Monday, January 24, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Bunny Mama

by June
That Tiger Mom has certainly stirred up a conversation, has she not? As an American mother raising daughters who were born in China, I am alert to cultural differences between western and eastern ways of teaching or parenting or... I haven't yet dipped into the book (though I am eager to read it cover to cover). I have read the Wall Street Journal column written by the author. A Yale law professor and devoted mother of two, Amy Chua wants her daughters to succeed. Her approach to their success involves a rigorous dogma (that she says reflects Asian expectations in general): No playdates or sleepovers or school plays. No tv. No being number two in any subject except gym or drama. No choosing their own extracurricular activities.  No playing any instrument but piano or violin.

I am riveted by the window Amy Chua gives onto her family's life. She recounts how she coerced her seven-year-old into learning a complicated piece on the piano. Her daughter shredded the sheet music, only to have her mother tape it up and put it in a plastic sheath. The mother withheld food, water and bathroom breaks until the daughter learned that piece. In the end, the daughter was thrilled with her accomplishment. Mother and daughter snuggled in bed, laughing.

Because of Amy Chua's articulate argument, I understand and even sympathize with what she's trying to do—instill in a child a belief in her own capabilities, a belief that will remain steadfast whatever life brings. But I'm just not a Tiger Mom. I'm more of a bunny really. For instance, I begged my daughters to give up the piano.

Fern and Blossom, age 7, at the piano in their footie pajamas
Blossom and Fern started taking lessons when they were four. They loved their teacher. They loved learning. They worked at it diligently, and they progressed. But, as the years passed, they began to approach the piano with dread. They hated when they made any mistake. Each one couldn't help comparing herself to her sister. Every practice involved tears, theirs and mine. The bitter tone of those practice sessions was seeping into all the learning that was happening in our home. And they never ever ever sat down to play the piano for the joy of it. Never.

I just couldn't ignore a deep discordance between their struggle and what I believe is the point of playing the piano, which is music. Music has always been something I cannot accomplish myself but which moves me deeply. Listening to a wonderful composition is akin to reading a grand passage of literature. It transports me beyond the moment in which I am living and gives me a glimpse of something beyond myself, something greater than myself. I was a terrible piano student (unlike my daughters), but I did come to recognize that I too could transport myself beyond the moment in which I was living—through reading and writing. Writing became my work, and by that I mean it became the thing I cannot not do. It requires discipline and rigor. It requires me every day to overcome frustration and impatience with myself. Yet every day it brings me joy. It is my music.

No one ever made me do it. My parents read constantly. I remember standing at my mother's knee as a very young child.  I watched how still her face was as she read. Her lips weren't moving, and yet I understood that words were spilling into her awareness and filling her with the emotions that showed in her eyes. I spent summers reading. In third grade, I got in trouble for reading under my desk when I was supposed to be learning grammar. Later, I began to write radio plays and stories. As a young child, I began the work of my life, the work of making my own music through words on a page.

That's what I want for my daughters, I want them to find their music. I want them to find what awes them in the world, what they cannot get enough of. And I want each of them to feel that inner upswelling of necessity, that bursting sense of realizing that it's all up to her. Only she can make her own music.

Years of homeschooling have changed what I believe about success. I no longer believe that success comes from a GPA or class ranking or a professional title or a tax bracket. And I'm saying this as someone who was valedictorian in high school and had  a 4.0 in college and who grew up to work where I always dreamed I would work. But, truly, I now see that my dearest successes can't be quantified by anyone but me. My greatest accomplishment has been to pinpoint what I want and to make that my life (regardless of what success others would have me seek). Amy Chua probably wouldn't recognize my life as a success. Some days I don't either. But I cannot imagine living my life for any greater reward than my own deep sense of fulfillment.

By this measure, my daughters are already successful. They design their days around their passions: They love math and go to Khan Academy when they need more help. They play with Vi Hart's ideas. They do science experiments with Robert Krampf, the Happy Scientist. They study Mandarin and study it and study it. And what they don't like about the world, they find a way to change.

For instance, they wanted to live in a world of animals. Turning this dream into a reality would be a major accomplishment because they were living in my world, a world from which I had carefully carved away the allergens that made it hard for me to breathe. In New York City, I'd found a way to live without asthma because I lived largely in a world without animals. In Maine, because of my daughters' careful engineering, I now live with a cat, sixteen chickens, and two goats. My daughters earned those animals by first earning my trust and respect—and the money to make it all happen. Having their animals is no small accomplishment, nor is it any small amount of work. Last night, it was sixteen-below-zero at our house; this morning, Fern and Blossom got up and fixed warm oatmeal for their friends out in the barn. They pulled on their Carharts, and out they went.

For now, goats are their music. And they are willing to work at that music until their fingers and toes are numb from the cold...until it hurts. The work fulfills them because it comes with joy and awe and laughter. They cannot not do it. Around here, that is success.

Christmas-morning watering (in their footie pajamas)


sarah in the woods said...

Beautiful post. I like your version of success better. :)

Curbstone Valley Farm said...

I couldn't agree more. GPA's, letters after one's name, they don't spell success, nor necessarily happiness, and there is so much more to a truly fulfilled life. I love your approach. It's balanced, it's fair, but I think foster's a greater sense of growth an achievement. Besides, I'd take a goat over a piano any day!

betsy said...

Oh, this post made me cry. We adore all of you and are so happy to be on the journey with you. xo

Magnolia Handspun said...


So well written.
Heartfelt and touching.
Thank you.
...and I think their mama knows and honors her daughters passion, how lucky they are to have someone to like you that listens and applauds their music, June.

...and by they way...some people never hear or listen to the beautiful music goats sing!

Catherine said...

What a wonderful, wonderful post... I am going through the same realisation here with my girls... and I could not agree more with what you are saying... Thank you for saying it so beautifully...

Tom | Tall Clover Farm said...

June, beautifully written and heartfelt; I would have to agree completely.

One thing I love about living on my island, is how you can spend an entire evening without someone asking you what your job is. Instead, it's more about what you love to do, read, see, experience.

Your family has become my online equivalent of Little House on the Prairie, though in this case, Little House in the Maine Woods. We share in your joy and wish you a life of success to you and yours (especially on your generous terms).

JGH said...

Amen, Amen, Amen, June!

I've been following the debate over Amy Chua and also did a post on this last week because I saw the film "Race to Nowhere" that was such a contrast, and really had me re-thinking the push toward achievment and success.

I think you have a very wise perspective and your girls are obviously thriving. How interesting that it was the COMPETETIVENESS about piano that made begin to be so upsetting for them.

Sweet Life Garden said...

I am not sure how I came upon your site but, I'm glad I did. I homeschooled my daughters throught high school. It was a delightful time. Your post was lovely! I will keep in touch.

Nan said...

I've been thinking of you since I first heard about the book! I can sure see how it is going to stir up TONS of conversation. To me, it verges on child abuse. We aren't on this planet just to succeed. I just saw a show about kids in South Korea and how they work, work, work all the time AND have the highest suicide rate. I told my kids thank God they are here. I am the kind of mother who hid their PSAT scores when they weren't so great because to me they don't measure a person's worth at all. I just want my children to be happy, in love, healthy, safe, and make enough money to allow them the lives they want.

Laura A said...

Loved this post! I have a teenage daughter who is driven to perform music, but guess what? It was entirely her idea. She begged for lessons, and she still begs for extra practice time.

As I think we've discussed, we live here in the NYC hothouse (a snowy hothouse this morning) as you once did, but I've resisted the nuttier aspects of the competition here, and there are many days when goats just seem a lot more appealing! But we're determined to make the best of it.

BTW, I really liked *Race to Nowhere,* too. But my daughter and one other homeschooled teen friend were the only kids in the theater. Telling, isn't it?

And isn't Kahn Academy a great resource? Such a reassuring voice and clear explanations, all in vivid color!

Wendy said...

What an amazing way to define "success" - doing that which we can't not do :).

I think that sums it up rather nicely.

Colleen - the AmAzINg Mrs. B said...

perfectionism is HIGHLY overrated..and I've always loved this quote:
"Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." - Henry Van Dyke

You are an amazing Mom and I would buy your book in a each their own I guess..but I wonder if the Tiger Mom has included happiness, joy, spontaneity and failure..yes..failure. I have learned some of the most amazing lessons from my failures :-)

littlekarstar said...

Another beautiful post! Ok I'm officially addicted to your blog. You've articulated my thoughts on the Tiger mum perfectly. I had a tiger mum which has made me go the opposite like you I'm more a bunny mum.

GretchenJoanna said...

I very much enjoyed this post - our homeschooling of five kids was in a country setting for the most part, then the suburbs - and I love to read about parents making sacrifices to give their children the opportunity to work and learn and grow up in a loving and homey place, wherever that may be.

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