Monday, January 24, 2011

Tiger mothering and Youngest Son's doctor visit

Yale Law Professor Amy Chua has been much in the news lately, ever since her January 8 article for the Wall Street Journal, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior."

I suspect a lot of readers saw red and stopped reading at the opening laundry list of things Professor Chua would not let her kids do. Others threw up their hands when Professor Chua wrote:
If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen — there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.
Pick your verb carefully here: Professor Chua criticized, mocked, satirized the typical American parent's concern with their child's self-esteem. But she has a valid -- and, I think, wise -- point when she says:
[A]s a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't.
Those two sentences should be graven on the hearts of parents and teachers everywhere.

Parenting is a constant struggle, and, as parents we often fluctuate between extremes (keeping with the Oriental theme here) from the yin of being a 'hardass' to the yang of being a pushover.

As parents, we are always guessing how best to respond in any situation: Should we be tough guys when the kid wants to stay out later on Saturday night, or should we acquiesce? Should we blow a fuse when we get a disappointing report card, or should we be sympathetic and understanding?

It's a guessing game. And we really can never know if we got it right.

We can't even tell by how our kids turn out -- for at least three reasons. First, kids are works in progress. They change over time. The kid who seems like a lost cause at 18 may get it together by 30. Or 40. (In my case, I'm hoping to get it together by 55.) Second, parents are not the only influences in their kids' lives. Professor Chua banned TV in her home, but in the modern age programs on MTV, FOX and the CW are available on so many other platforms -- just waiting to undermine all the good lessons we've tried to teach. And even if a kid is never contaminated by toxic TV, the peers with whom our kids interact each day likely have been. Our kids' friends and acquaintances shape our kids, too. And, finally, we can't know how our kids might have turned out differently if we weren't there. There are no identical kids running in a separate control group against whom we may compare.

So all we can do is do our best and hope it's enough.

Which brings us to Youngest Son.

Like everyone else at our house, Youngest Son has been sick off and on since before Christmas. The latest bug started over two weeks ago. He had fever intermittently for a week. The fever was sufficiently serious that we had to hold him out of school for a couple of days; thankfully, part of this time coincided with a weekend. After the fever subsided, the congestion began. He began to have an ugly, wet-sounding cough.

We had the vaporizers going and Long Suffering Spouse was after him to take Mucinex or cough syrup. She was after him to eat more good food and fewer cookies. Sometimes he would grudgingly comply.

Through it all, though, he had to maintain his school work and his baseball training regimen.

Tryouts are in another month and, this year, the varsity is going on a spring training trip to California. Youngest Son figures to make the varsity again, but he wants to contribute. So he's working on his arm strength -- lifting weights and running.

And there was still one more complication: Youngest Son was asked to be a student leader at a four day retreat this week. All the seniors at his Catholic high school are encouraged to go on a Kairos retreat; a few are selected from each group to help out with the next. It is an honor. As with most honors, there is a cost: He had to write a lengthy paper to present on the retreat and subject it to review by his fellow leaders and the faculty advisers -- and, of course, he had to review the others' efforts as well. He'll have to make up the school work he misses for the retreat, too.

Thus there was very little time for rest and recuperation from this latest bout of creeping crud. Last week he'd try and leave the house before 6:00 to get his running in. He would join others on the baseball team for weight lifting (or sometimes more running) after school. And there were Kairos meetings, too. He'd come home, fall asleep on the couch for a couple of hours, then get up and do homework into the wee small hours.

His condition deteriorated through the week. But, despite our increasing insistence, he wouldn't agree to see a doctor. "A doctor will tell me not to go to practice," he said, "and I have to go to practice."

And you'll remember that wet cough I mentioned a few paragraphs above? By this weekend Youngest Son's mother and I could hear a rattle in his lungs. Youngest Son admitted he could hear it too. Not that it stopped him from running a couple of miles in the morning Saturday, you understand, although he admitted he had a coughing fit afterward. Thus, finally, Saturday morning, Youngest Son agreed to let us take him to the doctor.

I took him to the local immediate care center.

He's not quite 18, so I had to go in with him.

His blood pressure was 112 over 54.

"That's disgusting," I said. "I can do twice as much as that."

"No you can't!" said the nurse.

"Oh, yes he can," said Youngest Son. He's seen me when the mortgage company calls.

I'd explained to Youngest Son that talking to a doctor is different than talking to a trainer on the sidelines at the football game. You're not trying to get back on the field for the next series, I explained to him, you're trying to get the doctor to realize that you genuinely need the medicine that only he or she can prescribe. So Youngest Son was pretty thorough in describing the course of his illness. Still, I felt a need to supplement his account.

"Is there any other medical problem you have?" the nurse asked, concluding the history before the doctor came in.

"Well, there are his sideburns," I interjected, "but I suppose, strictly speaking, that's not a medical problem."

"Does he always give you a hard time?" the nurse asked.

"Oh, yes," agreed Youngest Son.

The doctor sent the boy off for an x-ray. She saw something on the lower left lobe of his lungs that she takes for pneumonia. A radiologist will confirm the diagnosis and call the house today. "You ran this morning?" she asked Youngest Son. He nodded. "Well, no running for a week," she said. "You need to rest and get better." She wrote out a couple of prescriptions.

"What did I tell you?" snarled Youngest Son when we got back in the car.

"Good thing you're going on Kairos this week, isn't it?" I said.

It will be anything but a week off: He hardly slept when he went as a participant in November. And leaders have to set up for and clean up after the participants.

But I think he'll get more rest on the retreat than he would have gotten had he stayed home.

I don't know where this rates on the "tiger mother" scale. On the one hand, I've let him set the agenda with the doctor -- which perhaps makes me a pushover -- but I understood his reasoning. On the other hand, we are letting him test his limits -- and always continuing to insist that he keep up his studies, too.

Older Daughter tells people she was our "experimental child" -- that we tried out everything on her and then applied the hard-won fruits of our experience to the raising of her four siblings. But they're all experimental children. And so are we.


Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

d#1 has a very different set of parenting skills as well. no tv in the home, home schooled, lots and lots of sports, church activities, home cooked food, and she works full time. i don't know how, but she even bakes their bread and grinds the wheat berries to do that.

now me? i take naps.

smiles, bee

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Great post on motherhood, Curmy!

Ellee Seymour said...

This story was in the British press too. What about her father, I would like to know. My youngest son always tells me I'm "too tight" - meaning too strict - but tough love is the hardest kind.

Dave said...

Can't comment on the right or wrong of the media darling or your raising of your kids; but, I can say, very nicely written.