Thursday, March 31, 2011

On Tiger Mothers, Class, and the Siren Song of Elite Universities

Several years ago as network television was losing viewers to cable and the internet, one commentator lamented the loss of moments of collective consciousness that had been created by television shows like The Cosby Show, Friends, and the X-Files. According to this commentator the large audiences these shows commanded enabled a series of ideas and topics to filter into society-at-large, weaving threads of common knowledge into a broad and diverse population. Without these shows, he wondered, would we lose these collective moments, would the quilt of society become just a collection of fabric scraps?

The answer, we have learned, is a resounding no. While on the average day, the multiple media and multiple platforms which people use present an unfathomable array of different content, there are a few stories that manage to find their way into a huge number of them. This kind of viral spreading can be annoyingly ugly when its content is the ridiculous pseudo-dramas of people like Charlie Sheen or Brett Favre. Other times, when a story has a certain depth and its range of harmonics trigger a host of different vibrations in different people, the results can be both fascinating and enlightening. Such a story acts as a mirror, giving us a peek into the souls that constitute our collective.

Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother book is one of these latter type of stories. After a first life on the pages and blog of the Wall Street Journal and a second life in the proliferating discussions about her in blogs like this one, a third life is coming. This month’s Atlantic Monthly contains not one, but two essays reviewing her book and the conversations that have swirled around it. Regular commentators Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan parse through Chua’s text and the initial knee-jerk reactions to it to pick out some of the less obvious dynamics at work in the conversations these have created. The results make for interesting reading.


The most important theme that emerges from both pieces is that much of what Chua and the reactions to her book represent is less a question of cultural difference and more one of class expectations. Tsing Loh, herself the daughter of a Chinese father who pushed her to excel musically and mathematically, highlights how much “working of connections” and “financial outlay” were involved in bringing Chua’s children to the heights they achieved. This marshalling of monetary and social resources - a mention of which was conspicuously absent in Chua’s Wall Street Journal essay - takes some of the steam out of the mythological power Chua claimed for the Tiger Mother as it reveals a reality that many of us already knew: lots of people work hard; those who rise to the highest levels often have money and/or connections the rest do not. As Tsing Loh jokes after talking about all of Chua’s efforts, “I find this expense less uniquely Chinese than perhaps, dare I say,…, upper-middle-class suburban Jewish”. In other words, it is a question of class, not culture.

Flanagan’s essay approaches the question of class and the reaction to Amy Chua through the lens of the admissions processes in Ivy League-caliber universities. She conjures for us the image of the ‘good mother,’ the professional class woman who has cut back on her career aspirations in order to nurture her child(ren) into the world. The good mother, Flanagan writes, has “certain ideas about how success is life is achieved.” These ideas are built around the notion that if they deeply support a child’s natural talent the rest will fall into place.

In Flanagan’s eyes, the problem for the good mothers is that despite this belief and their desire to rein in the hyper-competitiveness that surrounds their childrearing, they also see anything less than admittance to an Ivy League-caliber school for their children as a failure, a slipping away of elite status, a “banishment to nowhere”. And in many ways they’re right. In Liquidated, her ethnography of Wall Street investment banks, Karen Ho talks about how companies like Goldman Sachs only recruit investment bankers from three or four universities, with Harvard and Princeton topping the list. The same seems to be true for the best law firms and medical positions. So when students miss out on a placement in an Ivy League type school, they suddenly find that many of the roads to the highest positions in business, politics, and society have become unavailable to them. Their ability to improve their class position – to move from the professionals to the elite - has been dealt a severe blow.

So the good mother slowly accedes to the demands of the market. She reluctantly lets the hurricane that is the childhood industrial complex engulf her child, and consequently her family, in its swirl of increasingly time intensive sports teams, music lessons, public service activities, clubs, etc. in hopes that this sacrifice will be enough for the child to snare one of those golden positions.

But, according to Flanagan, its not working. Amy Chua’s kids – the ones whose parents have single-mindedly focused on this goal since their birth - are getting those positions instead. Because their parents have pushed them from day one, kids like Chua’s have developed the singular and spectacular talents that lift them to the top of the pile of applicants in the eyes of university admissions officers. The children of the good mothers, those mothers who want their kids to have both the blissful childhood and the Ivy League education, cannot overcome their mothers’ initial reluctance. In short, they cannot catch up.


As a parent and a rejectee of an Ivy League-caliber school (I was wait-listed at MIT), I came away from reading both essays with a single, depressing thought:

So this really is what it has come down to. Polly is two. Pip is four. We have to decide now whether or not they will pursue admission to an Ivy League-caliber school. It is a choice they do not get to make. If they are going to have a chance to get into Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and the like, we have to start doing things now. Because by the time they are old enough to make the choice for themselves, it will be too late to acquire the skills and experiences necessary to do the kind of spectacular things they will need to do in order to make the Ivy League cut.

It is the trap of the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie: I want to give Pip and Polly every chance to succeed in whatever course they decide to pursue. However, in order to keep all those options open, I have to push them towards the highest levels of achievement because once you start slipping, you can’t catch back up. Amy Chua’s girls have too much momentum behind them.

The only way out of this trap is to pursue what Flanagan calls the “Rutgers solution:” decide Polly and Pip will go to a regional or state university, set goals accordingly, and let any other extra stuff come from their interest and their discretion. While this doesn’t actually sound that bad, it essentially precludes the potential of either of them making the leap into greatness, into the realm of the global elite. And that potential, however small, is difficult for me – the product of upwardly mobile parents and weaned on the idea that anyone can become president - to let go of.

There is also one other trap lurking in the background of the choice between the Ivy League track and the Rutgers solution. If we give up the pursuit of grand achievement for my Pip and Polly, if we step out of the market and say no to the competition, how do I measure myself as a parent? When I don’t take my children to music lessons and sports camps and all the things other bourgeoisie children are doing, what metrics do I use to determine whether I am doing a good job? No one counts how many smiles or laughs they had this month. All the benchmarks are out there beyond the walls of my house. Inside, there is only me, Ava, and the kids and whether we feel things are going well or not. And how am I supposed to know what “going well” looks like? Its not like I’ve parented a hundred kids and have a sense of what that is. I have these two. They could be geniuses. They could be idiots. They could be the best kids in the world or the worst. If I don’t send them out there, how will I ever know?

To step out of the hurricane that is the childhood industrial complex is to leave me to my own devices when it comes to evaluation, and that is a position that makes me feel highly vulnerable and exposed. One needs a combination of self-confidence and blissful ignorance not to go completely crazy from the subsequent navel gazing. Unfortunately, that combination is hard to maintain in the face of the constant barrage of experts and products trying to sell me ways to fix any number of possible child-related problems. Our culture pushes parents hard and from many different angles.


In some ways, Chua and the Tiger mothers are taking the easy route. They have picked their goal and are pursuing it with a single-minded fury that allows for no hesitation, no questions, no uncertainty, no doubts. Even as Ava and I rightly decide to go the other way, to value our time as a family over the pulls of the childhood industrial complex, to send our children to whatever university Ava is currently working at, there will always be in my mind the tiny ‘what if,’ the bit of curiosity about whether Polly or Pip could have set the world on fire had they been given the chance.

But this may be one of the most positive developments to come out of Amy Chua entering my life: that doubt is shrinking ever smaller as I see what that other life looks like. It will not ever go away completely, but every time I read something more about Tiger mothers, I become more and more comfortable with the idea that for Polly and Pip – not to mention me and Ava - the Rutgers solution is not a bad way to go.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


The point of a vacation is to change things for just a little while. It is a time to change locations, change food, change schedules, change rhythms, become something different for however many days are available. With all this disruption, a vacation can also be a time of endings and beginnings. Upon returning home, the latent habits of regular life require re-activation and in this moment there is an opportunity to alter some of those habits or even to break away into something new.

We made good use of this opportunity following our recent trip to Florida.

In the time leading up to our trip, Polly had been working to finalize some transitions. She will turn two this week, and the imminent arrival of her birthday has spurred her to cast aside some of the vestigial elements of infanthood. The most significant of these is breastfeeding.

Over the last year, Polly has slowly but consistently let her regular feeding times drop away. The process has felt very organic as she gradually either replaced a feeding time with solid food or just forgot about it altogether. As such the only milestone I distinctly remember is from last July when she finally started going through the night without getting up for a bit of food.

Polly was reluctant, however, to give up her last feeding. This was the morning wake-up feeding. For several months she would pop up from sleep at 6 AM and demand to be taken to Ava. The two of them would spend about ten to fifteen minutes feeding in the big green recliner that sits in the corner of our bedroom and then Polly would happily slid down to the floor ready to start the day. Ava and I agreed that this routine had very little to do with hunger or nutritional needs. Polly likes to get up slowly, and this morning feeding was a nice way for her to transition from sleep into wakefulness. Ava didn’t really mind either as it gave her a few minutes to organize her thoughts before the day really got going.

It wasn’t our plan to end Polly’s breastfeeding during our trip to Florida. It just happened. Polly skipped her feeding on the first morning because we were in the car traveling. Then the next morning she was so wiped out that she slept late and then was too distracted by the new surroundings to remember her usual pattern. The third morning brought the same thing. By the fourth morning a new pattern had formed and while Polly did not sleep as late, she did not ask for her time with Ava. This remained true throughout the rest of our vacation.

Her one backsliding moment came during our first morning back in Lexington. It was not an immediate reaction. When she woke up, I brought her out of her bedroom while she rubbed her eyes sleepily. It was not until she saw Ava that she remembered about the morning feeding. Ava spent a few minutes cuddling with her then let her play with Pip in our bed for a bit longer while we got dressed. This alternate plan seemed to satisfy her, and it has become our regular routine in the two weeks since. All in all we could not have scripted this transition any better.


With her role as a breastfeeding mother now concluded, I want to take a moment to talk about what Ava accomplished. In a country where only 13% of babies are exclusively breastfed during their first six months and only 22% are still receiving any breast milk at all through at twelve months (the percentages are even lower in Ohio and Kentucky, the states where we have lived), Ava has fed both our children from birth to weaning without any use of formula.

It wasn’t easy. Just to get started with Pip, Ava had to have the confidence and determination to ignore the poorly trained hospital lactation consultant and seek out competent resources outside the medical establishment. Fortunately, she found what she needed in the form of a La Leche League volunteer. Then, when she went back to her job at the conclusion of her maternity leave she had to figure out how to integrate pumping into both the temporal and spatial constraints of her workplace. She spent an unholy amount of time sitting in bathroom stalls trying to slip a pumping in between meetings. Eventually, she pumped her way through three jobs, at least eight academic conferences, two job interview processes, and two moves. And she did all of this while being sleep deprived from multiple years of feeding children at night.

We looked at all this effort as an investment. By giving both kids full access to the food most suitably engineered for them – breast milk – we were supplying them with the best start we could. Now, as they are both healthy, energetic, and intelligent, it feels like this investment is already paying off.


There was one other major transition that reached its conclusion during our trip to Florida. For most of the last two years I have been putting Polly to sleep using a baby carrier. When it was time for a nap or to go down for the night, I would strap on our Beco Butterfly, slip Polly in between the back panel and my chest, and sing her a lullaby while pacing back and forth in the kids’ room. On the nights when she went to sleep easily, it was great. Having her drift off with her face just below my chin made me feel wonderfully close to Polly. On the (much fewer) nights when she did not readily drift off to sleep, it was tough. Walking back and forth with twenty wiggling, bouncing, sometimes crying pounds strapped to my chest for thirty minutes or more took a physical toll. On those nights I often wondered how I was ever going to move her on from this process. I even once had a vision of her at 12 years of age, still needing me to strap her to my chest and carry her around to get to sleep each night.

Then about a month ago, Polly started asking at bedtime to lay down in her crib before we turned out the light. The first night she asked I told her no. I knew that she was not going to go to sleep that way and to break our established pattern meant extending the amount of time I spent getting both children down for the night. I was tired and ready to have a few minutes of quiet time with Ava so I put her in the baby carrier and walked her to sleep.

A couple of nights later she asked again. This time, while I still did not recognize what Polly was doing, Ava had a late meeting and I felt less of a hurry to get the kids to sleep. So, I put her down in the crib and tucked her in a blanket just like I do with Pip. Before I turned out the light, I told her that she had fifteen minutes and then I’d put her in the carrier. As I expected, once the light went out, she started bouncing and rolling and moving around. After fifteen minutes, I picked her up, slipped her into the carrier, and went about our normal routine.

The next night she asked to be put down in the crib again. This time it finally occurred to me that Polly was not just playing around. After watching me put Pip into bed for almost two years, she was experimenting with this idea too. Polly was trying to figure out how to go to sleep in her bed without using the baby carrier. With this realization in mind, I strategically shifted my language, telling her that I would give her fifteen minutes to go to sleep and then if she needed help I would put her in the carrier.

That third night she bounced and rolled and moved around for the full fifteen minutes then happily reached out for me to put her in the carrier. We did the same thing again for several more nights until one evening she crashed before the fifteen minutes were up. She had not gotten a good nap that day and about five minutes after I turned out the light her movements slowed dramatically. At about ten minutes she had stopped moving completely and after fifteen minutes she was snoring quietly. Surprised by how quickly sleep had come for her, I slipped out of the room and hung the unused baby carrier back on its hook.

Three or four nights later Polly did this again. It took a bit longer this time as she was pretty well rested, but after fifteen minutes passed I recognized the signs of her coming stillness and decided to wait it out instead of putting her into the carrier. Before another ten minutes passed she was fast asleep.

Over the next several days Polly did the same the thing again and again. By the time we got to Florida, Polly and I were both becoming comfortable with this new routine. Even with all the new surroundings and the surfeit of exciting things to see and do, Polly only needed to use the baby carrier once for going to sleep. When we returned home, I gave her a couple more days then I stopped even bringing the baby carrier into the room with us at night. It now hangs motionless on its hook each night, unused and unneeded. I wonder, a bit wistfully, if I will ever strap it on again.


Now that Ava and I have both been relieved of these duties, I know we’ll miss them. There is a closeness that comes with such focused attention to the needs of a young child, and Polly’s recent transitions will chip away at that. Some distance will now intervene between us and the understandings we have gained about her in these venues will necessarily drift away. For two years, I literally had Polly strapped to my chest for twenty minutes or so each night. I knew what to expect as her body slowly relaxed, went slack, and drifted off to sleep. I knew how to carefully get her out of the carrier and into her crib - gently rocking her head back and forth to get the straps unhooked, placing the index and middle fingers of my right hand behind her head to hold it still while I lifted her up, guiding her head first onto my right shoulder and then down to my left elbow as I shifted her down from the upright position, curling her body just slightly as I lowered it onto the mattress, then slipping my arms out along the arch of her back as she nuzzled into her blanket. Those skills, acquired through much experimentation and mastered through numerous repetition, are no longer needed and the knowledge they represent must now be replaced. More importantly, the intimacy we gained with Polly in the process of all that work will never quite be the same again.

At the same time, there is something comforting in knowing that the practices of infanthood will, if we don’t interfere too much, give way to childhood and eventually adulthood. It takes some of the burden off our shoulders and makes me less fretful about all the other things Polly and Pip must eventually do. So, bring on the toilet training, kindergarten, and the like. I can’t wait to see what the kids will do next.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Adventures in Public Space

This week’s post can be found at the Daddy Dialectic blog. A direct link to the post is here.

Here's a teaser paragraph:

There is a difference between public space and private space. This difference has nothing to do with physical arrangements or locations or whether one is inside or outside a home. Instead, it has everything to do with how we distribute our activities and regulate our behaviors across different places.

I find myself very conscious of these differential spaces when I am out with my children. When we step outside our home I am aware that people are watching. The expectations I assume they have lead me to subtly alter what I let the children do. While Polly and Pip don’t fully comprehend the reasons for this, they certainly are aware that some difference exists. They know that outside our home they cannot do exactly the same things that they do in our living room.

During our family’s recent trip to Florida, this dynamic became the key element in creating one of those incredible, unscripted moments that make having children so much fun.

Read the rest of the post here.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A week away...

Our family is going on a trip for the next seven days, and I am not bringing my computer with me. As such, I am taking next week off. I'll have a new post ready for the following week.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Shattering the LEGO myth

As I’ve written before, I played with LEGOs a lot as a kid. My sister and I spent many hours constructing spacecraft, airplanes, buildings, and wheeled vehicles of all kinds. Sometimes we followed the instructions. Other times we mixed everything together to see what we could come up with. This was a special kind of play that challenged us in ways both technical and creative. It’s a kind of play that I had looked forward to sharing with Polly and Pip.

Unfortunately, this vision has currently run aground as our LEGO stash has become a central focus of a long-running tug-of-war between Polly and Pip.

Pip and Polly play with LEGOs in different ways. Pip likes to build things and have me build things with/for him. Polly likes to fiddle with pieces, swish them about in their containers, shovel them from one container to another, swim in them, and dismantle things – including the LEGO people - into their component pieces. These diverging interests seem about right for their respective ages and would not be a problem except that by the time Pip has settled down into building something, Polly has usually finished doing what interests her and is ready to move on to something else.

When this happens my tendency is to continue working with Pip and to pay only cursory attention to Polly. Ava and I have talked about this a couple of times, and my solution has been to find ways to engage Polly more when the LEGOs first come out. Now I ask her about the different colors she sees in the LEGO pile. I make small things for her to play with or dismantle as she sees fit. We roll the wheels back and forth. These efforts have gained me some extra time and have even yielded some positive results. This week one of the small spaceships that Pip and I made caught her fancy, and she spent a chunk of the morning flying it around the house. More often though, she is still ready to move on long before Pip has reached a good stopping point.

When this happens she acts out in various ways. She climbs on things she’s not supposed to. She runs around the house. She breaks down a LEGO creation that Pip had been working on. I’m not oblivious to all of this activity, but I feel torn about abandoning Pip’s projects in order to appease Polly. I find the romanticized image of a father and child bonding by building things together very appealing, and I see this dynamic at work when Pip and I are working on a LEGO creation. I hope Polly gets there one day as well but as a general rule I’m willing to put up with some acting out from her in order to have these moments with Pip.

On Monday afternoon, however, Polly got me. Pip and I were working on a project in the living room while Ava was pulling together some dinner in the kitchen. Polly was moving back and forth between the two rooms trying to decide where she wanted to play. When she would come into the living room, I would tickle her for a moment or do something to make her laugh and then go back to what Pip and I were working on. In my mind, this arrangement seemed to be working well. Then during one of her trips into the living room, Polly changed the game. This time instead of stopping in front of me, she dived into my lap. Then she slid off my legs and under the living room table. Landing on her back she pushed her feet up into the bottom of the table, tilting the whole thing just enough to knock a full container of LEGOs off it. With a sound like breaking glass, about two hundred pieces went splaying outward across the floor. Most came to a rest in the space underneath the couch.
It is difficult to judge how deliberate the specifics of this act were but the general effect was what Polly wanted: Pip and I put aside our building project and proceeded to move the couch and clean up the LEGOs, a project in which Polly could fully participate.

In talking about this episode after the kids went to bed, Ava laid out the situation for me in stark terms. She pointed out that the LEGOs have become a privileged site in Polly and Pip’s constant negotiations over how my attention is distributed between them. Pip understands at some level that by asking to build something with LEGOs he can corral my attention and tilt the distribution in his favor. Polly pulls back at this with her stunts. Dumping the LEGOs all over the place, for example, brings her back into the mix of things and dissipates the extra focus that Pip had successfully garnered.

As Ava was describing this scenario, I felt a ball starting to knot up in my stomach. The whole thing made me mad. I felt exploited by Pip and frustrated by Polly. I was angry at them for putting me in the middle of this kind of game. I want them to be better than this, to be above this kind of manipulative back and forth.

I was also mad at Ava for pointing the whole thing out. In many respects, I want to continue being naïve, to enjoy those nostalgic, Norman Rockwell-esque moments of playing with my children. For one thing, it makes me feel good. It makes me feel happy. For another, it serves a strategic purpose. By thinking of them as happy, cooperative, friendly, fun kids whose periods of misbehavior are momentary digressions I can maintain a sense of bemused calm when they do misbehave. This sense of bemused calm helps me correct them without overreacting or becoming mean. It helps me avoid creating the kind of negative reinforcement that can lead to further misbehavior. If I begin to think of them in Malthusian terms, engaging in a manipulative zero-sum competition for my attention, it becomes more difficult for me to maintain such a benevolent attitude towards them. In that scenario, each action they pursue takes on a sense of calculated motive, and it is difficult for me to find humor in that. Removing my veil of innocence in this situation makes me more cynical and less tolerant of the necessary experimentations of childhood.

Of course, this initial frustration with Ava and the kids will subside, and we will all move on. I’ll adjust how we play with LEGOs in the future – starting with daily time limits on building projects - and Pip and Polly will adjust their competition accordingly. They will probably move on to some other thing in the proxy war for parental attention. But it makes me sad to have the LEGOs covered in this kind of blood. The idyllic vision I enjoyed and nurtured of child and parent playing together will never fully recover. It will always be colored by the reality of what has taken place in the last few weeks.