Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tiger Mom - Jewish Mom / Parshat Terumah

The Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, has been the focus of several family conversations of late. Anyone who doesn’t live in a cave is aware that Amy Chua wrote The Battle Hymm of the Tiger Mother and a WSJ piece, and was featured in Time Magazine and countless interviews, where she described her childrearing practices, which include depriving her children of rest, nourishment, and use of the bathroom until they master a skill she considers important. She controls their activities and social life, forbidding everything she considers extraneous and trivial (like sleepovers, school plays – unless her child is the lead – and most sports). She employs demeaning language and demands that they not only bring home only As, but be the best student in their classes in all academic subjects. Some have described her as cruel and heartless, but Chua insists that it is her love and devotion to her daughters that drives her. She derides the Western emphasis on self-esteem that is not tied to accomplishment. In that regard, I can agree with her: the piles of meaningless certificates and trophies in our house attest to the nonsense pervasive in our society of pumping kids up with empty praise to produce a false sense of self-esteem that more leads to narcissism than accomplishment.

Amy Chua believes she is eliciting from her children their best, and both gifting them with her high standards and developing in them their gifts. This week we open to Parshat Terumah, whose very name means “donation” and speaks of the gifts the Israelites brought unbidden and with love to build the Tabernacle in the wilderness.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. (Exodus 25:1-2)
Torah tells us that the Israelites were so enthusiastic and generous that eventually God told Moses:
“The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done.” Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done. (Exodus 36:5-6)
No one stood over the Israelites depriving them of food or bathroom privileges to coerce them to bring gifts. Indeed: is it a gift if it is coerced? Just as significantly to me, the Israelites brought genuine gifts to the Tabernacle – they came from a sense of devotion, love, and dedication to God and community. Chua’s children develop their “gifts” purely for themselves and their demanding mother. I wonder if they have any sense of contributing to anything beyond themselves.

The little book of “Haikus for Jews” by David M. Bader includes this gem:
Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I’ve done?
Yet if you ask most Jewish parents what is most important to them in raising children, they will not mention Nobel Prizes. They will say: a mensch. I prize most my children’s integrity, compassion, generosity of spirit, and kindness toward others. These are their greatest gifts, and the greatest gifts they give the world, and I feel inordinately delighted that they all possess much of each. No amount of berating, insulting, demeaning, demanding, and deprivation will nurture integrity, compassion, generosity of spirit, and kindness in a child. If they have other gifts – intellectually, musically, artistically – I am delighted to nurture these, as well, but they are not essential, and I cannot imagine developing them at the expense of what is truly important.

When our children enter the world, we recite a blessing over them that does not mention straight As, becoming violin or piano virtuosos, or being the best student in every class. Rather we bless them with a life of Torah, Chupah, and Ma’asim tovim – Torah learning and living; a happy, satisfying, and loving marriage; and a life filled with good deeds. This Jewish Mom is no Tiger Mom. This Jewish Mom believes the traditional blessing over our children says it all: we want for them a life of Torah – connected to God, their people, and the values we cherish. We want for them loving and satisfying relationships. We want them to go out into the world and do good because their value system is one in which they use their gifts to gift those around us. May all our children be so blessed.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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