline that has no relationship to finance. Rotten principles are at fault. Thrift has been replaced with indulgence. Spiritual longing with material consumption. Genuine curiosity with obtaining knowledge merely to pursue a career. Being a blessing to others has succumbed to the single-minded focus on self. Character has been supplanted by personality. The loud and boisterous get attention while those of quiet virtue are overlooked. And hovering over the decadence is a hell-bent obsession with money at any cost and fame at any price.
America is the greatest country on earth, but no nation has ever surmounted the challenge of success. Prosperity replaces hard work with a sense of entitlement, a yearning for knowledge with a passion for luxury. It was abundance, rather than invading hordes that slowly corrupted the soul of Rome and it is ironically vast American achievement that is now eroding the moral fabric of the nation. The Talmud expresses it succinctly: when you have not enough to do, you do what you ought not to do. America’s sense of high moral purpose has replaced with sustaining a standard of living. But plush carpets and plasma TV screens cannot nurture the human soul.
But there is hope. No country on earth can match America for determination and resilience and we can transform American malaise into American renewal by rebirthing the values that made us great.
Foremost among them is America recapturing a sense of adventure and discovery. We need teachers that excite students about the horizons of learning, a government that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship rather than penalizing hard work, families that turn off the TV and get their kids out hiking in national parks. Passivity is the enemy, strenuous activity the solution.
Second we need to recapture a sense of gratitude, appreciating what we have instead of being always greedy for more. America has many blessings. It must now the blessing of enough.
Third, we must instill within our citizenry civic virtue, living a life that is a blessing to others. The quickest way is to establish a mandatory year of national communal service that immediately follows High School.
Americans must also foster a new identity defined by the good deeds we do and not the things we own. This will most likely come from religion which must stop wasting its time fighting cultural battles like gay marriage and get back to teaching people the nobility of a purpose-lived life. We must create communities that are not on-line by reinvigorating Synagogues and Churches, community centers and charitable volunteering. We need a national Sabbath, a day where all stores are closed and where people don’t shop but spend time with friends and family.
Finally, we need to teach our youth about human dignity and the necessity of values. Public schools should institute dress codes that emphasize dignified dress and there should be a mandatory values class imparting non-sectarian, universal values of right and wrong, the moral bedrock upon which this great nation was built
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network and one of the world’s leading relationships experts. This week he is publishing his newest book “Honoring the Child Spirit: Inspiration and Learning from Our Children.” (Vanguard) Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.