Posts Tagged ‘parenting’

At Four You’re Right

6 December 2011

Dear J-

There are some days you just don’t want to listen to your parents and you’re pretty well convinced that you know everything there is. For me, documenting what happened twenty years ago has been humbling: I see the nascent beginnings of who I am today wrapped up in pride and uncertainty in what I’ve done and accomplished, and what I have projected before me. Were you to tell me then that I’d be making those thoughts freely available without a book deal or even some hint of fame I’d have laughed and told you that future-me wasn’t ambitious enough: fame was fate for being that guy — to crack the riddle of fusion, the professor that everyone liked.

At the time I still had my parents driving me on to be the very best I could be, or at least getting the most out of the opportunities that came my way. And I hated it. So much control they had over everything: where to go, what to do, reminders and discipline. When I’m on my own, I vowed twenty years ago, when I’m on my own I’ll make sure things are different. Indeed. Doritos for dinner? Why not? The only thing keeping me sane some of those late school nights after high school was pride: class standings and reputation: still more external measures of how I’m doing (are you proud enough now huh?).

I’m amused (bemused) when I look at figgy and think about what she has to look forward to and how much she’s dealing with now; she is possibly the bossiest creature I’ve ever met and convinced, stubbornly, that she’s right as rain, directing us in complex play schemes barely limited by imagination and imitation (“OK now you be Santa and put presents in the stockings. PUT THEM IN.”) These are things you lear on your own: crushing your dreams into something small to put in your pocket for later, swallowing ambition for stability, admitting you’re wrong once in a while. If life is a movie filmed inside our eyes (at twenty-four frames per second, in vivid surround sound) then we cast ourselves as star: it’s up to us to remember the plot right, or at least ad-lib our way through the intro. She’s doing fine and we laugh a lot which at four I think is completely right.



Lesson Plan

10 February 2011

Dear J-

We are separated from our parents geographically and linguistically (theVet’s parents are an hour north and in their retirement have pretty much adopted Korean exclusively, while mine are in San Jose and similarly chat in Mandarin for the most part when they call). For parenting advice we’ve turned like they did to books. My parents are proud for the most part that they raised us as Spock* babies but I think it’s funny that the times we have asked how they dealt with issue X or problem Y they can’t remember. It’s funny because I can see the same things happening with us later, especially since we already can’t remember the lessons of figgy except in bits and pieces of vague tales. For instance we aren’t too afraid of giving Calcifer a pacifier given that figgy gave it up over the course of a couple of days without too much fighting, but we also reason that if he doesn’t start he won’t have to deal with the withdrawl later so no pacifier so far, and so far so good.

I don’t know why every generation has to reinvent things for themselves — this is like denying that your folks ever had sex, as that’s something you discover on your own — but parenting advice seems like one of those things that people can’t wait to share amongst peers but not across generations. Well, you think, that was thirty years ago! Surely things have changed by now, right? Sure, corporal punishment is right and strollers have gotten way cooler, but those are just the accessories. We keep publishing studies that seem to underscore common sense** truths that we’ve already learned, as a species, in millenia past. It just so happens that some folks have written this stuff down and the real question is how to decide what works best.

There is a baseline for good and those who fail that — witness the young wife from South Carolina who claims amnesia regarding giving birth at the circus and abandoning the newborn — are widely condmened without knowing details: how could you or what’s wrong with you, right? But addressing things like letting figgy continue to be rude to adults is a subtler point. How do you deal with the subtle social niceties at three? Or do you refuse to use age as an excuse? You shold know better, we can say, but does she? I sometimes forget how old she is, as we’ve come so far in the last two years, speaking and interacting. I forget that though she is a little person the permissions we set and things we excuse teach her just as much as things we acively do together. And though a part of me remains horrified at the thought of an IMPOLITE KID another part of me is secretly cheering — take that, meek Asian stereotype — and still another part of me wants to coddle and excuse, trying to take that hurt away.


* Dr. Benjamin Spock, not the Vlucan from Star Trek, but how cool would that have been?

** Breastfeeding is best! Children crave contact! C’mon, I hope serious research money wasn’t spent finding this stuff out.

Tough Love

13 January 2011

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.


Deal Art

10 January 2011

Dear J-

There’s an article over at the Wall Street Journal online — it’s actually an excerpt from a book due to be published tomorrow — by a Professor Amy Chua, teaching at Yale Law. The piece discusses why Chinese moms (and here Chinese is used metaphorically — anyone can be Chinese with the right attitude) are better than yours. Leaving aside the half-baked recollections of an excerpted article that make me the most unreliable of narrators, there were a few things that stood out for me, even more prorminently than its self-congratulatory tone: the first, that children exist quite without wills of their own, to be molded at the parents’ desires, and the second, an episode illustrating the dangers of conflating results with methods. Most of the article is devoted to musical achievement, so I’ll discuss that in kind, as I have some passing experience with that.

That kids will, given their own devices, tend towards bad habits is understandable but not unavoidable. Yes, the parent must parent, setting boundaries and expectations, disciplining accordingly. What is different is what constitutes reasonable requirements and expectations; although you can start potty-training a twelve month-old they may not be ready for it and the resulting frustration on both sides isn’t going to help the situation. Here, though, Prof. Chua goes overboard, saying that you can’t expect to have fun without being good at something, so you have to push through the no-fun zone until you’ve practiced enough to have fun (this is clearly not someone who has watched the unbridled enthusiasm of five year olds playing soccer in a kind of migratory cluster moving between goalposts). Essentially, you shouldn’t feel good about yourself until you’re good at it, and the only way to measure goodness is sheer note-for-note perfection. You can play music that way, but the computer would be better at it: perfectly repeatable and never making an error unless programmed to do so. For all the talk of piano prodigies it’s interesting to note the relatively low number of composers versus performers. Both require discipline. One requires creative effort, and is, I would argue, more impressive. I’d be interested in reading what the daughters feel about their mom’s words.

There are photos accompanying the article to commemorate the achievements. One of them is the author with her parents, and I note (but without any real significance, given that it’s an excerpt from a longer book) that nowhere else in the article does it discuss her parents except to mention her dad calling her garbage, and whether or not their methods resulted in a daughter they’re proud of. Successful, yes, in measurable ways too, even better. The story I’m thinking of is Prof. Chua stubbornly sticking with her punishment guns, raising those to crazy levels in order to get her younger daughter to play the same song her older sister did at the same age. Faced with skeptics on all fronts (even her husband steps in, but is dismissed) she keeps pressing the piece until finally, with a breakthrough, she’s able to play it. And just like that, all the threats and trauma are worth it. There is a kind of malignant neglect in they way she dismisses the thought that her children are unique people and have different strengths. Without knowing you’re not an interchangeable cog, you spend irreplaceable effort trying to distinguish yourself: in the eyes of your peers, your teachers, your family. The danger is not in the methods, it’s believing that they work*.


* Where do you begin? Sample size is small, even given the discussion between parents who are wont to inflate positive results and minimize talk of negative ones. How do you measure artistic achievement quantitatively? Has anoyone asked her kids how they feel? Her husband? Her parents? When does no fun turn unbalanced?

Parenting License

17 July 2010

Dear J-

Two different people came up and asked for directions today, which is two more than, well, ever.  Perhaps it’s the non-menacing look, because I can’t say that it’s got anything to do with competence; I actually have the first inclination to ignore and/or shy away from folks asking for directions.  This isn’t because I’m naturally unhelpful, I just fear the way I give directions (“go thataway and turn left at the Jack-in-the-Box”) is only going to infuriate the asker when they get twice as lost as before.

It’s funny to think of degrees of lostness, as though there was a way to tell how far off the mark you are without actually being at your destination.  I think it’s more the tolerance for adventure (and sometimes we don’t tolerate it well at all, when the schedule is tight or if there’s something else that is driving us.  Remember how much trouble you’d be in when Dad threatened to pull the car over?  Well, we reached that point at several times today, and I actually did pull over.

It’s easy to figure out who’s to blame, though:  it’s us.  Between inconsistent discipline and flat-out ignoring her, I’m pretty sure that she acts up to get attention, not from any real sense of naughtiness.  So when people come up to me and ask for directions, the paranoid lizard in the back of my head whispers that it’s because they know what a terrible job I’m doing, and it’s some sort of parenting license test, right?


Good Nut

20 January 2010

Dear J-

As we wind down for the night I like to think about the things I’ve done and what I can do to change them; perhaps like is too strong a word, more like “worry them to death” and “dwell on the past” as I ponder them. After getting home the next three hours slip by in a blur of defiance and flinging: there’s no will quite as stubborn as figgy’s, and there’s no reasoning with her once she’s decided on a course of action: no dinner, not that, don’t want a bath, not bedtime, wrong books, mommy, not daddy not mommy. Funny, you spend time worrying about doing the right thing by reasoning and consequences, but those sorts of things just tend to bounce off her head.

Today, for instance, we tried to explain that the faster we got the bath over, the more time there’d be to play or watch a little TV (lately and/or as always, some Miyazaki films — she’s been asking for Castle in the Sky by name). Instead she frittered away the time not getting undressed and finding all kinds of distractions instead (tea set, music, playing one of us against the other) and we walk away convinced that she’s completely crazy or desperate. The more you tell her about consequences the less she wants to listen; the more reasonable you become, the less she does.

It’s not about being a friend all the time, though; if you choose to, you can always be one of the invertebrates who decide to give in to every last demand, but then you find yourself with another Veruca Salt on your hands. The squirrels know, after all, which are the good nuts by knocking on the heads, but we parents aren’t quite so lucky or skilled. We trust in the best, we trust ourselves and we trust that our best interests can’t possibly go wrong, can they?


90th Percentile

12 October 2009

Dear J-

One of the terms you keep hearing as a parent is percentiles — the first twelve months is spent shuttling back and forth to the doctor for regular checkups and vaccines; the child is measured and charted against peers and the sizes (head girth, height, and weight) are dutifully reported. figgy’s been a 50th percentile kid where most of the other babies we know seem to have been 0th or 90th percentile kids — towering giants of 12 month olds or teeny little 3 year olds. As we sit at nifty fifty, some times we wonder if everything else is just as normal as size.

Because the weather was cool enough, we went to the Wild Animal Park today — the WAP is infamous for being the place where high temperature records go to die; we were there last year on Labor Day and ended up sweating our way across the park; with the day off it made perfect sense to head out for a long walk and questionable food. Last time we had a backpack and carried her when she got sleepy; this time, knowing that neither backpack nor stroller was an option, we spent a fair amount of time stooping and scooping up to the point where she’d wriggle out and run off, often in the opposite direction we intended to go.

Decisions 2834 -sm

In fact, on the bus tour today, we spent part of the ride restraining her from kicking other people (we got a rear-facing seat) unintentionally as she squirmed around, ever-antsy and only peripherally interested in the antics of the various animals we encountered, including two of only eight Northern White Rhinoceroses in the world — you can’t explain why she should pay attention. We also spent some time watching other kids, though; either we have no control over figgy, or most parents have much less crazy kids. Perhaps that’s what we’ve been looking for as the 90th percentile — if every child is unique, figgy’s niche in the world is her exuberant nature; life with her has been a battle of wills and an amazing journey I wake up excited to continue on daily.


Blank Slate

22 June 2009

Dear J-

I ran across an article in the New York Times regarding parents — granted, it’s one of those Style section puff-pieces that’s meant to showcase a life not exactly like your own and the unique challenges that brings — but in this case, it’s eminently applicable to us.  The thought is that children of immigrants, having to cope with two different cultures and worlds, one at home, and another with their peers, eventually end up adopting the more mainstream peer culture, at the expense of losing your ethnic roots.  I’m functionally illiterate in Chinese and can generally only hold a one-way conversation (listening to Mandarin but whether its my atrocious accent or lack of knowledge, mostly replying in English).

Thus the parents’ dilemma:  how do you maintain the ethnic culture as an adjunct to the rest of what you teach kids as they grow up?  The strange thing I found was the makeup of the classes they’re being enrolled in — mostly Caucasian children.  It almost begs the question whether there’s some sort of ‘Asian’ way to raise kids.  Perhaps it’s because of the circles these particular parents travel in — if you ask your social peers for parenting advice, it’s likely that you’ll end up with the same day cares, classes, and camps as those peer parents.

Back to the Asian question, though — the parents were ready with their eldest, at five years old, to put a violin in his hands — the reasoning being so that he didn’t fall much further behind his other peers (the other Asian kids had already started).  I have mixed feelings about pushing kids that early; on one hand, it’s invaluable to have a wide variety of experiences to draw upon for later; on the other, if all you have as motivation is pleasing your parents, not yourself, that makes for a grueling endurance test; and on a third, nonexistent hand, how old is too old — or too early — to know what you actually like and which tasks to stick to?  figgy has evinced definite likes and dislikes, but how far do you push past the initial NO before saying that the kid’s opinion is what counts?


TV Junk

31 January 2009

Dear J-

In recent weeks figgy’s discovered the old devil TV — it used to be just a box with lights that blinked on and off not so long ago, and now it’s become a great soporific.  As she continues to become more aware of her world, things must be just so:  blanket right over there, toys lined up and ready, books preferably strewn haphazardly (covers bent is just fine).  The charm of her knowing what the remote is for soon becomes replaced by the begging for a few minutes of TV — My Neighbor Totoro is getting pretty regular rotation lately.

Our short history is littered with good intentions — her first cold, we took her into bed for a couple of days and then she assumed it was on a permanent basis.  Two nights of crying — earplugs helped — allowed us to disabuse her of that notion.  Yet we’ve gotten through the weaning process (we decided that teeth are nature’s way of telling you it’s time to discontinue) with minimal drama, aside from the decision that bottles were not an acceptable substitute, so I’ve got confidence that though we may find our way into every single parenting trap along the way, figgy will be able to lead the way out.  Well, most of the time, at least.