Friday 25 May 2012

Tiger Mothering and Me

I've just finished a book I've been meaning to read for ages, and finally got round to: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. For those of you who haven't heard of it, it is the controversial story of how Chua (a Yale law professor) applied Chinese Mothering principles to bringing up her daughters in the US. This involved, among other things, a strict regime of many hours of music practice a day; never being allowed to get less than a A on a test; and not being allowed playdates, sleepovers, TV or to be involved in anything as frivolous as a school play. Chua's thesis is that Western parents are too relaxed, and are therefore failing their children, whereas Asian parents push their children to succeed, often with amazing results.

Chua does admit that although her elder daughter appeared to thrive on this approach (she ends up playing piano in Carnegie Hall), her younger daughter rebelled and she has now 'taken a step back' from such ferocious Tiger Mothering. But apart from that, she is fairly unrepentant about her methods. (NB Chua says that anyone can be a 'Chinese' mother - it is the style, rather than the race, that is important.).

It's an interesting book because it got me thinking about how I bring my children up. I'm pretty relaxed; not to the extent where they can do what they like all the time, but I'm not particularly restrictive about playdates, TV or sleepovers for instance. On the other hand, there are some ground rules; they have to do homework as perfectly as they can (if it 's messy, I make them rub it out and do it again); they can't give up on an activity just because they don't feel like it that day (I've paid for these swimming lessons, so they're damn well going to do them!); they can only play games on the iPad at a specific time of day (and they haven't been allowed a Wii, a Playstation or anything like that - yet).

I'm very, very far from being a 'Chinese Mother', and I spent most of the book thinking 'how could she do that to her kids?" and wondering if it would permanently damage her relationships with her kids, particularly the younger one, in later life. But it did make me wonder - should I be pushing the boys  harder?

For example, Littleboy 1's piano teacher seems to think he's quite talented - if I made him practice for hours each day, would he become really, really good? Since reading the book, I feel I've already become a little more rigorous about enforcing practice. On the other hand I'm loathe to push him at something he already enjoys, and put him off entirely.

Then there's the academics. The boys are definitely going to be behind somewhat we return to the UK, due to US schooling starting later, so we will need to do some extra work over the next year. But the question is, should we be ensuring they're 'two years ahead of their peer group in maths', as Chua suggests, in order to ensure their future success in life? Is that the only way, in this ultra-competitive world, to give them a passport into a good school/college/job? (And being even more philosophical about it, does that equal happiness anyway?).

I do agree somewhat with Chua's point that children don't really know what they want, and if you give them free rein they will just choose to watch TV and eat chocolate. You do have to 'make' them do some things. But then there's going too far. Do you really want them to be little automatons, who are only good at mathematics or music because they've spent hours preparing, rather than because of natural flair and talent? Should you not encourage their interests, rather than enforce ones that you've chosen for them?

In the end, I think I'll have to say no to tiger mothering. I think I'd rather be a domesticated cat. But maybe one who occasionally shows her claws.

Tiger Picture: Copyright Littleboy 2.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Picture Postcard from my Sunday run

I recently (well, about six months ago) took up running, and to my surprise have become a huge enthusiast. I've gone from complete novice to someone who can easily run six miles and not feel stiff the next day; from someone who hated running to someone who actually looks forward to the next outing, and enjoys spends her hard-earned money at Dick's Sporting Goods on the latest running gear. I try to run three times a week for at least five miles; longer at the weekend. I'm doing a 10K race in Central Park in a couple of weeks' time, and I'm thinking a half marathon could be the next step.

The old me would have thought myself completely nuts, but the truth is that running is quite addictive. Once you break through the barrier of that first few miles, you get into your stride and into your 'zone' and it genuinely becomes easier. (I also feel fitter than I have ever done in my life, and am fitting into pre-pregnancy clothes I'd completely given up on - which is an incentive in itself).

But you know what also makes it easier? The environment in which you run.  I did enjoy my runs in England while I was over. Greenwich Park was beautiful, with its stunning views over London and its grand Wren architecture. Running in the West Berkshire countryside also had its moments (although I found the cars whizzing down country lanes at 60mph quite terrifying, and felt quite embarrassed running with my iPhone strapped to my arm as I passed farmers with tractors and sheepdogs - spot the New Yorker!).

Here on the North Shore of Long Island, the scenery is pretty good too. We live on a peninsula surrounded by water, and whether I'm gazing at the boats in the bay, the over-the-top mansions and gardens in the nearby millionaires' enclave or just the local duckpond, there's always something to admire. You get to see some wildlife too; I've spotted foxes, chipmunks and even a wild turkey (not to mention the Sunday morning cyclists showing off their calf muscles).

Anyway, last Sunday I did something unusual, and stopped for a water break half way through a seven mile run. It is getting hot here now, but that wasn't the only reason. I also stopped to take a photo on my phone of the view of Long Island Sound, above.

So, this is is my picture postcard. An empty stretch of scrubby beach, on a Sunday morning in springtime, and the view across the Sound to Westchester County with Connecticut in the distance. It's not the Maldives, but on a gorgeous, cloudless New York morning, nothing beats it. Wish you were here.

This post is for The Gallery - which has now reached its 100th post anniversary. Go Tara!

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Some things I love about America....

I walked into the Post Office today to mail a letter and there was one man in front of me, who wanted to buy one 'mailer' box ( a box with pre-paid postage on it). It should have been a simple transaction, but the man behind the counter took it into his head to ask him about a million questions. Was it really the right size box for what he wanted to send? Did he not want to look at other, cheaper, options? What was it that he was sending? Did he need additional bubble wrap? and so on and so forth.

I suppose if I had been in a real hurry I might have found this annoying, as he was holding me up, but instead it occurred to me that this is one of the things I love about America*. The personal touch really is still there in customer service. Some people say that it's all just fake, all this 'have a nice day" business, and sometimes that's true, but on the whole, people really are genuinely trying to help. Contrasted with the surliness that is so much a feature of service in the UK these days, it's refreshing.

Americans are, on the whole, very positive. Have a workman round to your house to sort out a leaking washing machine or dripping tap and he'll be polite, helpful, chatty and full of different ideas or solutions for sorting it out. This is not to say that it will definitely work - it may well not. But the attitude is good. No sighing grimly and shaking his head as he tells you it's going to be expensive and difficult to fix. That 'computer says no' attitude that Little Britain captured so well just doesn't exist so much here (although there are exceptions, notably the IRS and the Department for Motor Vehicles).

Both The Doctor and I have found that there's a 'can-do' attitude here, too, when it comes to our own work. Yes, there's generally more money around, and that helps. But people are less likely to moan about work, and to suggest new ideas and get on with things than at home. And I love the way that Americans are anything but understated. Last week, I went to an ad industry awards do in Manhattan for work. I've been to countless affairs like this back in London, and they tended to be fairly stuffy - a dinner in a hotel ballroom, with everyone seated at round tables getting steadily more drunk, while some hired 'personality' tries (and usually fails) to be funny about the industry and hands out the awards.

In New York, it was more like the Oscars. All the food and drinks happened in a cocktail hour before we were called to attend the ceremony itself, which took place in a theater at the prestigious Lincoln Center. The winning ads projected were onto a big screen in slickly edited montages, as at the Oscars or Baftas, and the Master of Ceremonies was an actor who has appeared in some of the funniest ads over here. In England, all this no doubt would have been thought rather 'over the top'. But you only have to look at the differences between the UK and US X-Factor to know that it's just the American way. In America, everything is a production and you can never be too enthusiastic. And you know what? In spite of my outer calm British reserve, I rather love it.

*This post was prompted by a post over at The American Resident, in which Michelloui asked fellow expat bloggers to share their positive thoughts about living overseas.

Monday 7 May 2012

A "bad choice...."

Never let it be said that being the mother of two little boys is not educational.

The scene: Saturday afternoon, and we are at a beach playground, trying out Littleboy 1's new bike, his seventh birthday present. It's the day before his nature-themed party at a wildlife centre; having spent what seems like weeks preparing for all eventualities, I am all ready (despite the fact that not all the Mums have replied yet to my Evite invitation. One of them does, finally, at midnight that night, to say yes. Then, in the morning, she changes her reply to no. The Doctor and I joke that she must have been drunk for the first reply, hungover for the second. Although perhaps it's not a joke...).

The boys abandon their bikes and go to play on the huge climbing frame, which is built in the style of a pirate ship. There are two little girls there also playing, their father nearby. The Doctor and I are seated some way off, relieved that at last we don't need to police the boys quite so closely in the playground, as at five and seven, they are fairly independent.

 Suddenly, there is an anguished howl - from the birthday boy. Then Littleboy 2's voice, clear as a bell, rings out. "Your penis is on fire!" he says to his brother, with an intonation half of incredulity and half (I am afraid to say) of glee.

We both sprint towards the playground, my main priority at this point being to give Littleboy 2 a round telling off for shouting loudly about penises in the playground (I've told him, I really have...). Littleboy 1 I am not so worried about - he's always hurting himself and can be a bit of a drama queen. Then I see my firstborn - running towards me, trousers down, blood spurting from his crotch and all over his clothes. Suddenly, Littleboy 2's description does not seem inaccurate.

 The Doctor and I stand there, gaping, for a second.

We go into action. The Doctor runs off for the First Aid kit in the car, as I frantically throw my fleece at Littleboy 1's nether regions in an effort both to staunch the blood flow and cover him up. (The little girls and father in the playground are desperately trying not to look.) I try to keep calm for Littleboy 1, who is crying and asking things like "Am I going to die?", but actually I am beside myself - what has he done exactly? Will this mean a trip to the ER? Will he be OK for his party? And, most importantly, has he ruined his sex life forever?

The Doctor returns, applies a bandage and has a proper look, diagnosing a tiny tear in the foreskin. "It's a very vascular area," he pronounces, drawing on his full knowledge of anatomy. Oh- kay........

I am glad to say that it recovered; the blood stopped, there was no discernible injury, and no trip to the ER. I am still not sure exactly what he did, other than throwing himself at some kind of pole to slide down it. But one thing is for sure; he will not be doing it again.

"That was a bad choice, wasn't it?" he says to me later, when I am giving him a little talk about how it's a sensitive area and he should be more careful.

"Yes," I agree."It was."