Parenting Styles and Self Esteem at Age 33

At first glance Tina Fey’s autobio Bossypants is a quick, light, summer beach-type read that some may assume she wrote to capitalize on her growing fame. In actuality, it contains lots of important insights about class, sexual orientation, parenting practices, sexism, and the creative process. I dig her humor, her writing, her politics, her toughness.

One would have to credit her dad, Don Fey, with her toughness. In an early chapter she tells his story. She ends that chapter with this:

My dad has visited me at work over the years and I’ve noticed that powerful men react to him in a weird way. They “stand down”. The first time Lorne Michaels met my dad, he said afterward, “Your father is. . . impressive.” They meet Don Fey and it rearranges something in their brain about me. Alec Baldwin took a long look at him and have him a firm handshake. “This is your dad, huh?” What are they realizing? I wonder. That they’d better never mess with me, or Don Fey will yell at them? That I have high expectations for the men in my life because I have a strong father figure? Only Colin Quinn was direct about it. “Your father doesn’t fucking play games. You would never come home with a shamrock tattoo in that house.”

My dad, also named Don, would have liked Don Fey. My siblings and I, like the peeps who worked for him, had a healthy fear of my dad. He was tough-minded, but never even close to abusive. We were taught to answer the phone, “Byrnes residence, Ron speaking.” Of course he just answered it, “Don Byrnes”. We learned the planets didn’t revolve around us.

In the later stages of Bossypants TF writes:

I have once or twice been offered a “mother of the year” award by working-mom groups or a mommy magazine, and I always decline. How cold they possibly know if I’m a good mother? How can any of us know until the kid is about thirty-three and all the personality dust has really settled?

Amen to that. I have a good fifteen years to go before you can judge my parenting. I don’t pretend to have it all together.

In a chapter titled, “The Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter,” Fey writes:

And when she one day turns on me and calls me a Bitch in front of Hollister, give me the strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a cab in front of her friends, for I will not have that Shit. I will not have it.

Fey, based upon her unparalleled genius for self-deprecation, has self-esteem to spare. Similarly, I would score well on a self-esteem eval. My guess is, Alice Fey, TF’s five year old, is going to have above average self-esteem. Why? In part because her mom will not have that Shit.

I suspect many of my peers with children would say the “old school” parents named Don from the 60’s and 70’s weren’t nearly affectionate enough. But sometimes modern day affection-based parenting crosses over into an “I’m going to be my child’s older more stable friend” approach to child-rearing that I’m guessing results in 33 year-olds with more self-esteem issues than the children of more strict, less therapeutic “old school” parents like the Dons.

I think the GalPal and I have done an admirable job splitting the difference. We’re affectionate with our daughters, but they also know we have clear limits and always expect to be respected. They’d probably say we’re one-part touchy-feely, one part, will not have that Shit.

[Postscript—thinking about this further, maybe strict but loving parenting contributes to children’s later resilience more than it does their self-esteem. I’ve theorized about where self esteem comes from before here.]

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

The title of a new book by Amy Chua, a Yale law prof, guaranteed to create more conversation about parenting methods than any other book in ages. I read an excerpt in last week’s Wall Street Journal, and today, three different reviews.

Readers will either love or hate her story of how she’s raised her teenage daughters. From an Amazon marketing blurp: Here are some things Amy Chua would never allow her daughters to do, have a playdate, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, not play the piano or violin.The truth is Lulu and Sophia would never have had time for a playdate. They were too busy practicing their instruments (two to three hours a day and double sessions on the weekend) and perfecting their Mandarin.

A few more excerpts:

• Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting.”

• Chinese parents understand nothing is fun until you’re good at it.

• I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

Chua’s book-based Wall Street Journal piece titled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” is clear and provocative. I told the GalPal it would receive a record number of comments. So far it’s received 3,500 including this excerpted one by Angela Zhou:

I’m disgusted by this essay. Perhaps I’m biased, being a Chinese-American daughter myself, but doesn’t that give me a voice on this issue as well?

I’ve had it better than most of my friends who grew up with the so-called “Eastern” method of parenting, although the method itself transcends culture. I don’t think that any amount of piano or violin accolades, nor straight A’s, justify the extremities of this approach. I’ve experienced both sides of Eastern and Western parenting as my parents have mellowed over the years, comfortable and confident in my ability to forge my own path. Without coercion. I have memories of hiding on the top shelf of the closet when I was 9 years old, feeling like an absolute failure because I wasn’t like Suzy across the street, I didn’t have this piano award, I didn’t play violin like everyone else did, because I just wasn’t good enough for their standards and their expectations. But I also remember that as I got older, I learned things on my own, things that couldn’t be taught by tutors or extra courses. And right now as a junior in high school, I’m fairly content with what I’ve done.

Yet I won’t ever be able to shake off that voice in my head that says I have to be better than everyone else, the voice that I’ve been hearing since I was born. It’s not enough to be happy and self-aware – I need the accomplishments to back that up. I have a pathological need to win empty awards and get high grades – because my self esteem is now equivalent to my accolades. I’ll admit that I got a 2400 on my SATs, one of the typical Asian paragons of achievement – but what has that done for ME? I’m not any happier for it. Meeting and surpassing my parent’s expectations has done nothing for me.

Part of the issue as I see it is that these “Asian” parents give us our lives through birth, and then they give us theirs. Are they living vicariously through opportunities they never had, instead ‘bestowing’ them upon their children? But what of the children – do they become just vehicles for their parent’s dreams?

And meanwhile, what of our dreams? What if our generation does want to study the liberal arts and drama – must our generation be burdened with the guilt of not fulfilling our parents’ dreams for ourselves?

There are moments when it seems worthwhile. When all of our blood, sweat, and tears seems to pay off, when maybe it isn’t so crazy after all.

But a life is more than the occasional happy moment – it is also the in-between intervals of coercion, unreachable expectations, stress and agony. And what kind of a life is one that becomes dependent on external approval, external recognition, and parasitically high self-expectations?

But I implore any parent, any reader out there – when raising a child, think of the child as a human being. We are not machines. We have feelings and dreams and hopes, and they are often not your dreams and hopes. Give us a chance to follow them. [end of comment]

Chua generalizes a lot. Not all Chinese-American young people are academic and musical all-stars. She’d probably say that’s because they don’t have true Chinese mothers. Despite problems with the excesses of her parenting methods, there’s no denying it’s as clear and provocative a description of a distinctive approach to parenting as has appeared in a long, long time. For me, the main take-away is that parenting excellence takes many forms. That notion of varied excellence sounds simple enough, but many people have a hard time embracing it, as if parenting is an acultural zero-sum game.

Put differently, if the destination is competent, caring, self-sufficient young adults, there are as many routes as there are small groups of people in the world. Chua puts it this way, “All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.”

The essay is thought provoking and deserves a careful reading.