The most talked-about mother in the world today is Amy Chua, a mom who says that if you call your kids "lazy, cowardly,self-indulgent and pathetic... garbage"— and physically force them to do things they hate— they will make you proud at Yale in the years to come.
So many things will be said about Chua's memoir/advice book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
It will certainly be a bestseller.
Its cringe-inducing ethnic stereotypes will be repeated and repudiated ad nauseum.
Teachers across the land will refuse to give out “A's,” since the grade's merit has now forever sullied by parents who think anything less than A+ is an insult to THEIR reputation.
But I have a different tack on BHTM, another nail to pound. If you raise your child according to Chua’s practice of:
1. Social climbing,
2. Narcissism, and
3. Mother/Child Stockholm Syndrome
—you will not only end up with a grade-grubbing piano soloist who’s afraid of her shadow, you will also produce a first-class SEXUAL BASKET CASE.
A young person who is alienated from her own basic pleasure and self-determination is on her way to a post-puberty future of despair and denial. (“The truth is I'm not good at enjoying life,” says Chua).
If one's orgasm is a terrible secret, or completely elusive—all the gold medals in the world don’t make up for it. It’s a lonely and fearful place. Sex being “difficult" is very much about adulthood being difficult—permanent infantilism is no answer.
Lest you think I am describing an Onanist's lament, take pause. Young people who are sexually crippled— sorry, I have to be blunt here— find themselves in a special kind of hell when it comes to bonding with a partner, having "grown-up" relationships. Despite a record of glowing diplomas and filial subservience, married life, (or mature single life!) will be torture when you can’t “connect,” when you don’t know what love means outside a tyrannical umbilical cord.
For those of you who will read the story of Chua’s two daughters: Sophie is the eldest, the one who appears to submit to every crack. Lulu, the younger, fights her mother hammer and tong. Isn’t it obvious which girl stands a chance in adult life? If Sophie’s trajectory follows the script laid out before us, she’ll have a nervous breakdown by 30. Lulu’s combative spirit will save her butt. I hope, truly, that I’m wrong and this guidebook is one extravagant joke— but I doubt it.
The poignant goal of every parent, from the moment of our infant’s birth, is to help the child take one more step away from you, every day. When they first walk, we applaud. They reveal their surprising opinions and gifts— we are thrilled. Yes, we snatch them out of the fire, we show them everything we know— but the point is for them to FLEX.
In Chua’s parenting code, the mission is the myth of perfection, to “mirror Mommy” at every turn, never knowing what’s right except in Mother’s rejection or momentary favor. It’s like being raised by the Red Queen, a woman with a "borderline personality" if there ever was one.
Popular American parenting debates offer a false choice: Are you going to be the Authoritarian Narcissist? Or the “Feel-Good” Coddling Egoist? One is like Amy, tearing up sub-standard homemade birthday cards and throwing them in her daughter’s face.
The other extreme, the “Stoner Mom Who Wanders Off to Pierce Her Belly Button and Leaves Kids in Car” is simply the twin sister of the first. Neither mother “sees” her children apart from themselves; it’s all projection. Each has read the same bible: “Free to Be Me... and Me.”
In my sex education work, I often get asked by parents, how to guide young people to a non-neurotic sex life, to have a good head on their shoulders about their bodies and desires.
It’s not that a parent picks up a baby and says, “Oh boy, the orgasms you’ll have!”
No, but mothers and fathers DO ask ourselves the questions our own childhoods left behind:
Can a kid grow up without religious superstition? —With an appreciative, objective view of their bodies?
Will they be confident in their sex lives, rather than appeasers, hurters, or fakers?
Will they have a sense of humor about sex, be able to share their warmth and affection, and learn from their sexual imagination?
That’s sexual health, in a nutshell. It’s synonymous with adult independence. Living a life without looking over your shoulder for approval, without shame and self-doubt, is as much a sexual issue as it is a maturity benchmark. “Red Queen” parenting is never going to cut it.
Most parents are laughing at, or recoiling from BHTM. They don't think they’d go as far as Chua, or plan to do quite the opposite. So what can a mom and dad provide, seriously, that will cultivate sexual maturity and grace?
I’m not going to suggest vibrators as Bat Mitzvah gifts. That’s ridiculous, and part of the same narcissism I’m critiquing. Good parenting is not about shopping or inserting yourself where you don’t belong. Respect starts with heartfelt boundaries— I hate to use that overplayed word, but it carries a deep message.
My battle hymn, my big parenting “sex tip” is this:
1. Don’t hit your kids; don’t make them the target of your violence.
Like incest, physical abuse binds a parent to a child in a way that is a true hardship to surmount. Don’t raise your offspring to look for that cruelty, or repeat it. They are not your property, they are not your chew toy.
A kid who has never been struck or damaged by a parent has a physical confidence in themselves that is unmistakeable. Kahlil Gibran has always had the most eloquent poetry on the subject:
Your children are not your children;
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you— but not from you;
And though they are with you, they belong not to you.
(I first heard Sweet Honey in the Rock sing these words in song when I was pregnant, and it was like twenty years of therapy in three minutes).
If you never say a word about sex to your kids, but you manage to keep your angry hands to yourself, you will have done your children a radical sexual favor. Violence won't be what keeps your family’s values intact. That is a triumph beyond any report card.
2. Privacy counts: yours and theirs.
This subject, privacy, isn’t about the luxury of multiple bathrooms. It can be hard to make quiet space for yourself or your kids. But their ability to self-soothe, to read and dream, (and yes, masturbate on their own), to play without interference— that’s what growing up is all about.
Likewise, the parent who models private time for themselves, who asks for and gives that respect, is cultivating the notion that one can “love and let go,” with presence and security.
I don’t know what the real story of Chua’s family life is— there’s a whiff of hokum in the book’s promotion.The aspect of her pitch that troubles me the most, is that her daughters have been the repeated target of her rage and insult— all kidding aside. They seem to never have had a moment to themselves without mom jumping in. Maybe with this book tour she’s on, they'll finally get a break.
Illustrations: The Queen of Hearts from Disney's Allce in Wonderland
My fave books on perils of narcissistic mothering:
Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship
(I know that the psychological term "borderline" is controversial, but just let that go, and read her descriptions; they're uncanny).
Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride; A Psychological Study.
And if you'd like to see an excerpt from my memoir—my chapter on mothering (gulp)— email me and I'll send you a little bit.