Tough Love

Dear J-

I’ve been reading the responses to Prof. Chua’s book excerpt and note, with some gratification, that for the most part how universal the condemnation has been. According to the author the Wall Street Journal bears some of the blame for foisting the most inflamatory, one-sided parts that show off what a hardass mom she is. The book itself is supposedly more nuanced and self-deprecating and, as cynical as it may sound, the article has done its job via the old saw that there is no such thing as bad publicity. For myself I’d ask what value the happiness quotient brings. Prof. Chua’s general belief is that accomplishments are their own reward but I can tell you that I haven’t framed a certificate or diploma since eighth grade, and I’m not about to start now. Paper under glass on the wall has no meaning without emotion and the most memorable school moments are always about the people, not the classwork.

I have a set of cousins — well, technically, they are my dad’s cousins, but they’re closer in age to me and my brother — where the older one, the son, went to UCLA over the strenuous objections of his dad. He’d grown up in Los Angeles and his friends were going there too, so that was his choice, them over Berkeley. The younger one, the daughter, went to Berkeley the same time my brother and I were in the Bay Area. I spent much of her freshman year hanging out and getting to know each other better, not having spent much time together since we were three and four on a trip to Yellowstone. Flash forward the twenty years to today, where the son is a degreed inventor, PhD, professor at his alma mater, dad, reconciled with his folks, at peace with himself and the world. And the daughter? We fell out of touch, she and I, after that first year, and I know she’s happily married now but suffers from depression and I can’t help but wonder if that could have been changed if she’d had the chance to follow her passions.

The unique conceit of parents is that you have so many years of just simply watching your kids grow on their own, make their own decisions, suffer their own judgments, find their own way through life, but we exert control over their lives as far as we can, we know better, we want you to learn from us and our mistakes. There are some years and decisions that demand it — driving, drinking, voting, and the age of majority are all rightfully controlled. And the limits we place lead to the cajoling and whining until you’re almost willing to cave just to not hear that any more. Every day I come home and see figgy becoming her own person, boldly asserting control with unshakeable confidence, and I see chances for her to change the cycles of unreasonable expectation followed by unbearable disappointment. Yet you don’t want her to accept mediocrity as a norm, thinking you’re incapable of better; I’m so glad she has that confidence, but it’s a double-edged sword for life. How do you support and push at the same time? The WSJ excerpt of Prof. Chua’s book only shows the push, which is the easy part, and I wonder if the book has any answers for the love.

Mike

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