Mar 222013
"To eat or not to eat," Photo by daniellehelm.  From the Flickr Creative Commons.

“To eat or not to eat,” Photo by daniellehelm. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Deep into my dieting experiment, counting calories obsessively, exercising, etc. I can’t help but wonder how this is different from having an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. According to Portia De Rossi’s book Unbearable Lightness, a memoir about her struggles with anorexia, there isn’t.

“[D]ieting . . . was another form of disordered eating. . . ‘Ordered’ eating is the practice of eating when you are hungry and ceasing to eat when your brain sends the signal that your stomach is full.”

–Portia De Rossi, Unbearable Lightness

Today, we see people obsessing about food all the time. If it isn’t calories, then it’s fat, sugar, gluten, carbs or labels like organic or vegan. It’s hard to feel comfortable and confident in your food choices. There is someone out there to judge you no matter what you choose to eat.

How do you know when your dieting has crossed the line into anorexia?

When you read Portia de Rossi’s autobiography, it is very clear that her anorexic eating patterns are not normal.

Some of the signs:

  • Needing specific bowls or eating utensils to eat her food
  • Eating exactly the same thing in exactly the same amounts
  • Worrying about how many calories ate in an unplanned snack and immediately exercising to lose them
  • Eating normally to be social then throwing up right after
  • Lies to her nutritionist and others about what she is eating (or not eating)

Take, for example this fictional magazine interview response she says is the honest response to questions about her then diet and exercise routine.

SHAPE: “Portia, tell us how you stay in shape?”

PORTIA: “I eat three hundred calories a day for as many days as I can before a photo shoot. The rest of the time I binge and purge.”

SHAPE: “What’s your favorite workout?”

PORTIA: “I’m afraid to work out at all because I’m worried that muscle definition makes people look bigger. I hate the look of fit, muscular women. I prefer the long, waiflike look of models who are most likely just as sick as I am.”

–Portia De Rossi, Unbearable Lightness

What causes someone to become anorexic?

There are certainly many causes but in Portia De Rossi’s case, she describes it this way:

“Average. It was the worst, most disgusting word in the English language. Nothing meaningful or worthwhile came from that word. . . . What kind of boring, uninspired life was I going to live if I was thought of as ‘average’ in any category?”

–Portia De Rossi, Unbearable Lightness

A large part of her desire to be thin was to solidify her uniqueness in life, to show the world how she was a special, unattainable ideal that no one could ever copy. Add in a dose of perfectionism, a serious competitive streak, a high-pressure industry focused on appearance, and a conflicted sense of self coming to terms with her homosexuality and anorexia is almost an unsurprising result.

What was her path out of anorexia?

There were many factors that helped Portia De Rossi recover from anorexia. Accepting herself as a lesbian and finding solid relationships (like her current marriage to Ellen DeGeneres) was a big part; realizing the medical harm she had done to her body by being so thin (down to 82 pounds at one point) was another; but there were two other factors that helped her control her obsessive dieting and exercise tendencies.

Her realization about eating what you want certainly rang true for me. Until this month, I have almost never censored what I eat.

“[L]iving without dieting sounded like a utopian philosophical ideal. That is, until I witnessed it at work with Francesca. A naturally thin woman who ate whatever she wanted and never gained or lost a pound was the most fascinating case study for [me] who had spent her life gaining and losing weight. I watched her eat pasta, candy, ice cream and cheese. I watched her dip her bread in olive oil and wash it down with Coke – real Coke, not diet—while I ate dry salads with no dressing and sipped iced tea. I was dumbfounded that I was eating boring, dry, diet food and maintaining or gaining weight during the course of any given month when she never even thought about what she ate or how her body looked. I was equally amazed as I watched her order food at restaurants and only eat a small portion of her order because she was too full to finish it or skip breakfast or lunch because she got a little too busy and simply forgot to eat. After initially dismissing her eating habits as a result of her just being one of those lucky people who can eat whatever they want and stay thin, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe people who stay thin are the people who eat whatever they want.”

–Portia De Rossi, Unbearable Lightness (emphasis added)

I worry about some parents who control every bite that goes into their children’s mouths fearful about weight gain or sugar-dependency. We have to be careful about encouraging health without making children become anxious about eating and laying the groundwork for eating disorders.

Her realization about exercise is something I had never thought of before but which makes a whole lot of sense. We tend to overemphasize that the reason we need to exercise is to stay thin. Portia De Rossi learned to see it another way:

“Another way for me to stay fit is to do activities where I can learn a skill, like horse riding or tennis or dancing. I find that if I can concentrate on getting better at something, rather than getting fitter or looking better, I accomplish all three things…”

–Portia De Rossi, Unbearable Lightness

2013-03-222-unbearablelightness Unbearable Lightness is a fascinating read, especially if you like Hollywood gossip. It took a huge amount of courage to write and has lessons for us all about the right and wrong ways to encourage healthy eating and exercise patterns.

Have you struggled with eating disorders? How do you respond to the above insight on diet and exercise? Please share in the comments.

Apr 182012

Our fairy ring of daffodils in bloom.

We had a beautiful ring of daffodils around our front tree this year. I can’t take credit for it. The previous owners put this in and it comes back year after year, thrilling my daughters with its blooms.

After the blooming, however, the greenery starts to get a little tired. It may also serve as a “nest” for deer who seem to like to lie in it and munch on my daylilies.

Daffodil leaves . . . post bloom and post-deer.

Looking at this mess of leaves, I remembered my post on the perfectionist gardener and the concept of braiding the leaves came into my head. I didn’t think I would ever become one of “those” gardeners. While individual small braids was out of the time commitment question, I went for a huge braid of the entire nest. It’s a bit sloppy but hey, aren’t messy braids the latest fashion trend?

The braided daffodil foliage.

Just a bit of fun . . . and it made it easier to weed underneath!

Feb 152012
Blue Screen of Death

"Blue Screen of Death." Photo by Taber Andrew Bain. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

The act of setting a goal triggers a perfectionist reflex in many people and particularly in successful people. If your goal is targeting an area of weakness, you may unrealistically assume that you can easily achieve the same stellar performance in your area of weakness as you do in your areas of strength if you just approach it in the same way.

Sadly, we often find that there is a good reason why it is an area of weakness for us and that perhaps part of the reason why it is an area of weakness is because the same strategies we are comfortable with and that lead us to success in other areas of our lives just don’t work for this particular problem.

So, when failure inevitably occurs, it is tempting for a perfectionist to assume:

1) “This must be a sign that I am a ‘bad’ person and that the way I do things in general is wrong.”
2) “This is something that I will never achieve.”

Both of these assumptions lead to general feelings of depression and often the perfectionist assumes that the way to feel better is just to forget about this depressing goal.

Remember that the perfectionist has an “all or nothing” mindset. Either everything goes perfectly 100% of the time or it is a complete failure. There is no middle ground, no baby steps, no milestones and no room for improvement.

If you find yourself falling into this trap, it may be helpful for you to think of “restarting” your goal process. In the restarting process, you re-energize yourself by applying selective amnesia to all that has come before. Forget about the fact that you had a prior goal. Forget that you failed to achieve it. Make the same goal today with new energy and try it again.

In many ways this technique is similar to rebooting a computer. You may have lost some data that you will have to painfully reenter but in the end you will probably end up with something better than what you started with.

Sometimes giving yourself this gift of forgetting is all that is necessary to shed all the negativity and doubt that holds you back and to go attack and achieve that goal with new energy. But often it’s not. For the best results, you need to restart but with a smarter or different goal than before.

For example, if your New Year’s Resolution was to exercise 3 times a week and as of today you have yet to exercise even once, give yourself a break and “restart.” Your mindset would be to stay, “As of February 15, my goal is to exercise once a week.” If, by the following week you still have not made your goal, “restart” again. “As of February 22, my goal is to exercise 20 minutes every Saturday by going for a brisk walk with my dog.” You can still work your way up to exercising 3 times a week but it may take you a while before you get there. Documenting your different goals and their results (like a human science experiment) will really help you to learn the boundaries of the mindset that will ultimately work for you.

Mental traps can be so detrimental to our achievement potential. Giving yourself a break and a fresh restart can be one simple and powerful way to refocus and a great coping technique if you find yourself adopting a perfectionist approach to your goals.

Do you struggle with perfectionism when it comes to achieving a difficult goal? What techniques work best for you to cope with failure or subpar results? Please share in the comments.

Nov 082011

I am now 8 days into my new diet and exercise regime. I can tell that I am getting stronger and gaining more stamina in my exercise program and I am getting used to thinking about fruits and vegetables all the time. But, to be sure, nothing I am doing is “perfect.” It might not even be “good,” but it is a step in the right direction at least.

Too often, when we think about diet and exercise, we think in absolute terms. We inherently assume that our own diet must be so terrible that we need something extreme to fix it. Forget moderation, we go right for the nearly impossible diets: no sugar, no fat, no carbs, no meat, low calorie, etc. It is probably true that if you were actually able to stick to such a diet that you would see an improvement in your health and lose weight to boot. The problem is that for most of us, these diets represent a goal that we have a very low chance of achieving before we cheat or give up out of hunger or frustration.

The same goes for exercise. Rather than start something simple like a walking regimen, people go for marathon training or P90X or something that is really ambitious. After a few days, they give up out of exhaustion, injury or being overwhelmed and disillusioned.

I often wonder why we do this to ourselves. Why do we always go to the extremes? The answers I have come up with are:

  • We lack knowledge about what a realistic diet and exercise plan looks like. All we know are the extremes: couch potato or fitness fanatic.
  • We buy into the fantasy that we could be the kind of person who _______ (eats only pure, organic foods, goes for a 10 mile run every morning, etc.) but are not willing to make the sacrifices that the person who actually lives that lifestyle makes.
  • We want a criterion to judge our progress (or others’ progress) by. We prefer simple judgments like “Does this have sugar?” to complex judgments like “How much sugar does this have?”

I am living proof that a person can eat a pretty awful diet with minimal exercise and not be obese or have terrible health problems. (Of course, I know I should do better and that I may not enjoy this advantage forever. . . hence, this month’s theme.)

I think a big part of my success to date has to do with having a healthy psychological relationship to food. I don’t eat in secret and I don’t make a big deal if I overindulge in sweets or fatty foods (or if my kids do). I don’t obsess over my own appearance or anyone else’s. I see beauty as a complex formula of confidence, clothes, hair, skin and body size that does not have one answer. My priority for exercise is to have a body that functions the way I want it to with good energy, strength and flexibility rather than fitting into a particular dress size. Yes, sometimes I wish my body looked like a supermodel or some airbrushed image in a magazine but most of the time I have too much else to do to worry about that. I also accept that some people have the magic concoction of genes (or plastic surgery) that lets them look like that with minimal effort on their part.

So, as you read the posts this month, please don’t assume that I expect everyone to follow the diet and exercise plan that I am trying. I am just encouraging you to think through any challenges you are facing in this area and to find creative solutions that will work for your lifestyle. I hope to provide a successful example but even if my example is not successful I will have gained knowledge in the attempt and hope that you will too.

Do you always find yourself attempting the “perfect” diet or workout plan? Why? Do you think you could accept a realistic plan? Please share in the comments.

Jul 282011

"Babies" (1921). From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Hard to believe but summer is 2/3 over and it is time to recap this month’s discussion of perfectionist parenting!

I started the month sharing with you some of the Google search keywords people have been using to query perfectionism and the parent-child relationship and my own interpretation of what these keywords may be telling us.

We explored society’s tendency to blame parents for every defect in their children as well as recent research identifying the biggest regrets people have about their lives. I suggested that a major factor motivating perfectionist parents is the possibility to correct these regrets in their children.

My dad commented simply:


I reviewed the controversial book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua and asked whether you identify with the 10 core beliefs of the tiger/perfectionist mom.

I compared and contrasted the upbringings of authors Sandra Tsing Loh and Amy Chua, both Asian American women raised by demanding parents, and the impact this upbringing had on their own development and parenting.

Ruth commented:

“I think too little expectations diminishes the potential return on investments–esp. with children!! . . . [E]ncouraging and pushing our children to try to exceed expectations is always a plus! and done correctly, these kiddos will thrive and continue to push beyond on their own as well.”

We looked at the experience of extraordinary mom, Rose Rock, mother of comedian Chris Rock, as well as 9 other children and 17 foster children. Mama Rock successfully raised all of these children in a tough, inner city environment, instilling in them excellence without perfectionism.

If we need a reminder of how important and how special mothers like Rose Rock are, check out this brief video for a current NPR series on the devastating impact of high school dropouts in the United States and how severely minority groups are impacted by this trend.

Ruly Ruth offered advice on how not to be unnerved by unsolicited parenting advice and the typical pitfalls faced by every parent.

Amy commented:

“As a retired counselor who worked with many families and children, I find these loving comments “right on!” Hardest job ever, parenting…take care of yourself first, the rest will follow…”

Finally, we took a peek inside the family counseling practice of Dr. Brad Sachs and looked at 10 examples of psychological hang-ups in perfectionist parents. Notably, these hang-ups have little to nothing to do with the actual behavior of children and largely deal with past, unresolved hurts in the parents’ lives.

I hope this month’s discussion has helped you think a bit more about your goals as a parent (or reflect on your childhood and raising) and perhaps identify areas where you might improve your technique or revision your feelings.

Next week, I hope to be starting a new parenting adventure of my own as well as a new Ruly theme. (Due to the impending birth of my child, I will have some content auto-posting on the website but you may not hear from me for a bit via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter. For those who rely on e-mail or Facebook alerts, I will post a catch-up list of links when I return.)

Have a wonderful weekend!

Jul 262011

One aspect of perfectionist parenting I wanted to be sure to address this month is how to explain to a child that their perfectionist parent really is not reacting to a deficiency in the child but rather a personal, unresolved psychological issue in the parent.

For young children, especially, this can be hard to understand. When you have an important person in your life, like a parent, yelling at you or expressing disappointment, you can’t help but think that your parent’s disappointment is all your fault and that if you only could be better you could make your parents happy.

A great book on perfectionist parenting is The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and be Perfectly Satisfied, written by Brad Sachs, Ph.D., father of three and a family psychologist. In this insightful book, Dr. Sachs takes you into his practice and gives you detailed insight on some of the problems his patients have experienced and resolved. He also gives exercises for the perfectionist parent to complete to understand the roots of their perfectionism and how to move past them toward a more healthy relationship with his/her child.

I wanted to share 10 examples from the book of parental psychological hang-ups that influenced a perfectionist parenting approach.

1. A mother does not want to allow her daughter to give up her soccer regimen and pursue the art lessons the daughter wants. Dr. Sachs helps the mother realize that the mother has clung to soccer as the only positive bond she has, or will ever have, with her daughter. Dr. Sachs helps the mother and daughter reconnect through other activities the daughter is interested in.

2. A father becomes upset with his 4-year old son, believing that every disobedience is his son’s purposeful means of making him miserable. “However much I give him, he wants more. Whatever I do for him is never enough. And he just doesn’t listen to me.” Dr. Sachs determines that the father is resurrecting his own deceased father in his son and attributing his father’s “never good enough” disposition to his son. “I think you would feel more love for your son if you felt less anger toward your father,” Dr. Sachs advises. The therapy Dr. Sachs prescribes helps the father to process his emotions toward his own father and to see his son as something other than the “ghost of his deceased grandfather.”

3. A mother has always struggled with hostility and frustration toward her son. Dr. Sachs helps her process that a past abortion the mother had, which she kept secret from everyone, is causing her to view her son’s behavior as punishment for terminating her prior pregnancy. Dr. Sachs helps the mother to grieve for her lost baby and reprocess her son “as a growing boy who needed some instruction in how to handle his mental and physical energies rather than as a dangerous spy who had been assigned to extract payment from her for a regrettable decision from her past.”

4. A father struggles with his 3-year old son’s tantrums when he drops him off and picked him up from day care. Dr. Sachs helps the father to realize that the father is processing a form of separation anxiety stemming from the fact that the father is adopted and never knew his own birth parents. Leaving his son at day care was somehow reigniting a memory in the dad of being abandoned by his birth parents.

5. A mother struggles with how to control fighting between her two preteen daughters. Dr. Sachs helps the mother realize that she is siding with the younger, quieter daughter trying to correct the wrongs the mother felt from her own siblings in the past.

6. A mother is worried about her son being bullied on the playground. Dr. Sachs helps the mother realize she has linked her son with her younger brother who was also bullied as a child and who later came out as a homosexual, something the mother still has a hard time accepting. Dr. Sachs helps the mother distinguish her son from her brother and develop appropriate self-confidence strategies.

7. A mother and father seek counseling for their 8-year old daughter who inexplicably has been soiling herself. Dr. Sachs helps the family realize that the father’s recent job loss and increased fighting between the mother and father has led the daughter to create a problem to deflect tension away from their marriage.

8. A mother and father are concerned that their 11-year old son is only interested in flying airplanes and is not doing well in school or pursuing other interests like sports or music. Dr. Sachs determines that the mother is far more concerned about this than the father. Dr. Sachs helps the mother learn that she subconsciously is trying to make her son into the type of boy that will gain praise and appreciation from the mother’s parents and that the mother still harbors resentment that her younger brother was favored by her parents.

9. A mother and father are concerned about the eating habits and weight gain in their adopted 8-year old daughter. Dr. Sachs helps them to process that they never finished grieving their infertility and accepting that their daughter’s shape reflects her cultural heritage rather than their own genes.

10. A father obsesses over his son’s “effeminate” appearance. Dr. Sachs doesn’t agree with the father’s perception and helps the father to realize that the father has not processed sexual abuse the father suffered as a young child by a male neighbor and is transferring this fear to his son.

As you can see, many parents are carrying around heavy and deep psychological wounds from their past that end up manifesting in their relationships with their children. If you are a child reading this, I hope it helps you to see that these wounds are nothing that you can change or that you caused.

If you are a parent reading this, you may be thinking, “Oh, great, more blame the parents advice!” And it is…kind of, but also a reminder that we have a responsibility as parents to examine our own emotions and do the hard work it takes to try to correct our own misperceptions.

Dr. Sachs sounds like a very special family psychologist—one with an unusual gift for identifying and solving complex emotional problems. I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“This book is about forgiving, even embracing, imperfection, for I believe the search for the ideal is the enemy of the achievable and realizable. Once we let go of the image of the perfect family and accept ourselves and each other for who we are, we will become the best and most loving parents a child could ask for.”

–Brad E. Sachs, Ph.D., The Good Enough Child

Do you carry around hang-ups that are influencing your parenting approach? Have you seen this in your own family or friends? Please share in the comments.

Jul 212011

"A group of proud mothers, with their babies which they entered in the Hoover Play Grounds Baby Show." (1922) From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A friend confided to me recently, “I don’t think people think I’m a very good mom because they don’t come to me for parenting advice.” Unfortunately, when it comes to parenting (and motherhood in particular), there is a bit of competition. Every mom wants to feel that she is the expert on some parenting issue, and particularly on her own children, and can be easily threatened or intimidated by someone who does it better (or thinks they do). Throw some unsolicited parenting advice on this insecurity and you have the potential to completely ruin someone’s day.

Once you become a parent you may find yourself becoming a bit of a know-it-all, pushing your well-intentioned advice on others. I find this is the worst during the baby years—what worked for your kiddo may totally backfire with mine—and no, there is no ONE solution.

One of the first and most humbling lessons you learn as a parent is when you have to eat your words–realizing that the grand plan you have been telling everyone about (ex. no TV, no sugar, natural childbirth, etc.) is no longer going to work for you. We all hate these reversals when they happen to us but secretly delight when some other parent has to make them. We need a reminder every once in a while that the know-it-all parent isn’t as perfect as he or she seems to be.

As children age, these humbling experiences help to quell perfectionist parenting tendencies, but the perfectionism never really goes away, it just changes shape. While the baby stage of parenting is often the hardest physically, the older children get the more mental challenges become overwhelming. It’s hard to remember, for example, that your son’s soccer ability in no way reflects on either you, your family or your son’s prospects for a satisfying and fulfilling life as leaving a soccer game a dad on the other team that you know pulls over to your car, rolls down his window and tells you how many goals his kiddo made–and that obviously he’s a natural…..grrrrreat!

All parents want to raise well-behaved, intelligent, creative, successful children but sometimes even the best parenting in the world can’t prevent embarrassing incidents. The second most humbling lesson a parent experiences is when his or her kiddo is old enough to make a serious error of judgment—say breaking the law through a minor crime like graffiti or shoplifting, engaging in brutal teasing, experimenting with drugs, becoming sexually active or bullying–this goes both for girls and boys! Just as there are no perfect parents, there are also no perfect kids. Sometimes the incidents are far more serious like teen pregnancy or, sadly, as one mom recently experienced, a child causing the death of another child through reckless driving.

When you stop to think about all the seriously terrible things that your own children could do in this world with the wrong influences, it is enough to tempt anyone toward a controlling, perfectionist parenting approach. Yet we also know that even the perfectionist strategy is not foolproof.

So, how can you deal with inflammatory, unsolicited parenting advice? Here are some lovely, respectful responses—because after all, people give advice and information because they want to be included, helpful, and believe it or not–almost always with the best intentions!

  • “Thank you for your advice.” BUT NOT “We appreciate it”–unless you truly do!
  • “Hmmm….that’s interesting.”
  • or….”Good for you!”

Acknowledge the comment without saying a lot to encourage more. Disregard–ignore–disregard!

It may also help you to remember that everyone has an Achilles heel and sometimes the advice you are getting reflects the advice-giver’s own insecurities rather than a failure on your part. Appearances are often deceiving and there are no “perfect” families. The perfect Type A mom, for example, may have help she doesn’t acknowledge (such as housekeepers, nannies, a trust fund or close family members), or is drowning in debt, addicted to alcohol, in a miserable marriage, hopelessly disorganized, despised by her children or secretly depressed. You may never know which parts of Mrs. Perfect’s personality are a façade but before you drive yourself crazy wondering how she does it all while you struggle, know that there is something amiss in just about everyone’s life. Fortunately, there is also something really great about everyone as well and you can also take heart in knowing that there is at least one aspect of your own life that other people, including the Type A moms, envy.

I wish you all wonderful children, fantastic lives, and hopefully peace love and joy with minimal sorrow. Parenthood is a rough battle—we need to remember that when presenting information. If we could all try to sympathize a little more, take a step back, and only interfere when absolutely necessary.

What is the best and worst parenting advice you have received? How do you cope with unsolicited parenting advice? Please share in the comments.

Jul 192011

So far, our discussion of perfectionist parenting has focused primarily on middle and upper middle class concerns about schooling and extracurricular activities. Yet it is easy to forget that most kids in the United States don’t fall into this category. Two recent news items really opened my eyes to this issue. First, a 60 minutes report indicating that almost 25% of American children live below the poverty level and second, an Associated Press report that African American households have been hard hit by the recession and that the median net worth of an African American household is a shocking $2,170!

I was thinking about these statistics as I read Mama Rock’s Rules: Ten Lessons for Raising a Household of Successful Children, written by Rose Rock, mother of comedian Chris Rock. Ms. Rock raised 10 children and 17 foster children in a working class neighborhood. I was curious to learn how Ms. Rock managed to instill a sense of excellence and achievement in her children despite challenging circumstances.

Chris Rock writes in the foreward:

“Rose and Julius (my father) raised me, my five brothers, and one sister without any of us dropping dead. Now that might now sound like much, but where I’m from, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where four out of five black men are either dead, in jail, or making a rap CD, it’s a major accomplishment . As of the writing of this foreward, none of Rose’s children has a criminal record or has had any baby mommas.”

–Chris Rock, Foreward to Mama Rock’s Rules

It is easy for me to forget the extent to which most African Americans have encountered discrimination in this country and how relatively recent that experience is. Ms. Rock herself was born before the Civil Rights era and went to segregated schools. Her great-grandfather took care of a slave owner’s children and learned to read. He taught his children to read and write, particularly Ms. Rock’s grandmother, who, although never formally educated, revered writing and was known in her community as the learned person who could help other black people with official paperwork. Ms. Rock’s father worked construction jobs where he was often gone all week, returning home to his family on Fridays. Both Ms. Rock and her late husband Julius (one of 14 children) grew up knowing poverty and hunger in their households. Julius Rock worked the night shift to support his family and somehow managed to always have food on the table and even save for their college educations! Julius Rock passed away leaving Rose with 3 minor children to support.

The Rock family appears to have been the anchor of their neighborhood block. Ms. Rock is credited with helping to raise several other children on the block in addition to her own children and created a safe haven where kids could hang out but still be held accountable for their actions.

In the book, Rose lays out 10 “Rules” that guided her parenting. The first 3 rules came across a bit heavy-handed to me and I wasn’t sure that this was a parenting strategy I was going to identify with. But then came Rules 4 through 8 and Ms. Rock’s parental magic began to surface.

Rule #4: “Feed Them and They Will Tell You Everything”

Ms. Rock was legendary for her family dinners. She insisted that every family member be present so that the family would have a point of connection around the dinner table for at least a brief moment each day. Ms. Rock did not start out as a very good cook but her skills improved over time. When budgets were tight, she used her creativity to make cheap fare like grilled cheese sandwiches, look elegant. Dinner time was more than about food. It was about expressing love to her children, reading their body language to know when someone needed extra attention and cementing her family’s identity as a tribe that took care of each other.
It was fitting that the way that I heard about Ms. Rock’s book was from Paula Deen’s cooking show. Below you can watch a clip of Paula Deen and Rose Rock cooking Rose’s Smothered Chicken and Biscuits (the recipe for which you can also get in Rose’s book, along with her world-famous sweet potato pie).

Rule #6: Reading is Righteous

From the legacy passed down from her grandmother, Ms. Rock instilled a love of reading in all of her children. She made sure her children saw her reading the newspaper, magazines and books. She made sure they had access to a dictionary and went over the Word Power section of Reader’s Digest with them. She read aloud to her children and asked them questions afterword about the stories.

“I have such deep sadness when I see people of color who don’t read. The mere fact that blacks were once denied the right to read or be educated makes me want every black person on this planet to walk around with a book and be an excellent reader.”

–Rose Rock, Mama Rock’s Rules

Rule #5: You Are Whatever You Answer To

Included in her Rule #6 and a big part of Rule #5 is Ms. Rock’s insistence on reading to her children at home about black history, in addition to what her children learned in school, much the way other high achieving parents might drill math flash cards or foreign languages. It was critical in Ms. Rock’s household that her children had an appreciation for all of the struggles and accomplishments her ancestors and other African Americans had achieved. She did not want to give her children any excuse for not working hard. She wanted them to see that others had achieved despite even greater obstacles.

“I learned from [Mr. Joseph Thompson, principal of the segregated black school I attended,] not to answer to someone who had low expectations or unfounded negative feelings toward me. I also learned not to accept what someone did or said if it made me feel bad. . . . His advice? If people say negative things about you—prove them wrong.”

–Rose Rock, Mama Rock’s Rules

To me, these history lessons seem a major part of the reason Ms. Rock’s children became so successful. This rule could be applied not just to black children but to anyone who is trying to achieve something where they feel excluded, awkward or unwelcome. You could take this concept and apply it, with different role models, for example, to inspire a little boy who wants to dance ballet or a little girl who wants to join the military.

Another of Ms. Rock’s mandates is that parents have a responsibility to help their children have a positive self-image and not buy into media perceptions of how they “ought” to look. Chris Rock has taken this lesson to heart. Motivated by comments from his young daughters that they didn’t have “good hair,” he produced the documentary Good Hair, providing a humorous yet poignant look at what black women currently endure in hairstyling ordeals in order to meet the appearance standards of popular culture. The film’s trailer is below:

Rule #7: Push “Unable” Off the Table

The biggest praise for Mama Rock’s Rules, however, comes in Rule #7 about how she both sets high, slightly perfectionist, expectations yet avoids going overboard and demanding exactly how her children should turn out. Her quotes speak for themselves:

“Although I never said my kids had to be all “A” students, they were expected to do their best. . . . Yes, I was one of those mamas who said to my kid when he got a 97 percent on a test, ‘Good work, but what happened to the other three points?’ Here’s the thing: if I let it go and don’t ask about it, then next time they might miss two more. . . . Ask them what you need to do to help them make it all the way to 100 percent—and then do it!”

–Rose Rock, Mama Rock’s Rules

“In our family, we are allowed to fail. . . . Failure should be the ultimate motivator for a child. . . . Tell your child: real failure is in not trying to start over. It is in not dusting yourself off and finding the right path to the success that is out there.”

–Rose Rock, Mama Rock’s Rules

“Some parents try to use their children to make themselves feel better about who they are. . . . Parents, please don’t look to your kids to validate who you are. You need to validate who they are and make them do the best they are able to do.”

–Rose Rock, Mama Rock’s Rules

The world needs more mamas like Mama Rock. She is an incredible person to be sure and both the legacy of learning she gave to her own family as well as the foster children and neighborhood kids she had no obligation to help is inspiring to us all!

What factors do you think were most important to Mama Rock’s success? What strategies of hers do you employ in your own home? Please share in the comments.

Jul 142011

In the last post, we saw the experience of Tiger Mother Amy Chua and her intense approach to raising her multi-talented girls. As a study in contrasts, I wanted to compare Amy Chua’s experience with that of author Sandra Tsing Loh. Both women have similar backgrounds but have ultimately pursued dramatically different careers and have taken different parenting approaches.

My husband and I adore Sandra Tsing Loh’s writing. When The Atlantic Monthly arrives, my husband always alerts me when one of her columns is inside. It is always honest and entertaining reading. In addition to insight on issues like race, class and feminism, Ms. Tsing Loh has written about her divorce and, recently, her thoughts on parenting and Amy Chua.

Ms. Tsing Loh’s most recent book is Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting! The book is a memoir of Ms. Tsing Loh’s experience trying to find an appropriate kindergarten program for her eldest child in the Los Angeles area. Scared off from the Los Angeles public school system by numerous friends and a raft of poor school performance statistics, she begins a journey to locate an appropriate private school. What follows is a fascinating journey into how education is conducted today and how one mother finds balance between the competing pressures of providing excellent educational opportunities for one’s children and confronting economic reality.

Similarities Between Ms. Chua and Ms. Tsing Loh

Both Ms. Chua and Ms. Tsing Loh were raised by fairly strict Chinese parents. Both had a father in the sciences who pushed academic excellence and was very frugal about spending money. Both were forced to study the piano. Both went on to prestigious universities: Ms. Chua to Harvard and Ms. Tsing Loh to Cal-Tech. Both realized in college that they were perhaps on the wrong path.

“Understand that my father is not the sort of Chinese immigrant who has ever suffered low expectations for his children. Ever since I was little, it was clear that if we girls could not actually bring home the Nobel Prize in physics, then becoming head of NASA or president of Harvard College would do. Or if we had to feed a wild, artsy, creative urge . . . conductor of the London Philharmonic. . . .

My dad was obsessed with the great waste of time that was the liberal arts. Every bad thing in life was attributed to it. . . . I started as an overachiever. Pushed by my parents, I earned an 800 Math SAT in high school and a perfect score on AP calculus . . . And so of course I went off to college to major in physics. . . . [A]t [Cal-Tech] the great science school, [I] wrote comedic articles. That was my Caltech career—bombing my tests and writing funny pieces about it for our unread student paper! To wit:

‘. . . I believe I’m on the short list of candidates for patron saint of those lost at Caltech. Junior year, I have been assigned as physics lab partner classmate Sekhar Chivukula, widely renowned as a genius. Of our pairing it is said: ‘Sekhar will do the calculations. Sandra will handle the radioactive samples. . . . ’”

–Sandra Tsing Loh, Mother on Fire

“[A]ll my life I’ve made important decisions for the wrong reasons. I started off as an applied mathematics major at Harvard because I thought it would please my parents; I dropped it after my father, watching me struggling with a problem set over winter break, told me I was in over my head, saving me. But then I mechanically switched to economics because it seemed vaguely sciencelike. . . I went to law school, mainly because I didn’t want to go to medical school. . . . But I always worried that law really wasn’t my calling. . . . After graduating I went to a Wall Street law firm because it was the path of least resistance.”

–Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Interestingly, today, both Ms. Chua and Ms. Tsing Loh admire most the careers of authors like Amy Tan and would gladly trade places with Ms. Tan as the premiere voice of Chinese-inspired literature in America.

“I decided to write an epic novel. Unfortunately, I had no talent for novel writing, as [my husband’s] polite coughs and forced laughter while he read my manuscript should have told me. What’s more Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan and Jung Chang all beat me to it . . . . At first, I was bitter and resentful, but then I got over it and came up with a new idea. Combining my law degree with my own family’s background, I would write about law and ethnicity in the developing world.”

–Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

“My goal was to achieve early success as a writer, preferably by the age of twenty-five. . . . Then would come the six-figure advance for a novel. Then would come . . . what? I guess more novels. . . . Looking ahead, I saw that my forties promised to be less a maturing than a kind of extraordinary goldening. I envisioned these as my Yo Yo Ma/Amy Tan years. This would be a seasoned, a leavened time of life when the artist travels around the country accepting lifetime awards and honorary medals from the President, the Queen, Bill Moyers. These would be the PBS years, the Lincoln Center years . . . One would be inducted into the Smithsonian as a National Treasure . . . .”

–Sandra Tsing Loh, Mother on Fire

Both women also went on marry non-Chinese men. Ms. Chua married a Jewish man named Jed she met on the Harvard Law Review and Ms. Tsing Loh, a musician named Mike. Their marriages caused them to confront questions about their own racial identity and their familial obligations to perpetuate Chinese culture in America.

“When I was four, my father said to me, ‘You will marry a non-Chinese over my dead body.’ But I ended up marrying Jed, and today my husband and my father are the best of friends. . . . A tiny part of me regrets that I didn’t marry another Chinese person and worries that I am letting down four thousand years of civilization.”

–Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Ms. Tsing Loh and I share the interesting fact that our children generally look nothing like us. Genetics are truly surprising and variable. In Ms. Tsing Loh’s case, her mother was German and her dad Chinese. Ms. Tsing Loh would be generally recognized by most people as Asian. She married a fair-skinned, fair-haired man and had two blonde daughters!

“Of Chinese-German extraction, I could be said to look Hispanic. And with my two blonde daughters . . . ? . . . From a racial point of view, it looks like either I’m their Third World nanny or I stole my white babies.”

–Sandra Tsing Loh, Mother on Fire

Likewise, I am a brown-haired, brown eyed, Mediterranean-influenced mom with a blonde and a strawberry blonde daughter. I cannot tell you how many people have asked me recently when I am out and about in my pregnant state with my two daughters in tow whether this will be my first child! I must look like the nanny too!

Differences Between Ms. Tsing Loh and Ms. Chua

As you can tell from many of the excerpts above, the biggest difference between Ms. Tsing Loh and Ms. Chua is that Ms. Tsing Loh has made strides toward not living her life to please her parents while Ms. Chua still seems to still struggle with the issue.

Ms. Tsing Loh uses humor to make peace with the upbringing she received from her her well-intentioned but overbearing parents. She is self-deprecating and has no pretensions about herself or her children . . . or anyone else’s for that matter.

“I remember when Jonathan and Aimee’s son Ben first developed his extraordinary childhood gift for the violin. Jonathan was especially thrilled at how much Ben clearly loved playing, how passionate Ben was about music, ‘I never had that,’ Jonathan said, ‘that love of music. For me growing up, practicing was always a chore.’ ‘That’s wonderful,’ I said. ‘Perhaps Ben can grow up to become a musician, a real working musician like Mike, and move out to where we live in Van Nuys.’ Jonathan visibly started, checked himself. Then added: ‘Well, there are plenty of surgeons who enjoy playing the violin!’

–Sandra Tsing Loh, Mother on Fire

Ms. Chua is still trying to please her parents, even though it appears her parents have grown and moved on and no longer have the same stringent set of expectations they did when raising Ms. Chua and her sisters. For example, when Ms. Chua is struggling to get second daughter Lulu to do as she wishes, her parents intervene:

“My mother, who was close to Lulu (they were e-mail pen pals), told me flat out, ‘You have to stop being so stubborn, Amy. You’re too strict with Lulu—to extreme. You’re going to regret it.

‘Why are you turning on me now?’ I shot back. ‘This is how you raised me.’

“You can’t do what Daddy and I did,’ my mother replied. ‘Things are different now.’

–Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Yet even Ms. Tsing Loh can’t escape her desire for parental approval altogether, nor the guilt of wondering whether she is doing enough for her children. Her personal journey and the resulting educational choice she made for her children forces us to examine our own insecurities and dreams, and confront the pain of rejection and the limitations, small and large, imposed by one’s place in the American economic pecking order.

Through Ms. Tsing Loh’s and Ms. Chua’s experiences, we see that the desire for parental love and approval continues far beyond childhood and never truly ends. We also see that once an expectation is set in the minds of children, it is very hard to erase, even when the parent has a change of heart years later.

Do you sympathize more with Ms. Tsing Loh or Ms. Chua? As a parent, Is it worse to push too hard or push too little? Please share in the comments.

Jul 122011

The quintessential perfectionist mom of the moment is Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. This memoir detailing Ms. Chua’s approach to raising her two daughters, Sophia and Lulu, is supposedly about the differences in child-rearing philosophies between Chinese and American parents. Ms. Chua pursued the “Chinese” approach, demanding academic and musical excellence from her children, hours of daily practice and forbade her children from wasting time on typical childhood activities like sleepovers, playdates or watching TV.

Ms. Chua admits, however, that the cultural stereotypes of “Chinese” and “Western” parenting are not necessarily accurate and that both of these terms are applicable to people of many cultures. There are American parents who are more “Chinese” in their parenting approach and likely many Chinese parents who are more “Western” in their parenting approach. I submit that instead of cultural identity, this is really more about “perfectionist parenting.”

The author summarizes the main difference between Chinese and Western parenting as follows:

“Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”

–Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

On the surface, this distinction doesn’t sound all that bad. I went into this book hoping to learn something about these cultural differences and expecting to come out with an appreciation for the different parenting styles. Unfortunately, I was not expecting the extreme to which Ms. Chua implements her parenting style and I can find little to say in support of the “Chinese” method she followed. Yes, her children are very accomplished people but due to both their genetic lineage from a long line of overachievers and the affluent environment they were raised in it is likely that they would be high-achieving kids even without their mother’s rigorous parenting.

If there is one word to describe the “Chinese” parenting method Ms. Chua describes, it is intense. So intense, that even if you wanted to use this book as a step-by-step guide for raising successful children, likely fewer than 1% of people would have the physical or mental stamina to do it. For an example of the type of hard work Ms. Chua expects of herself, consider her travel schedule below:

“[I]n addition to teaching a full course load and working with the girls on their music, I was constantly flying around the country giving lectures. I’d always find ways to compress trips to D.C., Chicago or Miami into one day. More than once, I got up at 3:00 a.m., flew to California and gave a lunch talk, then took the redeye home.”

–Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

The book does not detail an exact schedule for Ms. Chua but suffice it to say that the schedule probably involves getting up at 6 a.m. every morning to exercise, walk dogs, do work for her full-time job as a professor at Yale law school, attend her children’s music lessons to take detailed notes, musical practice along with her children for numerous hours every day (including weekends), do homework, supervise the Chinese language tutor, and research and schedule yet more activities and tutors for her children. Keep in mind, we haven’t even mentioned everyday activities like showering, cooking, cleaning, visiting the doctor, home and car repairs, etc. No wonder there isn’t time for playdates, TV or sleepovers! I am not even sure when this family sleeps.

However, there are probably at least some people reading this post thinking, “OK, so it might be challenging but yes, I think I could keep up with that schedule.” Could you be Tiger Mother material? Check the list below to see how many beliefs you share in common.

10 core beliefs of the Tiger Mother

  1. The child is the extension of the self.
  2. There is nothing better to spend our money on than our children.
  3. I fetishize difficulty and accomplishment. Everything valuable and worthwhile is difficult.
  4. I respect authority and seek out experts and authority figures.
  5. I need clear goals and clear ways of measuring success. I don’t have time to improvise or make up my own rules.
  6. It’s too idealistic to expect children to do the right things on their own. Also, if you force them to do what you want, you don’t have to be mad at them.
  7. Childhood is a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future.
  8. Children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.
  9. Failure, or the possibility of failure, is not tolerated. The solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish, and shame the child.
  10. I’m not good at enjoying life. Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on.

All of us likely have some Tiger Mother characteristics when it comes to a particular aspect of parenting but only Ms. Chua seems to apply this to every single aspect of her children’s lives. As I read parts of this book to my husband, he was astounded at some of the things Ms. Chua’s husband Jed put up with and indicated he would not tolerate her behavior. Courtland Milloy of The Washington Post felt similarly.

Ms. Chua’s two children responded differently to her parenting approach as well. Her eldest, Sophia, appears to be genetically wired very similarly to Ms. Chua, even from a young age. While it is tough for Sophia to keep up with her mom’s demands, you get the feeling that deep down she and Ms. Chua share the same mindset. You can read Sophia’s letter responding to criticisms about her mom here. Sophia was also recently admitted to both Harvard and Yale.

Younger daughter Lulu rebelled against her mother’s intense parenting style from an early age and there were many vicious fights between Ms. Chua and Lulu. Ultimately Ms. Chua backs off her demands with Lulu somewhat (although Lulu is still extraordinarily accomplished and disciplined by any standard). Lulu’s experience raises the question about whether the possible damage to self-confidence, suppression of individual dreams and setting the foundation that one of the most important loving relationships in your life is conditioned on your achievement is outweighed by giving your child opportunities for economic success and personal recognition. The world awaits Lulu’s response to her mom’s book.

This was certainly an engaging read and well-written. It also provides interesting insight into the exact amount of practice and discipline required to raise the “perfect” child as well as the parental time commitment required.

For more on the book, from the author herself, see her interview with Alison Stewart on PBS’ Need to Know below.

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

Are you a Tiger Mother? Do you think Ms. Chua’s parenting approach is likely to become more commonplace in a difficult economic climate?  Please share in the comments.