I know there’s nothing to be gained from comparing my children to each other, let alone to someone else’s—especially if those other children are straight-A earning musical prodigies. So when I waded into the fray over Amy Chua’s recent memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, an explosive account of the author’s hyper-vigilant parenting, I refrained from harping on my kids for being average sports-playing screen addicts instead of high-achieving violin virtuosos like hers. But I couldn’t let myself off the hook. What struck me most about Chua’s account of how she pushed her daughters to excel in academics and music was not her refusal to let them have sleepovers, watch TV or act in school plays, or that she forced them to practice their instruments – piano and violin only – for hours every night. Rather, I was astounded by the amount of time Chua – a law professor at Yale who has written three books – seemed willing and able to devote to managing her children’s lives.
It made me wonder: Am I too selfish to be a good parent? If I could just spend a little less time on my own career and hobbies and a little more time monitoring my kids, might they, too, play Carnegie Hall at 17, as Chua’s elder daughter did? I’ve always just assumed that my kids had neither the raw talent nor the interest to become standouts in anything, be it flute, gymnastics or baseball. But maybe I’m the one lacking the talent and interest to help them develop their true gifts. Chua argues that kids only enjoy what they’re good at, and they only get good through intense practice, which very few would embrace on their own – so it’s the parents’ job to push their children to reach their fullest potential. I prefer to believe that the best thing I can do for my kids is to live my life in full view of theirs, then let them go.
I’ve always rationalized my lack of oversight of homework, instrument practice and even tooth-brushing with two somewhat self-serving arguments: first, the kids need to learn to take responsibility for their own lives. (I won’t always be around to put the toothpaste on the brush!) Second, it’s important for me to model engagement with my own work, friends, and hobbies. How else will they know what a well-lived life looks like?
I suffered renewed pangs of insecurity over my hands-off approach when I read about Susan Maushart’s book, The Winter of our Disconnect, which recounts the six months she forced herself and her three teenage children to unplug from every electronic device in the house. Though I admire Maushart’s fortitude, I have to admit I’m too lazy and self-indulgentto ever emulate it. Frankly, I’m as attached to my iPhone as my children are to theirs, and I believe there’s something healthy, or at least normal, about the way we all retreat into our own electronic worlds when we get tired of each other. Without screens, we might be forced – as Maushart’s family was – to rediscover board games, which is not necessarily a good thing. (My children have nearly come to blows over Clue, an outcome they’ve consistently avoided while texting or watching videos.) While I’m certainly happy to join in the occasional game of Scrabble or Blokus, I’m picky about my entertainment and consider that marathon known as Monopoly to be a fate worse than Nickelodeon. I’m the mother who, when asked to help color a picture or build a Lego town, has been known to reply in exasperation: “Can’t you just watch TV?”
I don’t mean to imply that my kids sit around unsupervised, drinking soda and playing Call of Duty all day while I write essays and email my friends. Though my husband and I don’t set limits on screen time – beyond the occasional, “You’ve been on that thing all day, turn it off and go outside!” – we do, I think, demonstrate very clear expectations in the course of day-to-day living. My kids know that I will drop anything to quiz them before a spelling test, proofread an essay, read a story together or listen to a newly learned guitar riff. They see us follow the news, discuss world events and enjoy spending time with our friends – and with them. If we’re not pushing them every minute to achieve, it’s because we want them to understand that life is not a performance but a long-distance haul, and sometimes it’s okay to rest on the couch.
So far, all three kids are just fine: decent grades, lively friendships, a standard assortment of sports and musical activities. Even so, none of them is headed to Carnegie Hall, or even the minor leagues, and probably only one has a shot at the Ivy League. But the truth is, while I would certainly be thrilled if one of my children were invited to play Carnegie Hall, I don’t really care all that much. Unlike Chua, that’s not how I measure their success, or mine. What do I want them to achieve? Just this: engagement with the world; meaningful connections with other human beings; a passion for something they enjoy so much they get lost in it.
One thing I love most about parenting is watching my children discover hobbies, talents, even temporary interests whose pleasures escape me entirely: math, for instance, or football. Even when they are held in thrall by things I despise – Littlest Pet Shop toys and Air Soft guns come immediately to mind – it’s still gratifying to see them fall so in love with something that they are willing to stockpile birthday money for it.
The whole issue of how much control to exert over a youngster’s development reminds me of the old debate over early-childhood materials like the Baby Einstein videos: Does playing Mozart round-the-clock make an infant smarter, more talented or even more likely to appreciate Mozart? Experts have consistently debunked those claims, insisting that all new parents need to do is cuddle and talk to their babies. I like to believe that the same simple advice holds as they grow up. Never mind chaining them to the piano bench: just talk to them, hug them (if they’ll let you), and look up from your laptop every now and then to give them a reassuring smile.
Susan H. Greenberg is a writer, editor, teacher and author of the blog Unvarnished Mom.