Battle Hymn of the Panda Dad

By WALLACE BAINE

On New Year’ s Day, my oldest daughter turned 18 and, if you’ re a parent, you know what that number means.

She’ s finished.

The cake is baked. The book is written. The house is built. She’ s ready for the showroom floor. Whatever metaphor you’ re selling, I’ m buying.

My work is done here – because no young person has never needed his/her parents for any reason after their 18th birthday, right? RIGHT?!?

Now that my kid’ s personal Independence Day has come, and now that the literary world has suddenly become obsessed by the controversial and – my opinion here – completely wack-a-doodle parenting style outlined in the new book “ Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua, I figure now’ s a good time for my own parenting report card.

Tiger Mother, meet Panda Dad.

In case you’ re not up on the Chua book, she’ s the daughter of Chinese immigrants who decided to raise her own children “ the Chinese way,” which in her case meant unrelenting badgering and autocratic adherence to strict rules of hard work, all in the name of personal excellence – you know, the same way that raising chickens in dark boxes so they can’ t move results in excellent chicken.

To be fair to Chua, her kids have reportedly turned out largely like she hoped they would, gifted and driven kids who will likely eat my kid’ s lunch in the Darwinian economic marketplace. And her 18-year-old daughter is apparently praising her mother’ s Hobbesian parental philosophy to whomever will listen – of course, we don’ t know how free she is to criticize, if she wanted to do so. I’ m betting singing hosannas to Mom was her only real option for survival after the FBI declined to put her in Witness Protection.

Me, I’ ve always been a big believer in free-range children – natural, organic, grass-fed (OK, occasionally Cap’ n Crunch-fed), hormone-free (until about age 13), and antibiotic-free (wait, does that amoxicillin pink-milkshake stuff count?). To me, children are like flowers – you can’ t yell and scream at them to be a rose if they’ re really destined to be a daisy. Of course, Ms. Chua might counter that flowers get trampled by tigers, but that just shows that she’ s as intolerant of vacuous analogies as she is of TV and computer games. Well, nobody ever said “ You gotta stop and smell the tigers,” did they?

So I’ m ready to put my record as a parent up against Ms. Perfect-Isn’ t-Good-Enough with this warts-and-all report card – it’ s a self-assessment really, since my wife and daughter are far too biased to comment fairly on the subject.

Sharing the workload – Yes, I was in the delivery room for both children, and no, I wasn’ t listening to my iPod at the time (but probably only because Apple hadn’ t dreamed it up yet; it was awfully boring in the maternity ward). My wife and I never paid attention to traditional gender roles. We were equal partners in every way. She never said, “ Just wait until your father comes home” and I never said, “ That’s women’ s work” (unless it was). And I certainly changed my share of diapers too (could have been as many as 20, 25 times over the years). We also were a united front; I never told my kids, “ It was your mother’ s fault” (unless it was). Grade: A-minus.

Providing – Yes, I brought home the bacon, but my kids became vegetarians early on. So I had to bring home the fakin’ bacon, which is considerably more of a challenge. I consistently provided them with most of what they wanted and lots of things that they didn’ t want (mostly performances of “ Wind Beneath My Wings” at birthday parties). Unlike most of the other girls they knew, my girls didn’ t have to wear those absurdly short skirts because we could always afford enough material to reach to at least the knee. My children never did without (unless by “ without” you mean “without malnutrition” or “ without the shame of being on welfare,” then yes, they did do without). Grade: A-minus.

Discipline – Do you think I enjoyed getting all stern and intimidating on a small, vulnerable, tear-stained child and forcing her to do something she didn’ t want to do? (Actually, I did kinda enjoy it. But that’ s not the point.) Kids need discipline. I learned that from my time spent in the Marine Corps (Well, it was actually a YMCA summer camp, but the same principles applied). I was a stickler when it came to grades and I pushed my kids relentlessly (except on weekends, and nights, and at lunch, and most mornings). Grade: A.

Role modeling – If you talk the talk, you better also walk the walk. Kids won’ t let you get away with hypocrisy. That means you can’ t deliver a lecture on sharing the housework and make your child wash the dishes, and then go take a nap on the couch. Do the right thing. Go to your bedroom to take your nap. Grade: A.

Love – This is the big one. There are a million ways to express love from a simple “ I love you” (try to resist adding “ but” to the end of that line) to playfully having fun together. Back when she was 8, I gave my daughter a green jelly bean and told her it was green apple-flavored. It was actually jalapeno. She’ s still talking about that one. See how simple gestures of love endure?

You could learn a thing or two about that, Tiger Mother.

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