Monday, January 24, 2011

The Survivor's Way of Raising Children

By Sherry Colb

The blogosphere is now saturated with discussions of Amy Chua's new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  Everyone has an opinion about what Chua describes as parenting "the Chinese way," by insisting on excellence, obedience to authority, achievement of the highest grades, and intensive study and musical practice throughout childhood.   Some think this a terrific method for building highly competent, self-assured adults who will know, through a virtuous cycle, that they can do anything to which they set their minds.  Others view it as an exercise in child abuse that will regularly yield self-hatred, burnout, and social ineptitude.  And still others see it as a quaint but doomed attempt to wield influence over the next generation when in truth, peers affect the trajectory of a child’s important actions and choices much more than anything parents attempt to do.

At lunch last week, my colleagues and I were discussing Chua's book, and someone asked me whether I planned to weigh in on the discussion of how to be a good parent.  My initial reaction was that I had nothing to contribute to the debate.  My parenting is far less organized and goal-directed than anything that could be called a "system" or a "way."  Some days I am strict and demanding (though perhaps not up to Chua's standards).  Other days, I try to just enjoy my kids and let them do what they want, even if I think their time could be better spent skill-building.  But this is not the product of a philosophy, and I indeed wonder sometimes whether I should be more deliberate and systematic about my parenting choices.  In short, I have far too many doubts about my own parenting to hold it up as a model of anything.

Nonetheless, I do think I have something to contribute to this discussion of parenting styles, not as a mother but as a daughter.  I grew up in an unusual setting, because (a) my parents were both Holocaust survivors, (b) my parents had me almost 16 years after having their first child and almost 13 years after having their second (in a time, unlike now, when almost no one had children in their 40’s and 50’s), and (c) my father - in his mid-50’s when I was born - died when I was 6 years old and was extremely sick for several years prior to that, so my Holocaust-survivor, older mother was also a single parent at a time when single-parenting was rarer than now and divorce still stigmatized.  My two dearest friends in elementary school were a girl whose parents were divorced and another girl who was raised by her grandparents.

I guess I would call my mother's approach to parenting me "The Survivor's Way."  Both of my mother's parents and all four of her brothers were murdered by the Nazis.  (My father's parents, brother, sister, and baby nephew were also killed).  My brothers were both raised in a community of other survivors, but I was not - no one that my mother knew was raising a child in the 1970’s in "The Survivor's Way."  In that sense, my mother was a double immigrant - she first physically migrated from Poland after World War II, and then she socially migrated out of the community of Holocaust survivors after my father died.  Like Amy Chua, my mother was therefore raising me in a manner that differed fundamentally from what everyone else around her at the time was doing.

So how did she raise me?  Let me start by saying that she never grounded me, never took away a toy or threatened to cancel a birthday party, and never stopped giving me my weekly allowance.  She nonetheless conveyed to me that if I did not excel, if I did not shine, then the fact that she had survived the War while so many others had perished would come to mean nothing.  I might as well have never been born, and the deaths of her brothers, her mother, and her father would have been utterly in vain.  When I watched her read my report cards at the end of each term at school (starting in the fourth grade), any grade less than an A produced a look on her face of such desolation and misery that I might as well have been displaying a criminal record listing multiple murders and treason.  There was no greater motivator than that look, and it haunts me to this day, almost two years after her death.

Do I recommend the Survivor's Way to others?  No.  I would not condemn my mother for it, both because she did it out of love and because I do not believe there was much choice involved.  She loved me dearly, and she wanted me to be happy, healthy, and successful.  She sacrificed her own comfort at every turn to provide me with the opportunities she not only never had but never even dreamed of having as a child.  Her wishes reflected a profound fear of disappearing into the ether.  If I was not special, then it would be as though Hitler had succeeded in annihilating our family.  She drove me in the way that anyone fighting for the life of her family would do - relentlessly and effectively; she could not imagine doing otherwise. 

Under normal circumstances, though, in a prosperous country, people do not have to live as though an unproductive day or a short break in one's concentration could result in the deaths of millions of people.  The Survivor's Way provides for an exhausting and insecure childhood of the sort that I would not wish on others, regardless of how productive it might make them, and I suspect, deep down, that it shares this in common with the Chinese Way, as described and enacted by Amy Chua.