Finding balance in the second half of life

Posts Tagged ‘learning’

Battle Hymn of the Golden Retriever Mother

In Family, Fulfillment on March 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm

So I’ve been trying not to write about Amy Chua’s book, which I haven’t read and don’t intend to read. Which I no longer need to read because I have read 1400 reviews and essays and analyses and blog posts and angry letters to the editor that quote copiously from her book to: (1.) show what a heartless, humorless slave-driver of a mother she is, or (2.) hold her up as a smart, self-deprecating but determined role model for parents who want to raise their children to be all that they can be.

If you are a semi-conscious Western parent of the female persuasion (there’s a reason this book wasn’t written by a man or pilloried or defended by American fathers, but that’s the subject of a different debate) the Tiger Mother’s roar is impossible to ignore. She’s everywhere. Her book has even inspired an internet meme.

What could I possibly add?

But it’s been a fraught week, with parent/teacher conferences, band concerts, financial aid forms, and college acceptance and not-quite acceptance letters from the places my youngest son Eliot applied to last fall. And reading Caitlin Flanagan’s piece “The Ivy Delusion: The Real Reason the Good Mothers Are So Rattled by Amy Chua” in this month’s issue of The Atlantic has finally pushed me into the fray.

Because I have some things in common with those “good mothers” Flanagan makes not-so-gentle fun of —

“The good mothers believe that something is really wrong with the hypercompetitive world of professional-class child rearing, whose practices they have at once co-created and haplessly inherited. The good mothers e-blast each other New York Times articles about overscheduled kids and the importance of restructuring the AP curriculum so that it encourages more creative thinking. They think that the college-admissions process is “soul crushing.” One thing the good mothers love to do—something they undertake with the same “fierce urgency of now” with which my mom used to protest the Vietnam War—is organize viewings of a documentary called Race to Nowhere.”


And, yes, Amy Chua rattles me. Because I am a mother who has allowed her sons to quit pianos lessons, tennis lessons, trombone lessons, swimming lessons, T-Ball, Youth Orchestra, AP Chemistry — even intramural soccer. I have not required them to do their homework, go to bed, join National Honor Society, practice their instruments, or write five-paragraph essays. I have encouraged them to find their respective passions and follow their proverbial bliss (good mothers read too much Joseph Campbell in college, says Flanagan) to film school, art school, and (for Eliot) music school. I am also a mother who, unlike Amy Chua, has never been entirely sure she was doing the right thing.

I am not a Tiger Mother. I am not really even one of the good mothers Flanagan chastises for thinking that their kids should be able to “have it both ways” — “a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education.” After my boys’ first years in elementary school, I stopped harboring any illusions of Harvard scholarships.

I am more of a Golden Retriever Mother.

If you’ve ever owned a golden, you know from unconditional love. A retriever finds her person perfect, fascinating, the source of all possible happiness in this world. She will chase and return a soggy tennis ball for as long as you care to throw it. She will listen with rapt attention to anything you want to discourse on, from Petrarchan sonnets to nationalized health care. She wants to go where you go, do what you do, eat what you eat, and sleep where you sleep. She’s ready to follow you following your bliss wherever it takes you. She doesn’t care if you don’t have a 4.0. In fact, she thinks that your 3.25 — because it is your 3.25 — is better than anyone else’s 4.0.

So, yeah, Eliot’s been wait-listed by his first-choice school, while Amy Chua’s daughter has already played Carnegie Hall and, according to Flanagan, has likely applied to many of the country’s top colleges: “Almost certainly, she will be admitted to all of them.”

Eliot’s passion is music, but he didn’t discover that until high school. And by the time he figured out which program of study excited him, and understood the school’s acceptance rates and requirements, he’d had only two years of private piano and trombone lessons and his GPA was beyond repair. What if I hadn’t let him quit piano at 7? What if I’d made him practice his trombone two hours a day when he was in middle school? What if I’d told him, like Tiger Mother told her cubs, that he was “never allowed to get any grade less than an A”?

I like to think that my approach had its own benefits. Eliot found out for himself what he loves and learned how to find the teachers and resources that could help him achieve his goals. His latest progress report shows a D in AP English Language, but here’s what his teacher wrote next to the grade:

Eliot, I really enjoy working with you in AP Language. I appreciate your witty insights in class discussion, and wish that you would share even more. You possess an inherent gift for stringing words together creatively, and your sense of voice in your writing is strong and developed. The complexity of your sentence structures and your sense of humor is indicative of a writer far beyond your years!

Eliot’s D is better than most of my community college students’ As!

He didn’t get accepted into the University of Michigan’s highly competitive Performing Arts Technology program, and we feel sad about that. But Berklee College of Music wants him enough to offer him sizable merit scholarship. He hasn’t done Carnegie Hall (yet), but last month I watched him solo with his high school jazz band in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall.

That’s my boy! Son of a Golden Retriever Mother, perfect in every way.

–Debra Wierenga

Enter Career, Stage Right

In Family on March 9, 2010 at 12:22 am

Not too long ago, I again paid a price for eavesdropping. This particular conversation was between a parent and a college professor; the parent was concerned about the practicality—as measured by earning potential—of her daughter’s choice of major. And the price I pay is a tongue nearly bitten through, because I have so much to say to that parent.

I’m afraid that we are, as a nation and a culture, headed toward vocational education, and not just for those who don’t choose a “college track.” Even in higher education, we seem to pressure students to choose a major as though they’re choosing a life-long career. Never mind that these are kids who, at 18 or 19, hardly know what their career options might be. Never mind that it’s a rare teenager who’s had the “scope for imagination” (thanks, Anne of Green Gables) to find her real passions or talents. Never mind that nobody believes a single career will last a lifetime any more.

The conversation I overheard was at a liberal arts college, which at least suggests that the particular student will be exposed to a variety of subjects and disciplines. A liberal arts education, I think, does deliver on teaching students how to think and how to learn, both of which equip them to be agile in pursuing the careers they discover they’re interested in—or, let’s face it, in this economy—there’s opportunity in.

It may be overreaching to say that a liberal arts education also is foundational to a democracy, but I’d make that case: The more we understand about the breadth of experience and thinking that human history contains, the more prepared we are to build a society that is capacious enough to engage and affirm all of our citizens.

Within a liberal arts framework, I’m not sure it matters what the particular major is, unless there’s a particularly mature student with an extremely clear career goal. Becoming an MD, for example, requires a specific educational path. So does becoming an engineer. But for hundreds of thousands of students, a major is a stressful choice or an ambivalent evolution. And I’m just not convinced employers—or students or parents—should care.

I was able to parlay a theater major into a successful career in marketing, technology, product development, and communications. I’m not sure I ever seriously considered a career in theater, but I was attracted by the classes, which represented a variety of topics and tactile, physical skills, and put all the pieces together in a practical way. To stage a Shakespeare play, for example, we needed to understand enough of the geography and the history of the place where the story was set. We had to parse poetry and expand our vocabularies to understand how to convey the story. We studied color theory and science to design the lighting and design principles and geometry to envision a buildable set. We hammered and painted and sewed and sawed. We figured out who would come to the play, sold them tickets, and balanced the books. And we had a heck of a good party on closing night.

That’s an interdisciplinary education, and along the way I learned a number of other things:

  • Unless you want to do the same thing over and over again, you have to keep learning. If we only wanted to produce Shakespeare, maybe we could slow our pace. But since we also wanted to act Harold Pinter and Tennessee Williams, we needed curious minds and the initiative to track down answers.
  • There’s nothing like a well-publicized opening night to make sure you’re getting things done. Once you’ve published your schedule and sold some tickets, you’re committed. You figure out what kinds of trade-offs can be made when the unexpected happens. You surpass the limits you assumed, find energy and resources you didn’t know you had. You amaze yourself.
  • Budget and deadline are two additional criteria for a design problem. You can stage a play without spending any money at all; you can also spend millions of dollars. Not having a big budget or a lot of time doesn’t let you off the hook creatively (although, of course, you need to be clear-eyed about the objectives of the project!).
  • Once you’ve made Peter Pan fly across the stage, replicated a believable shipwreck, or gotten an audience to gasp in despair together, you start believing that very nearly anything may be possible. Believing in possibilities is the first step in relationships, business, volunteer work, and your own creative projects.
  • Great teams work when there’s common purpose, clearly defined roles, diversity of talents and expertise, and respect among the members. Nobody expects the carpenter who’s building the set to be the lead actor, too (although it can happen). No one thinks the show can go on without the lighting crew. The leading man is profoundly grateful to the wardrobe crew when his ripped costume gets stitched up during intermission.
  • And finally, the work is not the person. The degree to which personal identities get tied up and confused with the work can be a handicap to any organization. When you’ve got 10 or 30 or 50 people working on a show, it’s always about the show. Sure, occasionally there was a stereotypical theatrical ego, but we were working within a useful construct: the show, the cast, the crew. And the best actors were those who recognized that delivering solo lines did not make magic; what made magic was the interplay, the energy, the tension among the characters in the play.

While I’m clear on the benefits of my own educational experience, I won’t claim that the Theater Department is the only place lessons like these can be learned. My daughter, mysteriously a biology major, may be learning lessons much like these from dissecting cats. I’m certain, though, that the value of the major is not in the specific content—which is likely Google-able and evolving as new discoveries are made—but in the process of learning and working together.

Back to that mother. Here’s what I would have said if I hadn’t been bloodying my tongue: Please let your daughter find her own way. Encourage her to postpone choosing a major as long as possible. Let her think about, experiment with, the areas that pique her interest. Help her to see that it’s her initiative, her creativity, her network, and some luck that will determine her financial future—and that there are more ways to measure success than a salary level. Show her that her college major is just one piece of a life of learning, which she can design—and redesign—for the next 70 years.

–Lois Maassen