Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Olympics and Wrestling my Inner Tiger Mother

We're in all-out Olympic mode around this house.  We pile on the bed in our room and stay up way too late every night marveling at the strength and determination of the world's finest athletes.  The award ceremonies, that moment when a record is broken, watching an athlete finish a race and then search the stands to make eye contact with their parents - it's all pure beauty.  That shared moment between parents and child - their eyes meeting - that brief scene contains a hundred chapters worth of words.  It all wrecks me.  I feel like a postpartum mess during the Olympics.

A million thoughts and feelings find me during the Olympics, but the parent/child element of each Olympian's story stands out the most.  While I'm cheering for the Olympians and emotionally overcome for them as they win or lose (I'm still not over Jordyn not making it) I'm also aware of my own kids in the room.  I am in turmoil, wondering if I'm doing enough to help them reach their highest potential.

“Nothing is fun until you're good at it.” ― Amy ChuaBattle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Last year, a sweet friend sent me the book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  Have you read it?  Author, Amy Chua gives Western parents an insight into the Chinese-style of parenting.  My love-hate for Chua and sick fascination with her parenting style propelled me through this book.  I could not stop reading.  At some points she seemed certifiably insane.  At other points I was overcome with respect for her.  Once I understood her motives and love-inspired dreams for her daughters, I had to confess a lot of laziness in my own parenting.  Why do Chinese parents push their kids so hard?  Because they love them and truly believe their kids possess the capacity to reach greatness.  In Chua's opinion, not pushing her children would have been irresponsible and unloving.

“Western parents worry a lot about their children's self-esteem. But as 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.” ― Amy ChuaBattle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

“Every day that you don't practice is a day you're getting worse.”  ― Amy ChuaBattle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Chua argues, in a semi-psychotic and yet convincing way that building a child's self esteem is less about working hard to convince a child they are good at something (when they really aren't) and more about helping them to actually excel at a skill (which takes a lot of old-fashioned, hard work and sacrifice).  She attributes not pushing our kids to excellence to laziness and selfishness on the part of Western parents.  She makes a great argument and her book begs the question - why wouldn't we want our kids to reach their highest potential? Are we pushing our kids hard enough - even when they push back?

I walked away from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother equally disturbed and inspired.  As I was reading the book, I traveled through cycles of excuses.  "Pushing my kids to excel at something would consume our life. It would cost a lot of money.  Chua is a professor at Yale.  Her family is loaded.  Hiring the best violin instructors and paying for expensive private schools is not an issue for her."  All of my arguments fell apart during my make-believe arguments with Chua.  Yes, Chua is successful, but her parents were immigrants to the United States who gave up an unbelievable amount of comfort to shape Chua into the woman she is today.  Many "Tiger Mothers" were poor immigrants to the United States sleeping in their tiny shops, sacrificing everything to give their children the very best - relentlessly and sacrificially driving them towards excellence.  Amy Chua lost a lot of sleep and gave up a great deal of comfort to help her children become the people they are today.

Even though Chua's strategies seem extreme, her love for her children is undeniable.  She fiercely believes in them.  I'll never be Amy Chua, but this book I love-hated, haunts me.  A year later, I still find myself arguing with Chua.  I've had some inner cat fights with her as I've watched the Olympics with my sons.  I keep secretly wishing an Olympian's story would read like this, "I didn't really have to work hard.  I was born good at swimming.  I jumped in the pool one day, started aimlessly flailing around, and realized I was born to win a gold medal.  I stand here today because of a steady diet of nachos and Sponge Bob Square Pants."  That story belongs to no one at the Olympics.  Each athlete is competing in London because they have worked hard and suffered.  So have their parents.

Once you throw in additional elements - like faith and the truths we believe about this world and our role in it, I'm left with a confusing mess of emotions and thoughts as I watch the Olympics with our boys at night.  While I want to encourage our sons to reach for excellence and faithfully steward the gifts and talents they have been given, I don't want their entire identities wrapped up in medals, titles, and labels.  I don't want them to feel as though they have to earn our love or admiration.  They already have it.

We are completely wrapped up in the Olympic story right now.  We are deeply moved every single evening as we cheer for the athletes.  Their hard work, focus, and their parent's love and support for them is remarkable.  As we're watching this human story unfold, I've caught myself wishing I would have actually worked harder at something.  While watching Gabrielle knock out her floor routine, I stop and dream for a second about what it would have looked like to have been more disciplined in my studies - to risk - to truly follow my dreams.  Through teary eyes - watching the fifteen year old, Ruta, win a gold medal - I can't help but think of my children in the room.  Their hearts won over by the struggle and victory of the athletes they are watching.  Am I helping them become who they were truly created to become?  Will they one day watch the Olympics and wish we had pushed them harder - will they be grieving their own mediocrity?  I see that "no greater love than this" kind of love - that laying down of a parent's life kind of love in that moment when Missy Franklin takes the gold and bursts into tears once her eyes meet her mother's.   For both of them - I can't imagine how much encouragement, hard-work, and sacrifice it has taken for that gold-medal moment to become reality.

Anyone else feeling this soul-pull during the Olympics?  Talk to me.

{Related Links...}

Fun, Olympics graphics

Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (such a great read).

I'm having way too much fun at night talking about the Olympics on Twitter.  Join the conversation!

Feel like a geographical idiot after the opening ceremonies?  While watching the Olympics, hone your geography skills over at Jet Punk.

Another fun Olympic quiz from Jet Punk.

For the kids - these free Olympics printables from Tinyme are not only adorable but also a lot of fun. Our boys used the Opening Ceremonies Bingo Cards.  Really cool.

Opening Ceremonies photos from The Big Picture.  Incredible!

For fellow Texans:  Did you know 33 Olympians are from the Lone Star State?  Out of those 33, 23 are from Texas A&M.  Can I get a Whoop!  Check out these Aggie athletes in London!

Have you seen this video celebrating the mothers behind the Olympians?  Watch it and weep!


Catherine T. said...

While I didn’t read the Tiger Mom book, I read a lot of articles from other people who read it (story of my life), and I agree with you 100%. I’m so struck by how much my own desire for comfort and ease reflects in my children and how much effort it takes to push all of us towards greater excellence. I read somewhere that Barack Obama’s mother made him get up at 5am to study before school...can you imagine that? Can you imagine what force of will it would take to make your children do that?

I think my children are going to have to settle for mediocrity. Alas.

Andrea said...

My thoughts exactly on the "Tiger Mother" book...I loved it and at the same time I hated it. So many of my questions follow your heart as you wade through the aftermath. So many good questions were raised that my husband and I are still working through as we think on how to best parent our daughter. SO appreciate your thoughts!

Sandy said...

I cannot believe how timely this blog post is. Our oldest daughter (12) is a very good runner--who has no desire to run--at all. In fact, this morning she had cross country camp (which she didn't want to do)and on the way home stated she didn't want to run because it is "hard". If we let this child do whatever her heart desired, she would be drawing while watching a movie with her only activity being playing Wii. Not going to happen.
We are encouraging her and supporting her and even pushing her in cross country and track. She always ends up doing a great job--she just complains every step of the way. My husband told me that one day she will appreciate what we are doing, although it may not be until she gives a eulogy to me at my funeral.
I just want them to use the gifts God has given them--this isn't about winning, it is about teamwork, perseverance, keeping on when you don't feel like it, learning to lose gracefully, learning to win humbly, taking care of this body that God has given us responsibly.
It is hard as a parent to push without being pushy--if that makes sense.
Thanks for this. I may just have Lisa read it this afternoon.

d.l.mayfield said...

i wholeheartedly agree with your review of the book. i do believe everyone should read it (without judging it first). aren't we all a little certifiably insane? i also love her honesty, how the book refuses to be tied up in a little bow. the olympics totes makes me feel the same way, though. how much pressure is too much?

Anonymous said...

I can't help but wonder what those olympians gave up. No one says at 15, I think ill be a world famous gynast today. It starts from soo young, that they lose something while gaining something else. Im not sure its worth the trade off

hoveringwaters said...

Haha, last night I actually dreamed that I won the Silver Medal in Acrylic Painting at the Olympics. My whopping $15,000 prize was going to pay for a master's degree and I woke up SO excited! If only...

Maggie Ainsworth said...

I definitely have that same feeling while watching the Olympics - that wistful "man, I wish I would've worked hard enough to be great at something." My kids are really little, but I find myself resolving to push them in a way my parents didn't. The Olympics always brings this resolve to the forefront. But then, I'm not so sure that's always a good thing. I certainly do think we should encourage perseverance and hard work in our children. However, I don't think we should do this at the expense of other (better) things. I can't imagine how much time Olympic athletes spend practicing over the course of their lives, but I know it's a lot. I'm sure their character is built through all this practice and hard work, but is there any benefit to others from all this time spent practicing? I mean, besides the enjoyment we get watching them, which is legitimate. I really am wondering. I guess I would just be hesitant to encourage my child in something that is only about him AND requires so much of his time and our time as parents. Our family already struggles to find time to do all the things we feel like God has called us to.

Marci said...

So... I know this might be a tad off topic or a rabbit trail all its own, but even with basic things like piano lessons I often find myself thinking "Really in the grander scheme of life (think like Gospel) does this have any value?... much less excelling at it?"
Then secondarily I think "If it is worth doing it is also worth enjoying weather or not you excel at it..." Not many people excel at even one thing (like arts or skills or talents) At least I don't, but I enjoy what I do, do... And for everything I choose to excel at, what else am I not focusing on or what am I giving up to be exceptional at that one thing? I really just hope my kids "get" and excel at the Gospel... really that is all that REALLY is worth excelling and giving up other things for. I don't know... lots to think about for sure.

Hendrick Family said...


I hear what you are saying and understand the struggle you describe. As I've been thinking through these ideas the last few days, I'm also reminded that the Bible paints a picture often of doing whatever we're doing to the very best of our abilities.

I think I understand what you're communicating when you say all you want is for your kids to "excel at the gospel" but I also think of the times when incredible music has moved me to a deeper understanding and appreciation of this world. I can point to so many places in my own journey where a piece of literature captured my heart - and changed the way I think about who God is (and a lot of that literature wasn't even written by a Christian author). Excellent films and film makers have told stories in such a way that changed how I appreciated and understood cultures and changed how I loved and valued fellow human beings. I have lots of examples where someone's talent or excellence has moved me and caused me to change the way I think about this world and my place in it. For me, the arts especially, have helped me make sense of the gospel and understand how the written word can come alive. This isn't even mentioning all the doctors who are living out the gospel in tangible ways as they serve their patients (here and in the poorest parts of the world) or those working in public policy and law for International Justice Mission who are bringing about tangible change in the lives of enslaved and trafficked people around the world.

I guess what I'm saying is - I'm not sure there's a separation between the spiritual (excelling at the gospel) and the physical (being excellent at a skill). I think it's all intricately connected.

Even the Olympics themselves and the athletes competing are able to turn our hearts towards heaven, filling our souls with hope - as we watch the pain, the suffering, and the struggle all being worth it in the end. The struggle. The reward. The victory. Aren't those elements of the gospel? In that way, whether these athletes are believers or not - they are participating in the beautiful message of the gospel and giving each of us the opportunity to grow and be reminded of eternal truths.

These thoughts are not fully baked - like this post suggests - I'm deeply thoughtful about these ideas right now.

So I'd love to continue the conversation...


Jamie said...

Seriously. And all I have is a 9 month old daughter in baby swim lessons.

the momma said...

you know ~ the thing I keep wondering about (although, perhaps it is just my way of excusing myself?)is - what about all those kids (now grown-up, or nearly so) who's parents DID push them, who DID sacrifice, but they still weren't q u i t e good enough to make it? And what about siblings? What if there are 6 average kids, and one talented one ~ does the entire family sacrifice for the one? And what value does Olympic greatness really have?
The other thoughts I have are Dang! Look at those legs!!! ;-)

Marci said...

No, I got ya Heather... I think there are elements of God in all things and in people's stories and triumphs and struggles! It is sweet and goodness. But, I think that probably has as much to do with the Spirit of God revealing himself to you through that story as it is that persons desire to glorify God through their life. Which is cool. And I wouldn't ever want to tell me child, "No you can't pursue excelling at cello because it isn't REALLY the Gospel... like preaching or being a missionary." It is about being a person who allows God to use us as a means for his own glorification, right? But still I struggle. I really don't like the author's idea that if you aren't good at something you can't enjoy it... I wonder if she was never good at something or just never enjoyed any thing. haha! :-) Good topic!!!

Katie Wo Go said...

I love your follow up comment to Marci as well as the article itself. I have a tendency to draw lines between the sacred and the secular that I know in truth are not there. Part of my semi-fundamentalist upbringing I guess but something I am actively trying to overcome because it has not worked we'll for me. Seeing every action, from scrubing pots to homework to a business deal as a way to use our God given talents honors the fact that God infuses every aspect of our lives. When I see an Olympian perform well, I thank God for her talent, "Look at the beautiful girl You made and how wonderfully her body works." And the hope an inspiration of the Games in general prompt us towards being our best selves.

Katherine Willis Pershey said...

Oh man, that video just made me BAWL.

I thought you'd appreciate this post: http://thinkchristian.net/why-christians-shouldnt-play-the-tiger-mother-game

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