The trampoline, that upset them. We bought one of the big round ones for our eldest’s sixteenth birthday a few years ago, and parents we knew (mothers more than fathers) were appalled that we’d bought such a dangerous thing and horrified that our children were allowed to jump on it when we were not there. Fortunately, no one ever asked how many children we let on the trampoline at one time, since sometimes all four jumped on it at once.
Being yuppies, some of these parents insisted on telling us that they were appalled and horrified, and on parading before us their own meticulous care for their children and their anticipation and avoidance of all the possible dangers with which this sad world is loaded. Like we cared.
Once at a cookout, our youngest son and another boy, both seven or eight, were bouncing from opposite sides of the trampoline and bumping into each other in the middle, laughing hysterically as they fell down. Neither was a physically adventurous child, and they collided very gently. They loved the game, and would have played it for hours.
The other boy’s father and I were talking while we watched them, when the boy’s mother came over, drew her husband aside, and dressed him down in one of those hissed conversations that carry farther than intended. She was shocked at his carelessness in letting their son do something so dangerous. He came back and broke up the game.
If our older son had played the same game at the same age with his friends, they would have been bruised and possibly bloody, and the bruises and the blood would have been part of the pleasure. (This would have been true of me as well.) I can hear him telling the story later, in an excited, slightly boastful voice, explaining how we were knocking each other down and then we ran into each other really hard and we both got bloody noses and, mom, there was blood all over the place! And he would have been a happier boy for it.
Sometimes I feel we are the only parents left who would enjoy hearing our son say that there was blood all over the place. I am tempted to believe that I, only I am left, but of course there are others. But in certain areas and in certain social circles, not many. And in certain family sizes, like those with one or two children, almost none.
I thought of the yuppie parents and the upset mother when reading the discussion on the web of a Yale law professor’s now famous article on being a Chinese “tiger mother.” It seems clear to me that so many people responded so strongly to the article because they fear for their children’s futures. As far as I can tell, many of her critics and her supporters react to her article from fear or anxiety: the first because they fear the effect of such techniques on their children, the second because they fear the effects upon their children of the alternatives.
The second, I think, suffer the most anxiety, because while they worry about the alternatives, they will not adopt the tiger mother style, which is just too alien, too different from the dominant, affirming style of affluent American parenting. Most of us would feel a little silly, if not false, talking like Professor Chua.
In any case, many parents are running scared.
I didn’t pay much attention when John Paul II was elected, nor to his first sermon as pope, but some years later when I first came across his declaration “Be not afraid,” I thought it a pretty lame declaration with which to start one’s work. It seemed to me a platitude like “brush between meals” and “eat more fiber,” not a call to arms. Yeah, sure, whatever, I thought. Biblical slogans are a dime a dozen.
But I was still young then and had not seen how many ways the world has to make you afraid. Just have children and a world of imagined and unimaginable horrors will present itself to you, and minor inconveniences or hurts will appear to be losses from which your child will never recover, and every decision and choice one that can lead as easily to misery as to success. Oddly enough, affluence does not necessarily make you feel more secure, but usually just multiplies the reasons you can find to be afraid and increases the triviality of the results you fear.
I had not seen how hopes quickly become fears, and how the deepest hopes become the worst fears, and how the fallen heart can manufacture reasons to be afraid even from blessings, like education. You might believe, sincerely, when your child is eight or ten that the only education you want for him is one that will teach him what he needs to know about literature and art and history, which can be provided at any number of schools, including the cheap and unknown ones.
You imagine him taking his degree from some obscure college, getting a job, and reading Shakespeare for fun in the evening. You can feel a little smug about the parents you know who spend thousands to get their children into the best schools and then put the decal with the school’s name on the back window of their car.
But when your child reaches sixteen or seventeen, you think of how hard the job market can be, and how soul-destroying are so many jobs, and how insecure and unstable they are, and how hard it will be to marry and start a family with that kind of job, and what advantages accrue from graduating from the better colleges, and how much better than others some of the better colleges are, and then how hard the best ones are to get into. You hear the horror stories of top students rejected, hear about the competition’s advantages, with wealthy parents buying their dullard all the tutoring and application-padding experiences he needs, hear about the notoriously hard and irrational grader your child has to take next semester.
Suddenly you fear that your child will only get into the obscure college and his life will be ruined, or at least that he will always have to struggle and will never be able to do what he could. You may know that this feeling is foolish, but knowing that you are being foolish does not make you any the less anxious. Suddenly you’re as neurotic and fearful and driving as the yuppie parents you used to look down upon.
And suddenly, if you’re blessed, you’ll hear our Lord say through the pope, “Be not afraid.” It will be no longer a platitude, but the Dominical instruction that directs your life to its proper ends. Your child can be a saint with a degree from the obscure college as well as the elite one, a truth fear quickly drives straight from your mind. The parent is happier who does not fear for the means because Christ has secured the end.
David Mills is Deputy Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Amy Chua’s Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.
Todd Zywicki’s Roar of the Lion Father, comparing Dr. Chua’s view with Anthony Esolen’s, as contained in his book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child.