Question to Tiger (and all) Mothers: Why is leisure bad?

Everyone knows that achievement takes hard work and discipline.  You’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that 10,ooo hours of focused attention on an activity separates experts from the rest of us, right?  But if there are 8,765 hours in a year, and children spend on average 3,800 or so sleeping (9 hrs/night) and 1,000 in school (6 hrs/day x 180 days), and even if they spend an average of 3 hours a day on homework (3 x 180 school days = 540) and another 3 hours developing expertise in the arts and/or sports throughout the year (about another 1,000 hours) and a couple of hours each day getting ready for school, getting transported to and from school, doing chores, and getting ready for bed (730 hours), then they still would have about 1,695 hours a year that they can spend in free time.  1,695 hours: more time than they spend in school!!  More time than they spend in extracurricular activities!  Isn’t that terrible?!!  It seems that recently, the parenting mantra has been in favor of zero free hours: no free time is seen as a good thing.

And thus it’s no surprise that some parents have celebrated Amy Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (excerpted in the Wall Street Journal on January 8 2011), which pits the Eastern emphasis on discipline against the Western focus on self-esteem.  Much of the review of this book has focused on the issue of discipline, and of parental means of controlling both children and their time.  Hannah Rosin in the Wall Street Journal agrees with Chua, noting that in the U.S. “we believe that our children are special and entitled, but we do not have the guts or the tools to make that reality true for them.” In other words, we’re not doing enough to get them into the special activities that would help to cultivate their unique gifts. Sociologist Annette Lareau has a term for that approach.  It’s “concerted cultivation:” the approach that tends to be accepted among middle and upper middle class families, and that tends to see children as a project to be disciplined through time.

One of Chua’s enthusiastic supporters put the issue more baldly by focusing on the specifically aggressive and insulting “tools” of controlling children that’s associated with the Tiger Mother approach, lamenting, “American parents have no courage to put welts on the backs of their children.”  Given the fact that Chua’s article and book tend to trigger this kind of response, it’s no surprise that many other parents have taken Chua and her supporters to task for her over-the-top efforts that have occasionally crossed over into child cruelty.  The Times’ Lisa Belkin calls Chua’s book a stinging tribute to discipline with what Belkin suggests borders on Mommy Dearest tendencies.

The debate over Chua’s parenting styles illustrates, once again, the conflicted feelings we have about parenting and about such issues as child-centered versus parent-directed activities.  As the Boston Globe’s Joanna Weiss wonders, we might ask:  should we browbeat our kids into practicing so that they learn the benefits of discipline ?  And if we do so, are we doing it because we see them as weak and in need of our help (the Helicopter Parent approach), or strong and able to handle pressure and challenge (which is what Chua argues)?  Either way, we want to see ourselves as in charge, and our children as benefiting from our parenting labors.

But what if we’re not fully in charge?

What if we’re living through a seismic economic shift that is leaving fewer and fewer routes to what middle class parents have been conditioned to think of as middle class success?  It may be that this lack of our ability to control our children’s environment is what drives parents to anxiously want to schedule up all that “wasted” free time.  Perhaps, as Laurie Essig writes in The Chronicle, the real issue motivating Tiger Mothers is a fear that their children won’t enter the upper or upper middle classes of their stressed-out parents.

It’s easy to take credit for discipline gone well.  It’s not so easy to acknowledge the fact that kids with fewer privileges need not only disciplining parents, but also a lot of luck, to make the odds work in their favor.

Maybe part of the problem, then, is that across the economic spectrum, we’ve been conditioned to see our children through the prism of our own financial insecurities: as future workers who need to be prepared for the precarious workforce that they’ll inhabit someday.  In David Brooks’ critique of Chua’s book, he takes exactly this position (He thinks it’s fine that Chua prefers to prepare her kids to excel, but he thinks that homework and the arts are easier than preparing kids for their eventual role in team-oriented workplace environments.  For that, he says, things like playdates and sleepovers teach important skills, and Chua’s shortchanging her daughters by forbidding them).

But what if the workplace wasn’t the only model for what it meant to be a successful person?

What if our goals as parents included not only helping children to manage their time according to the dictates of an increasingly time-demanding workforce that asks adults to mold their free time activities so as to fit into their work schedules?  What if we valued music and the arts because they make us appreciate our humanity, and because they help us to value our own voices, expressions, and experiences, and in turn make us more capable of viewing ourselves as participants in democratic action?

As we as a society continue to move more toward embracing the dictates of the workplace in ever-more places in our lives, we can lose sight of the fact that there is an alternative to seeing ourselves, and our children, as workers destined to serve the interests of those who pay us for our labor.  We are more than our economic utility.  Contemplating that simple yet profound idea is an important outcome of leisure, and one that can help our children to envision other ways of valuing lives and gifts beyond the place that such efforts might garner them in the economic realm.

So maybe leisure or a lack of personal discipline isn’t the enemy after all, just as building self-esteem isn’t the only solution.

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One Response to “Question to Tiger (and all) Mothers: Why is leisure bad?”

  1. Adrienne Says:

    I love this Lynn. I feel like this debate also dovetails with this strange return of the 50s in terms of family gender dynamics–or maybe that’s just because I live in Boulder. Parents, and more often Moms, are so caught up in their kids “success” (as in performance not happiness) that they can’t give them any breathing room. The New York Times has had a ton of stories over the past year about slow-cooking, chicken raising, home schooling mothers who have shunned their careers for what they see as the more satisfying world of caring for their families. It’s a backlash against the 70s no doubt, and surely Alison’s and Sofia’s friends will not be raising chickens and driving carpools when they have kids if the cycle holds true.

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