Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Yelling - can it be right?

Is yelling at your kids really so wrong?

The message out there in the larger culture seems to be yelling = bad. We can't abide yelling when teachers and principals do it to kids, unless they're in the inner city doing a tough love-style modern version of Stand and Deliver (see the excellent book "Work Hard Be Nice" about the KIPP schools.) But it seems to be something that primarily happens in the privacy of our own homes, when it is a parent disciplining their own child.

The reason for this post is I'd like to clarify my own thinking about yelling. Does it depend on what we mean exactly by "yelling"? DH and I certainly yell at our kids sometimes, and I'm not so sure our brand of yelling is always the big awful kid-harming problem society makes it out to be. But is that just my own self-serving bias talking because I don't want to have to change the way I parent? 

The first time I ever met somebody who had never been yelled at as a child by their parents I was like "Who are these mythical Zen parents?" I wondered. Honestly, how does one spend 18 years raising a child without ever raising their voice or losing their shit even once? For real? I'm in awe.

I so often read about (mothers, always mothers) on the internets feeling guilty for even occasionally speaking harshly towards their kids. There are even webinars you can take to supposedly teach you how to stop yelling at your kids. I recall something in the NYT about yelling being the new spanking. (Um, nice try, but no.) Some folks say they feel guilty for having to do even basic, garden-variety discipline. I guess despite my own Catholic upbringing, guilt is an emotion I hardly ever feel. I yell at my kids, and I never feel guilty about it. The times I felt my own yelling went too far (2 occasions), I've immediately apologized to my kids and we've talked about my triggers (when the kids fight physically, break things, and won't stop whining), and how we can all make better choices next time. Perhaps that helped me avoid feelings of guilt.

Whenever I think of yelly parents, I'm reminded of when Alec Baldwin got called a Bad Dad for getting caught on tape yelling at his then 12-ish-year-old daughter who IIRC did something I would have possibly yelled at my kid about, something like not showing up somewhere and not calling. My first thought was how as a kid, I was treated to a lot worse by my folks for doing a lot less. Certain name calling on the other hand, I'm sure that can be quite damaging. (Just to be clear, for me yelling and name calling are two entirely separate behaviors that might sometimes intersect.)

I was raised by two loving (slightly-fucked up but still by all measures wildly successful) parents who are yellers. My mom would yell maybe twice a month, but only ever at my dad and/or me, never, ever, ever at anyone else on the planet. The Dr. Phil term "rageaholic" just might describe her perfectly - she would let things boil up inside her, then throw everything but the kitchen sink at us (the exact opposite of what communication in healthy relationships is supposed to be like.) By negative example, she taught me the importance of proactively naming and speaking the truth of my emotions. A well-placed "I'm really starting to feel irritated about this..." before the shit hits the fan, whether at work or at home, is my lifeline.

As an adult, my personality is much more like my dad's. He would yell maybe twice a year, usually in response to being yelled at for too long by my mother and always over something he thought was a ridiculously petty to argue about like housework, for which he definitely pulled his own weight -- and this, by the way, THIS is why DH and I see the outsourcing of our housework as an essential, nonnegotiable expense for which we'd gladly go into debt to preserve and we'd never drink another $4 latte to maintain. Seriously.

Here's the thing, I feel I had a very happy childhood. And I've actually analyzed my childhood probably more than is necessary, so we're not talking Drama of the Gifted Child here. I felt extremely loved and cherished. I'd even say my parents are really, really good ones in most respects, but my mom has some real personality issues that mostly now just affect her. They are absolute superstar grandparents who have perfect boundaries. Ever since I entered my 30's and they their 60's we've gotten along so well, I even catch myself daydreaming about having them live in a cottage on our property someday, if they ever both retire.

The childhood yelling baggage I'm carrying seems to tell me there are some kinds of yelling that should be avoided (the kids will have bad memories if they see mom and dad fighting but never making up, I think NurtureShock confirms that), but it is not always this awful end all, be all thing. Sometimes yelling is simply the truest reflection of one's authentic voice at a particular moment. What I appreciate only in hindsight about the yelling in my family-of-origin was that they always kept it real - I was given the freedom to truly express my emotions. It was only later, when I experienced other families secondhand where no one was ever allowed to be angry, anger was not tolerated, anger was not seen as "ladylike" (a friend's mom had a padded "angry room" in a crawl space she would hide herself in whenever she got mad, where so no one in her family could see and I saw the result of that was a whole lot of passive-aggressive crap I wouldn't wish on anyone. We've got to be able to express anger. We don't need to yell to express anger, but sometimes yelling is what we choose. I think it's ok to honor that.

Talk to me about your yelling, your lack thereof, your childhood yelling baggage, etc. I'm all ears.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Why I loved Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I just read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, aka "The Tiger Mom." You all must know of her, the Yale Law professor mother whose eldest daughter was accepted at Harvard and Yale, who makes scores of American parents feel insecure whether or not they've read her book, right?

That's what I used to think anyway, until I actually took the time to hear her out. (Thanks, book club and local library!)

I loved the book.

I can also see why her ideas are extremely confronting for folks.

Before I dive into some of those ideas after the jump, my basic take on the mass hatred of her book is that in large part the hate is about anti-intellectualism; if she had instead used her intense methods to help her daughters win Olympic gold, I can guarantee you people would be applauding her instead of reviling her.

The hatred is also in part about our general reluctance to even question our closely-held beliefs about What Kids Really Need. As if every kid needs the exact same things at all times.

As I see her so much more clearly now, Professor Chua was trying to be vulnerable by examining her parenting and her own family of origin - all of it, in context, the good, the bad, and the ugly - while also attempting to be funny and humble about it. However, like certain ex-nerds of the emotionally-not-always-terribly-bright variety (i.e. yours truly), she often misses her mark and comes across as painfully tone deaf. She struggles to find her authentic voice within the memoir form. After her second child "rebelled" against her methods, she says, "I got my comeuppance." But in the end, I think her honesty and vulnerability save the day. This is a deeply honest, searching book about both successes and mistakes.

By the way, MBTI shout-out (yes, I know there's no peer reviewed research to back it up, but I like it) I'm guessing she's either ISTJ or ESTJ. My own mom is ISTJ, and I had similar educational outcomes as Prof. Chua's daughter S, without nearly as much in-your-face parenting, so that makes me on the one hand sympathetic to Chua's approach, but also I'm never going to be One True Way about pretty much anything. So I can read a book like this one and I'm able to take or leave the ideas, without prejudice. I get that not everyone is so inclined, and that's fine too.

I kept wishing she had said more about how she actually made her parenting choices, particularly in terms of the way she describes her kids, and about how she so carefully structured their time.

Why didn't she use a word like "gifted" to describe her two daughters S and L? I got the sense they'd probably test profoundly gifted, based on descriptions of their unusual behaviors from ages 1-3. But she never called them "gifted" or anything even like it. That's perhaps in line with the old school Eastern beliefs with which she was raised (by her Chinese-diaspora immigrant parents) that says talents aren't innate or fixed -- diligent behaviors create talent over time. (She was certainly prescient about the 10k hours requirement to be an expert described Outliers, as well as Carol Dweck's research urging us to focus on effort.) I got the sense she saw her daughters as "gifted," but to her mind that probably meant "They can start very young, they will be able to meet my extremely high expectations, and they can tolerate a lot of feedback and pushing because they are more naturally inclined to thrive under my tough but loving set of challenges."

How did she decide S would devote herself to of all things, piano, while L would devote herself to violin? I wanted to hear more about how she decided that a musical focus, and these two instruments specifically, would be a fit. Music and school were their only activities. Wow. The older my kids get, the more shocking that idea becomes. Talk about confronting. Most of my friends have their 5+-year-olds in about 8 different activities in a given year. I think the ideological difference boils down to the question of would one rather be a jack of all trades with many interests in the hope that one or two of those interests eventually becomes a deep passion, but at the risk of never finding that elusive flow? Or would one rather set it up so one could virtually guarantee to become an expert at one main thing and hope that the lessons gained while on the journey to expertise create the lifelong ability to cross any finish line in life, but at the risk of having no true passions at all? I don't know the answer so I'll of course say "both." I can see the benefits and detriments of both approaches. "Depends on the kid" I think (not much of a conclusion, but I think that's closest to the truth.)

I also wished she had said more about being a working mother, and how they pulled off all of the amazing international travel they did as a family, and also where in the hell was Tiger Dad? They had essentially the same job demands as law professors. Why did it seem like the childrens' educational burden was 100% on their mother? I was surprised she didn't engage in any kind of quasi-feminist analysis other than the unsatisfactory, hey, I'm Chinese, he's Jewish. Different worlds. I care more about hands-on helping the kids succeed, he's more about protecting them from psychological harm, etc etc. He reportedly "supported her methods 99%," while not seeming to lift a finger.

So why read this provocative, controversial book that pretty much everyone else hates? If your kid is gifted you might learn something about how to help her cope with perfectionism, and hear about at least one way to help her attain a state of flow in something. If your kid is not intellectually gifted in all areas all the time, or you don't know yet, I would submit this book is also for you, especially the bit about how Prof. Chua reinforced math at home with drilling and flashcards. I loved the idea that math is learnable, no matter how you self-define. Don't limit ourselves thinking we're "bad" at math because it doesn't come easily - that's a bunch of b.s.! I love the idea to believe in your ability, and to put your time in, and to work closely with someone who truly cares about your success in life whether that's a parent, a teacher, a peer, or a mentor.

Enough said. Don't believe all the silly hater hype that the Tiger Mom sucks. Open your mind. Give her ideas a shot. And by all means, please don't make the mistake of taking her so damn personally.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

"The Deep Blue Sea" starring Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston

One of the things that always energizes me is watching a really special, beautifully-rendered movie that transports me to another time.

Want to spend an hour and a half in post-WWII London? You don't mind depictions of infidelity? You're ok with possibly getting your own heart a little broken by the end?

If so, you must check out this most delicious, devastating period film - The Deep Blue Sea dir. Terence Davies. (Not to be confused with the similarly-titled shark horror movie Deep Blue Sea starring Samuel L. Jackson and Saffron Burrows. Gah.) Unfortunately, The Deep Blue Sea is not available on my Netflix instant queue, so I rented online. Which reminds me how much I love the internets. I love, love, love that we're no longer bound by only whatever happens to be available to us locally. Hallelujah!

Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston (he was Loki in Thor) play these gorgeous young lovers in London circa 1950 who are in the midst of serious identity struggles. She's Hester, a suicidal woman who has recently left her safe, sexless, suffocating marriage to an older judge so she could follow her fleeting passion-- Freddie, a former RAF pilot, who was only ever really happy and useful during the excitement of war. As you can well imagine, after a time, their love's reality doesn't match up with the initial fantasy. Let's just say they're all a mess, their motivations remain enigmatic, and their performances are a treasure to watch.

The supporting cast is also amazing. Hester's mother-in-law is unforgettable, as is the no-nonsense apartment manager, with her spot-on explanation to Hester of what real love is.

As both a history buff and an Anglophile, I was so delighted by the scenes of communal singing - "You Belong To Me" at the pub and "Molly Malone" in the tube. I imagine this was a popular pastime in the British pre-television era. Almost as though it was acceptable for the crowd to emote, but the individual must always keep that stiff upper lip.

This shadowy, mournful, wistful film is definitely not for everyone. It's based on a play from the 50s, so if you love old school dramatic theatre you'll probably enjoy it. I know it's one that will definitely stay with me.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Wake me up when September ends

Crazy, full, active, wonderful month here at Casa Hush, hence the lack of blogging.

I'm training for a 5k that will take place at Thanksgiving time, trying to beat my PR of 25 minutes. (Anyone want to virtually join me? I double dog dare you to sign up for a local "Turkey Trot" where you live.) I run to help keep my blood pressure within the normal range. My family history of heart disease sucks. I recently invested in an at-home blood pressure monitor that I like - the Omron 7 Series Plus. It was about $50 at Costco.

Both of my kids are at the same Montessori this year. It rocks. They love it. They are speaking a ton of Mexican Spanish, and have even started using some funny slang that I don't always understand. Like "chongo" (translation: a hair thingy). Awesome.

Over the weekend, we went swimming outdoors for what was probably the last time this year. This was the summer that DS finally learned to swim independently and in the deep end. He loves to show off by doing back flips off the diving board. DD is not far behind. If only she were a bit taller, she'd be able to touch the bottom in the shallow end and would have a lot more confidence. I think it helped that we never put them in "floaties" or life jackets (unless we're on a boat, of course.)

Fall is closing in. I went for a run in the crisp, cool air this morning. Work has finally gotten a lot less busy this week, so I suddenly have more time to play, instead of needing to be at my computer and phone at the butt crack of dawn.

Some friends came to visit last week. They're expecting their first baby in January. They kept asking us for advice. "Trust your instincts" was the basic summation of all I could come up with. Apparently, I am only able to give real advice anonymously and online.

We'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming next week. ;)