Not everyone likes me. I’ve done some bad things.
I didn’t get straight As. I swear too much. I am not religious, I am not even particularly kind. I may or may not have been arrested. I’ve been unemployed for long stretches. I drink a lot. And I once killed a man for touching my fries.
Are those failings my parents’ fault? And, more importantly, will my sons’ shortcomings, personality defects and general life mistakes be my fault? Conversely, how much credit should we take for our kids’ success? And how much should we care about it?
A few weeks back, some Asian lady caused an uproar with her book about how she hates her kids and doesn’t care if they hate her, so long as they get 2400 on the SATs. (Is that a perfect score these days? I have no idea. All I know is there’s an essay section, which means that any kid with half a brain can inflate his score by bullshitting, so long as he uses correct grammar.) I’m not entirely sure why everyone is so outraged by this lady’s book, I mean, have you ever met an Asian teenager? It’s not exactly groundbreaking news that they are good at studying. And they don’t drive good!
I don’t yet know what kind of parent I’m going to be. I’m still in the “just make sure he doesn’t die” phase of this thing; actually raising the kid is a ways off. But even though I think a lot of the typical hard line stances towards parenting are crap, I’ll know I’ll still be employing some harsh tactics, especially early on. There are some lessons that need to be ingrained before he can think for himself and thus – inevitably and naturally – rebels. It’s my job to give him something to rebel against, but I don’t have to go all “Tiger Mom” and make that something everything. That’s how you end up with a sheltered, well-behaved basket case who drinks himself to death the first time he gets out of the house.
It’s all a balancing act. There has to be a baseline of values and expectations and good behavior in order for my wife and I to grant some leeway and allow flexibility down the line. And while I’m more than willing to go full drill instructor in order to ensure he’s better equipped to be happy when he’s older, I’m not willing to abuse his childhood just to program him for a type of success that has no road map anyway. Just ask Bill Gates or Barack Obama or Mark Zuckerberg or the homeless guy with the golden voice or Sasha Grey or The Situation. Not a single one of them followed the same trajectory, and all of them have achieved something.
Amy Chua makes a big deal about her kids getting straight As. Most anyone who has gotten past high school and college will tell you that grades are important to open some doors, but far more important are the connections you make and the people you know. And the money your family has and the color of your skin. Grades are great and all, and I am certainly going to beat the shit out of my son every time he gets anything less than a B+, but one of the benefits of living through that stuff is having gained some wisdom and perspective from it. The trick is not letting your kids know how little it matters. And in that regard, being a psychopathic martinet works wonders. But I find it hard to believe her kids enjoy spending time with their mom. Does that matter?
When I went to college, I skipped a fair amount of classes. I had a roommate who never missed any, despite an addiction to making mix-tapes and counting calories, and he would shake his head at me and tell me I was wasting my parents’ money. But I didn’t see it so starkly. College isn’t just about book learnin’, it’s about learning how to be independent, learning how to be social and coexist with other people, learning how to get really drunk without painting your face blue or getting your ass kicked; in short, it’s about learning how to live. There’s a reason most kids “go off” to college; it’s meant to impart different lessons than high school. And there are different ways of learning those lessons.
I look at parenting the same way. Yes I want my kids to be smart and successful, but I also want them to be well-adjusted and happy. It’s about striking a balance between going to class and having fun. Between being a kid and learning to be an adult. Deprivation has a place, but so does freedom. Discipline has its place, but so do rewards.
Odds are I’m going to fall on the “Western parent” side of things, since neither my wife nor I are Asian, but that doesn’t mean my kid is going to end up homeless and miserable. Hell, I’d rather he end up homeless and happy than rich and miserable. It’s my job to make sure happiness isn’t about success. Success helps, obviously, but it’s not the end-all, and it’s meaningless if it’s borne from and results in misery.
The actual end-all? Facebook friends.