Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Wu Minxia, Tiger Mothers and Jewish Parenting

BEING AN OLYMPIAN ISN'T EASY. But sometimes, it’s even harder to be an Olympic parent.

The parents of Olympians sacrifice mightily to support their children’s success. They wake up early and drive long distances to training sessions and matches; and many times, they have to send their children away to succeed. In the end, athletic success takes precedence over the parent child bond. One example of this is Wu Minxia, the exceptional Chinese diver who has won gold medals in three straight Olympics. Her father Wu Jueming described their relationship:

“We never tell her what’s happening at home,” Wu Jueming (said)…. “We even kept the news that her grandparents died from her. When grandma died, [Wu] seemed almost like she had a premonition, and she called us asking if she was okay. We had to lie; we told her, ‘everything’s okay.’ It’s been like this for so many years. We long ago realized that our daughter doesn’t belong to us completely. Enjoying the company of family? I don’t think about it. I don’t dare think about it."

More shocking is the fact that Wu Minxia’s parents are in London to watch her compete, but she and her parents have not spoken to each other. Her parents don’t want to distract her from her training.

U.S. Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman's parents watch her compete in London.
Have Wu Minxia’s parents gone too far? They have enabled their daughter to become an exceptional athlete, but at what cost?

Fundamentally, this type of extreme parenting raises the question of what parenting is all about. Some see pushing the child to personal excellence as the parent’s main role. For Wu Minxia parents, that might take the form of sports prowess, but that is not the only excellence that parents can, or should, push for. (That’s  a topic for another article).  Amy Chua, the author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” describes what she calls a “Tiger Mother”.  She explains that she demanded absolute success from her children, to the point that her daughters

“were never allowed to:
• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.”

What was shocking to many about Chua’s book is that she sacrificed her maternal love on the altar of her daughter’s success.  Would Judaism demand the same from our parents?

Judaism in many ways appreciates the ethos of tiger parenting.  A parent is not a mere nurturer; as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik puts it, true parenting is meant to be “covenantal parenting”. It‘s not enough to give a child a secure home; it’s a parent’s job to raise the child to spiritual and intellectual excellence. Covenantal parenting demands that we raise exceptional Jews; and for generations, Jewish parents have sent their children away from home to find personal greatness. The Talmud (Megillah 16b) records a tradition the Jacob was sent by his family to study for 22 uninterrupted years at the academy of Shem and Ever; and ever since, parents have been sending away their children to yeshivot, to achieve spiritual excellence.  My own son will be traveling in weeks’ time to spend a year at an Israeli yeshiva.  I’ll miss him a lot, of course. But when I was his age, I went away from home to study for many years; now it’s his turn to search for Jewish excellence. I definitely understand what extreme parenting is all about.

But at the same time, extreme parenting seems so…extreme. Maimonides sees true virtue in moderation, finding a way to reconcile multiple virtues and values. And the parent-child bond, a bond of love, is cherished in Biblical literature. Maimonides in the Moreh Nevukhim (3:48) explains the Biblical rule that requires one to  send away the mother bird before taking her eggs or chicks. He sees the purpose of this commandment as being based on compassion for the mother, to prevent her from getting upset as she sees her chicks taken away. To Maimonides, the concern of a mother for a child is the same, both in animal and in man, and even the animal's love for a child deserves our concern. And the lesson here is that if humanity wants to merit “long days”, they must treat the parent-child attachment, even the parent-child attachment of birds, with respect. And that's what is missing in Amy Chua's parental vision. Yes, Tiger Parenting builds exceptional children; but it also builds mediocre families.

Should Jews be Tiger Mothers?  Probably not. We believe in excellence, but we believe in loving families as well. If the cost of giving up extreme parenting is one or two fewer champions, then so be it.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is an Orthodox rabbi in Montreal. He blogs at the Happiness Warrior and is on Twitter at @RabbiChaim.