By Marla Jo Fisher, The Orange County Register
My kids’ school started issuing new homework aids to parents: A bullhorn and a pair of handcuffs.
Now, don’t get all riled up. They’re the soft kind of fur-lined handcuffs that you can buy in adult bookstores on the wrong side of town. And they’re only to be used to keep your antsy kid in a chair during homework hour.
The bullhorn is so you can provide parental encouragement, sort of like the leader on a crew rowing team.
All right, all right, the school doesn’t really do that. But it has been on my mind lately, as I muse about how to get the best schoolwork out of my kids and help them develop the habit of excellence.
This topic is fiercely debated among parents, most recently by the Yale law professor who wrote a memoir about being a Chinese “tiger mother” who screamed, yelled, harassed and browbeat her girls into becoming musical prodigies and straight-A students.
I liked reading Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” partly because it’s entertaining, and partly because it makes me feel better about my own parenting.
No matter how much I holler at my kids like a demented fishwife, I’ll never rival the hours-long screaming matches she describes having with her daughters over their practice sessions on the piano and violin.
But, before I get too smug, I can’t help remembering that all that yelling and screaming got her daughter to Carnegie Hall. I’ve never been to Carnegie Hall, even as an audience member. I can’t really imagine being on stage there, unless I had a mop and bucket in my hands.
Unlike the Tiger Mom’s kids, mine rarely practice their instruments. Occasionally, I think I should care about this, but I don’t.
If Amy Chua is a Tiger Mom, I’m more of a White Rabbit mom — always scurrying around, wringing my hands and afraid of losing my head.
As a working single mom, I have so many other things to stroke out about, like paying my exorbitant mortgage and keeping my job, that sometimes I let things slide. Like housework and music practice sheets the kids are supposed to be keeping.
This does worry me, because I know that one reason I’m successful today is that my parents were Virgos, and I grew up with constant criticism. That might have driven me into analysis, but it also meant I was never satisfied with being second best.
“You’re one of the most insecure overachievers I ever met,” one editor told me many years ago, and I think that’s true of most of my successful writer friends.
On one hand, we might be neurotic nut jobs who never think we’re good enough. But slavish striving for excellence has its own rewards. I don’t know too many people who have been paid to ride on fire engines, watch dogs catch Frisbees, gossip with the mayor, go to Disneyland or sit in on a juicy murder trial. I’ve done all those things for my job and more.
Part of the reason for that is the ability to use harsh criticism to get better instead of discouraged. In my first job as a reporter, I used to go cry in the bathroom after my editor screamed at me for being stupid until the veins popped out on his neck. But then I’d dry my eyes, come back out and fix what I’d done wrong. Ultimately, all that misery paid off in spades.
So what does this mean now that I’m a parent myself? Do I flog my kids and drive them to succeed? Do I tell them to do things over and demand better, like the Tiger Mom did when she rejected quickly scrawled birthday cards from her daughters and insisted on better ones?
Or do I emulate Jodie Foster’s mom, whom Foster credited in her 1989 Oscar winner’s speech as teaching her “that all my finger paintings were Picassos and that I didn’t have to be afraid.”
This has been causing me some angst lately, as I wonder whether my attitude that B grades are good enough will hold my kids back in life. They are both bright kids, and if I demanded straight As, they could earn them, though I probably would need those handcuffs and a bullhorn and maybe a straitjacket for myself.
Do I really care whether my kids get into an Ivy League school? Or will I be content if they just learn how to make a mean margarita while they’re tending bar somewhere?
These kinds of dilemmas make me sorry I was absent the day they were handing out the parenting manuals.
Maybe it just depends on how good the margarita is, and whether or not Mom has to pay a cover charge when she drops by.
Marla Jo Fisher was a workaholic before she adopted two foster kids several years ago. Now she juggles work and single parenting, while being exhorted from everywhere to be thinner, smarter, sexier, healthier, more frugal, a better mom, better dressed and a tidier housekeeper. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://themomblog.freedomblogging.com/category/frumpy-middleaged-mom-marla-jo-fisher/.