Installing the Compass – my latest from the Stanford Alumni blog…
Seems you can’t read a newspaper or listen to the radio lately without seeing or hearing about Amy Chua and her Wall Street Journal piece “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”. I firmly believe that quite a bit of Chua’s goal in writing the article and in including such incendiary comments, was to create a stir in the press (which she did with flying colors). And whether you find yourself agreeing with her or nodding along with David Brooks who, among other things, said that Chua may be putting her children at a disadvantage not because of her strict parenting but because he wishes she “recognized that in some important ways the school cafeteria is most intellectually demanding that the library” (hear! hear!), I think the take-away from both of these pieces is that it has opened up a worthwhile dialogue among parents. How we parent. How we discipline. Are we too easy on our kids? Too demanding? Do we expect enough of them or are we praising them into complacency? And while I do not think that there is one common denominator in parenting – no magic bean that anyone can plant to grow the perfect child – I do think that it is an absolute necessity for parents to sit down and talk about how they want to raise their kids.
My husband and I have never been parenting book types of people. Yes, we bought “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” (mostly because we were told it was a vital part of the birthing process…like an epidural) but we’ve never really taken advantage of the many parental self-help books available. And I’ll be the first to admit that part of this hesitation stems from an inherent distaste for the genre. Please don’t get me wrong. Books are wonderful. They are vital to life. And self-help books offer much-needed assistance to millions or people worldwide every day. And I do believe that out there in the publishing ephemera, there are many really fantastic and legitimate books that can solve many of the problems of the world today. That said (phew!), I’m just not one of those people who wants to be seen on the Bart reading one. I find the majority of them preachy, even overzealous – as if by following “these six easy steps!” you’ll have a life of eternal happiness and peace. Maybe I’m missing out. Maybe I’d be a walking-talking bastion of self-love with one on my Kindle, but it’s just not my bag.
But, in a moment of weakness and curiosity, we did recently read “”Bringing up Geeks: How to Protect Your Kid’s Childhood in a Grow-up-too-fast World” by Marybeth Hicks. And, amazingly, I was kind of hooked. It was a bit like red licorice at the movies – you like it well enough and then before you know it you’ve eaten the whole box. Suddenly, I had finished the book – and could actually see a bit of myself in it. So, the introductory gist of the book is that the word “Geek” can be seen as an acronym for “Genuine, Enthusiastic, Empowered Kids.” Admittedly, this turned me off. Seriously, we need to turn “geek” into an acronym? But I stuck with it. And, despite a few meanderings into religion which I secretly skimmed, I fundamentally agreed with most of her points. Those being:
- imbue a love of learning in your children and it will stay with them forever
- let your child be “uncommon”, meaning let them be who they are and embrace the many facets of their emerging personalities as unique and special
- don’t be in a rush to have your children grow up too fast – and adopt behaviors before they are ready
and, perhaps most importantly,
- don’t fall into the trap of letting making your child care about what is “cool” instead of what is “right”
That last one really stuck with me. And I think it’s an idea that needs more fleshing out, more dialogue. This whole idea of coolness filtering down into our children scares the living daylights out of me and we see the repercussions of it daily in the news in terms of bullying, teen depression, violence, suicide….Already in my sons’ elementary school I’m seeing the distinct patterns of cliques and groups and posses and have overhead some pretty mean things being said between different types of kids. And these are GOOD kids! With great families and support networks and afterschool activities. And still the cool factor is wrecking havoc on their minds and hearts. It worries me because I have been privy to quite a few parenting decisions being made on the basis of “cool” versus “right.” Even growing up, there were those parents who seemed to be almost proud or titillated by the antics of their children. “Oh, Danny stole the car last night and ran into a tree? Har de har har. Boys will be boys!” or “So, Suzie came home last night at 3am! And her curfew is 11pm! She’s just like me at her age! Ha ha!” And deep within those disturbing statements is the feeling, on behalf of the parents, that it’s better for their kids to be cool than uncool. Better for them to be stealing the car with the posse than be the kid who’s reading in his bedroom. Better for them to break curfew with the cool kids than come home at 11pm like they’ve been told. And to this, I say “no.”
Granted, parents make decisions for a wide variety of reason and I don’t claim or care to make severe judgment calls on another’s choices. All I can do is work on my own family and infuse ideals and values that make sense for us. And, for me, I’d rather my children be whimsical and imaginative and self-assured and utterly individual than cool. Because who dictates what is cool? Can’t my son, who can quote entire lines of Roald Dahl and announced to me yesterday that he wants to be a college professor of history so he can write a book about JFK, be the cool one? Can’t my younger son who sings Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” at the top of his lungs at all times of the day and who chooses to do math problems for fun be the ringleader? Can’t we turn “cool” on its ear and open up the doors of coolness to not just imply a certain stereotype? Let every kid be cool in his or her own way and define that coolness by their individual talents and interests. Let their rebellions come as a means of expressing themselves and with the necessary repercussions to remind them of what is right and what is wrong.
Now, I’ve never been much of a rebel. I did go along rather unwillingly in high school to steal a license plate in the middle of the night during a sleepover, but I honestly hated every minute of it and I was that kid who kept saying things like “don’t you think we should go back” and “i think i hear a siren”…I didn’t drink in high school and had my first drunken moment as a freshman in Branner during the ubiquitous “progressive” on the 3rd floor. After the fourth Sex on the Beach, I leaned up against the wall, slid down to the floor and announced to my friend Karen that “everyone looks really attractive to me.” I’ve never been tattooed. Never bungee jumped. Never took off in the middle of the night on a motorcycle with nothing but a change of clothes in a backpack. I did date a guy with a motorcycle once upon a time, but when he took me for a ride along Highway 1 I spent the entire time singing Amazing Grace at the top of my lungs to avoid certain death. And the one and only time I tried to smoke a cigarette, I didn’t know how to hold it (up near my head, or down near my legs???) so I held it midway and consequently burned the back of a little person’s neck at the bar. And if that isn’t a sign to lead a nicotine-less existence, I’m not sure what is.
All this is to say that my rebellions were relatively tame and came later in life. I wasn’t necessarily the cool kid in school. And I wasn’t perfect, either. I had teen angst. I wrote bad poems. I quoted DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Price on occasion, telling my parents they just didn’t understand. And yet I always, always knew what was right and what was wrong. My husband and I have talked about this quite often, for he, too, felt the ever-present moral compass in his own heart growing up. And we ask ourselves, how did our parents encourage that? How did they manage to instill that sense of decorum within us while still allowing us to become who we are? And I don’t think the answer is easy. I don’t think we can turn ourselves into Amy Chuas, nor do I think we can just cross our parental fingers and hope for the best. I think we, as parents, need to be present and be able to admit that there is not only one definition of cool. Not one stereotype you must inhabit to walk proudly through the world. That we are all cool and all geeky at the same time. And that we, as parents, are more vital to the emotional well-being of our children than any paperback self-help book or convenient acronym. We need to be aware and need to be willing to perform the sometime painful operation of inserting that moral compass within our children. For despite the side effects of such surgery, the outcome is good.
originally published January 19th, 2011