Tiger mothers, their cubs and the kind of success that means nothing.

There has recently been much controversy over a book on parenting written by Amy Chua, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I’m not going give you a synopsis because many have already done that. Being born and raised by over-intellectual and mediocrity-adverse Jewish parents myself, I can see some similarities of approach. Never accept anything less that the best from your kids. Forcefully impose a normative and mainstream value system that brooks no interrogation and is  measured only by the arbitrary esteem of others. Never allow your children to ‘waste time’ in pursuits that don’t directly lead to obvious success and the adulation of their peers (and the envy of yours).

Later in life, I came to teach, at a tertiary level, the offspring of parents like Amy Chua. They make supreme efforts in their studies. They never get a ‘B’. They produce their assignments by the number, ticking off the boxes of ‘the right thing to do’. They go through life as if there were a set of proscribed steps to success because they’ve been brainwashed by parents who think there is such a thing.

Here’s the problem. Realities shift. And they shift radically. And having no experience of the mundane things in life, they find it almost impossible to cope with drastic change. They ascribe so much value to the obvious and the evident and the traditional, that when a set of values change, they are lost. They’ll never invent Facebook or start Microsoft. They’ll find some niche for themselves within the crumbling brick and mortar of an dying and anachronistic world and cling on tight as the tremors of the onrushing future erode the structure.

They’ll never ask why being accomplished at playing the piano or the violin is irrelevant in the great scheme of things.  They’ll never question the arbitrariness of why playing electric guitar competently isn’t just as valuable, or why playing saxophone not very well was good enough for a President of the United States. They’re never going to be a mediocre patent clerk in Bern like Einstein. Or a Yale drop-out like Mark Zuckerberg. They’re never going to be the one in the meeting who comes up with the really crazy, off the wall idea. They’re never going to fail big and learn the biggest lesson of their lives from the experience of failing.

I’m not disagreeing with Amy Chua that middle and upper-class parents all over the world are creating spoiled, entitled kids with no work ethic – they are. But I can guarantee you that Mrs Chua’s girls are only going to be successful in the tiny world of the insignificantly elite. They will be secure and stable members of a self-serving subculture that pull down excellent salaries and live gray little lives while congratulating themselves on how successful they are at making no ripple and rocking no boats.

But then, they’ll also never have the memory of playing street football in the pouring rain and bare feet because your parents couldn’t afford runners. They’ll never understand the sheer stinky joy of durian ice cream for the first time. They’ll never have an old lady – a total stranger – take their hand and teach them how to cross an insanely jammed street in Bangkok. They’ll never feel the rush of getting caught in the Notting Hill Gate riots. They’ll never drink coffee on the street and be overwhelmed by the poignant irony that the man who is trying to polish their shoes has no legs.

Because if they ever, by mistake, do any of those things, they have not been prepared for what it is going to do to their value-structure. They’re not equipped to handle the discovery that all those things their parents thought were so important are subjective valuations with no real intrinsic meaning.

They’re been closeted and coddled into thinking that life is some big colouring book and if  you colour really well, within the lines, you’re going to be successful and happy and everything will be fine. And if anything happens to make them realize that their pencil choices are irrelevant, and the lines are really not as important as they thought and, heck, the whole damn colouring book is a useless joke, and it turns out the Emperor is totally naked, their entire universe is going to crumble.

But saddest of all, they are never, ever going to understand why the lady on my corner selling soup from a wheeled stall is living just as happy a life as they have. Probably happier.

Because what I learned at the age of 16 by telling my pushy, controlling over-achieving parents to fuck off, dropping out of a ridiculously expensive private school and finishing my secondary education living in a bed-sit in Brixton, is that there is no formula for success. Not the kind of success that really counts – the one where you lie on your deathbed and think: wow, I’ve had an extraordinary life. I studied out of passion. I was rich and I was poor and it made little difference to my happiness. I loved the world and I did my best to hurt no one on the way through it.

Ultimately, that is success. And it’s sad but true: Amy Chua doesn’t have the formula. There just isn’t one. The only really essential, valid and structurally sound value system is the one you develop on your own, through experience, through failure, through tears and through joy. And no parent, however well meaning or ambitious can give it to you. All they can give you is love and a few good examples. The rest is really up to you.

What strikes me as odd is that Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale, doesn’t have the intellectual wherewithal to interrogate the fundamental values she’s espousing and has so forcefully imposed on her children.  Once we’ve succeeded, biologically, in living long enough to reproduce and pumped a couple out, the concept of success becomes entirely subjective. That she is so utterly trapped within this culturally narrow and financially dominated definition of success speaks volumes for how little, in fact, she wants for her children. Not how much.

Meanwhile, I don’t have an answer to the problem of all the spoiled, entitled, goal-less children being produced. But my gut says it has a lot to do with the fact that the only role models we’ve been offering them for the past 30 years are self-serving, materialistic, superficial, arrogant lightweights who, each in their own way, conform deeply and fit in nicely to the consumerist society we’ve built.

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