Thursday, March 10, 2011

March 10

I am somewhat intrigued by this whole debate about The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, or "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior to American Mothers" (which was in the news a number of weeks ago) because this is not at all how I was raised. Although my parents were certainly very demanding, my parents were actually the opposite of this mom who wrote the book and article. My parents essentially ignored me. Not in a bad way, but I had a sister who was my same age, and we played together and were in each other's company all the time (sometimes it felt like too much of the time), and there was no need to have parents "play" with me. They expected my sister and me to be independent and self-sufficient the vast majority of time time. Adults were for supervision and height- or skill-related aid.

This is, of course, very different from how I am with my child. I like to attend things that she does and go for hikes or play a card game. But this actually pretty foreign to me on a fundamental level as I don't have a model of parents who play with their children. My parents always had work to do or errands. So when my sister and I did not have to do chores, or while we were still too young to do them, I can recall spending a lot of my free time with her or our pets. We had a big back yard (it was gigantic from my preschool point of view). We played in the sandbox that my dad had built, and I recall the regular activity of removing sand from the box. I used cups, buckets, hands, shovels, whatever there was. My goal was often to move the sand to the grass. After a while, the sand would get crunchy, hard, damp, or uncomfortable, and I would stop going there for a number of days or weeks until my dad bought more sand to put in there. That was a happy day for me. I would climb back in and slowly chip away at removing the sand before the sand got hard or damp all over again.

One day my sister and I were playing in the backyard near the sand box. We had a number of plastic cubes that were colorful and large. We could stack them or use them to make buildings, though they were always too few to make any elaborate buildings. In any case, we had run out of cubes, so we started to look around for additional building materials. We found some hollow tile cement blocks that did not weigh very much, but they were more than I normally carried. My sister and I tried this out, and to our surprise, I could carry them. I think she thought this was a bad idea, as my parents did not usually let us do anything with the cement blocks, but I figured that it was all fine so long as I could carry them. Unfortunately, my sister was right, and I stumbled carrying one, dropping it directly on her big toe. She screamed and started crying. I was trying to figure out how to shush her since my parents were napping and I was sure we could figure something out. She was trying, but the tears and sobbing just wouldn't stop--and neither did the bleeding--so I figured I could do nothing but let her report this to my parents. Somehow, her distress distracted them enough that I did not get the punishment that I was anticipating, so I was rather relieved.

But this is just one example of being left alone, with or without my sister. It was a pattern that was completely normal for us. My sister was much more social, so this was harder on her as she wanted a playmate, and I preferred to sit and read. In general, my parents would only attend something if it was production-ready. The finals. The event. Nothing in between. It just felt natural--that no one would want to see something unless it was ready. So it built this outlook of mine that if I wanted to do something, I had better want to do it in my heart of hearts, because no one was going to cheer whether I did well or not, nor would anyone be concerned if I was slacking on my commitment. There just wasn't anyone looking over my shoulder to see if I was performing as they wanted me to; it was all about what level I wanted to perform at.

One of the few times I remember being challenged by this assumption about the world order was when I was in the fourth grade. It was the first time that our school had ever done a science fair, so none of the teachers or students knew what it entailed in terms of preparation, support, or follow through. I chose whales as a topic of study, not knowing that the scientific process required each of the steps to be followed. Not just whichever suited me. So it never occurred to me that I had no question about whales nor did I have any way of observing and researching to test out my non-existent whale question. And since my teacher never checked in to see what I had chosen nor how I was progressing, this problem never surfaced. I went to the public library after school on many occasions, and I read a number of books and encyclopedias about the ten whales I had chosen to study. Regarding the encyclopedias, I remember thinking that a lot of the information in the encyclopedias was redundant, but I found little pieces of information that were new here and there, so it showed me that there was value in reading things that seemed to be about what you already know. After a month of this, I was flagging. I did not know how I would bring this project to an end. I could keep adding whales ad infinitum. I was waking up around 5 or 6 o'clock on the weekends to read, and I did not feel like I was getting enough done.

My mother, who has always been an early riser, would find me on Saturdays or Sundays and come to kiss me. At some point, she realized how overwhelming this project seemed to me, and every weekend after that, she would check in with me to buoy my spirits with a kiss and hug if I was feeling discouraged. She continued this for years afterward, long past when I had learned from the evaluating committee that the whale project did not truly qualify for the science fair as it was not science-based at all. Still, because I had learned that everything I do must be for my own reward and not that of others, I felt that the project was worth the while even though it went unclarified for me as to what "science" was. The equally valuable part of this experience for me was that it was one of my few memories where I interacted with a parent during the "process" as my parents had traditionally been "product" oriented. It communicated a message of care and concern even though she did not show it in ways that are recognized today as attached or involved parenting.

1 comment:

  1. It's so interesting to examine our parents' way of raising children versus our own, or others. I liked that you are satisfied & feel supported by what your parents did for you, & loved the details of the sandbox & science fair stories, showing so well your childhood, as you saw it. It seems to me that we are supposed to raise our children to be independent, to need less & less as they grow, even though they know we would be there always if some need arises. I wonder if your parents would agree with your ideas about their parenting? Great introspection!