Friday, 17 February 2012

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - Book Review and Giveaway

Amy Chua's memoir was an international bestseller when first published a year ago, and caused a storm of controversy. The book, a description of her approach to raising her two American children the 'Chinese way', touched personal, cultural and political nerves, with many branding her parenting as abusive and extreme. In the midst of the storm, others noted that nerves get touched for good reason, and that perhaps the Western world wouldn't be in total decline - unlike China - if we all had a Tiger Mother to urge us on.

It's not surprising that Chua's book pushed buttons, for her descriptions of the methods she used to drill, coach and shape her children into musical prodigies and academic achievers are at times jaw dropping. Right from the first page she tells of how her two girls were not allowed to attend sleepovers or playdates, be in the school play or get a grade lower than A, but, as the book goes on, she confesses stories which have now become notorious: threatening to shut her three year old out in the freezing cold for refusing to play the piano in the way she was asked, telling her six year old she would burn all her stuffed animals if she didn't play the piano perfectly, calling her children 'garbage', and, when they were seven and four, rejecting the birthday cards that they had made for her on the grounds that they were simply not good enough.

You'd think that a parent like me - a touchy-feely Westerner who is largely opposed to punishing children, especially her own - would despise a parent like Chua. And I wanted to, believe me, I wanted to hate her, and absolutely shred her book in this review. But then, as I read, two things began to happen. First of all, I realised that Chua had her tongue in her cheek slightly, and was setting out to spark debate and prove a point. Secondly, I really started to like her. Her simple, clear storytelling belies her fierce intelligence: don't think for a moment that Chua, a Yale Professor of Law, hasn't considered carefully all of this issues the book raises plus a few more. Her anecdotal style interspersed with the odd bit of observation had me turning the pages, but most of all, her book made me feel uncomfortable, it challenged me, shaking up my assumptions and forcing me to unpick and reconsider some of my more dearly held values and beliefs. This is not a parenting manual, and Chua never tries to assert that her way is the best or only way. But by offering us this starkly contrasting view point, she does what all good writers should - she makes us question, she makes us think.

What is the role of a parent? Do we wish to be our children's friend, their ally, taking their thoughts and feelings seriously and allowing them to make their own decisions, take their own choices, make their own mistakes? Do we shower them with praise and let them know that we love them, no matter how small their achievements? And are we sensitive to their feelings, always considering their emotional experience above all else and striving to protect and strengthen their mental health? Chua thinks not. She has no desire whatsoever to be liked by her children, and seems to control their lives down to the smallest detail. She doesn't believe in telling them they have done a 'good job' unless they have achieved something really exceptional, assuming that if they do not excel it is not because they have reached their limit, but simply that they did not work hard enough. And she doesn't subscribe at all to the Western view that children's feelings should be protected, rather she assumes that they are, 'strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.'

To our child-centred Western ears, this seems like a harsh approach, with no consideration for the child's experience (let alone a hundred years or more of developmental psychology). But Chua assures us that, by initially forcing our children to apply themselves to a task, we create what she calls a 'virtuous circle'. Initially, our child will resist, complain and generally be made unhappy by our actions. But, if we ignore their feelings and push through this phase, something wonderful will happen - they will begin to excel. With excellence comes praise, admiration, confidence, and even fun. As Chua puts it, 'What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.'. We might think we are being kind to our children by allowing them to steer the ship along side of us. But could it be that, if we behave more as their equals than their masters, we are actually failing them, cheating them of the chance to reach the absolute limits of their potential?

Chua's description of what she refers to as 'generational decline' struck a particular chord with me. She describes what she feels is certainly a pattern among Chinese immigrants to the States in the last fifty years. The immigrant generation, (like her own parents) are hard-working, and often work their way up from nothing to become successful and respected professionals. They pour everything they do and earn into their children's education and future. The next generation will be high achieving, and find themselves even higher up the work and money ladder than their parents. However, their children, born into a life of wealth and privelige their forbears could only have dreamed of, will often be disobedient, ignore career advice, and be 'headed straight for decline'. This is Chua's greatest fear for her children, and the outcome she hopes her strict parenting methods will guard against.

There are strong echoes of my own history in this cautionary tale. On both sides of my family, my grandparents had the bare minimum of education and lived much of their early lives in poverty. On my mothers side, my grandmother's family 'came over on the boat' from Ireland to the slums of Liverpool, and my grandfather was one of twelve children. My paternal grandparents emigrated from the UK to Canada in the 1920's, and lived through the Depression, when they would move house in secret every week to avoid paying the rent.

On both sides of the family, there was a hugely strong work ethic, and both my mother and father were taught by their parents to 'graft', 'work your way up' and 'better yourself'. Having left school with barely any qualifications, they were jointly determined for a better life for me, and felt that the key to this was a private education. Through a seemingly endless combination of business ventures and by-the-hour jobs, they put me through a fee-paying school where I did well academically, going on to be the first person in my family's history to attend University.

I felt my heart sink slightly as I read Chua's words about generational decline. I thought of my own life now; in spite of my Ivy League degree and hugely expensive education, I've never really 'got on in life' the way my parents and grandparents would probably have liked, working as a hot-shot lawyer or high-flying executive, and earning the big salary with matching house and car that life denied to them. Instead I've lived it up, partied, dipped in and out of a few careers and now given up the only really serious one - therapy - to be a full time stay at home mother. And now that it is my turn to parent, my focus is entirely based around my own children growing up happy, mentally healthy and well adjusted. They are still very small, but nevertheless I have given barely a moments concern to their education, their careers or their financial futures. I have told myself that none of this matters, and that to be kind, considerate, happy and creative are the only things that really count in life. Is this the right way to be, or am I doing my hard grafting parents and grandparents a great disservice here, squandering the opportunities they desperately craved for themselves and bought for me with the sweat of their brow? And am I letting my children down too, instilling in them a rose-tinted view of the world that might find them, somewhere down the line, a jolly nice person that everybody likes, living in a cheap flat without qualifications or prospects?

What really matters in life? And what does it mean to be a 'successful person'? Chua's excellent book forces us to consider this, although she herself makes no claim to have the answers, asking in the closing paragraph, 'Given that life is so short and fragile, surely each of us should be trying to get the most out of every breath, every fleeting moment. But what does it mean to live life to its fullest?'. No matter what our zodiacal sign, cultural background or parenting philosophy, if we love our children deeply and want the best for them we need to ask ourselves this question. Like Chua, we need to answer with humour, be brutally honest, and perhaps even risk making ourselves unpopular. We may subscribe to a very different world view to the Tiger Mother, but her book reminds us that, whatever we decide, our values and beliefs will shape our children's future, and that of generations to come.


Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is published by Bloomsbury and is available in paperback from all good booksellers.


I was not paid to write this review and all views expressed are entirely my own.


The draw to win a free copy is now closed.
To pick the winners, I used a random number generator from www.random.org.
The winners are -

  • Will Spooner
  • Aletta
  • Catherine T
  • Maureen DeLongis
  • Maddy from Developing Doulas

Please contact me with your address and the publisher will send you a copy.

Thank you to all of you who entered, and who joined in this fascinating discussion!

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Thursday, 9 February 2012

Should We Share Images of Our Children Online?

Over the past few days, women around the world have been holding 'nurse ins' to protest at the removal of breastfeeding images by social networking giant, Facebook. It seemed a bit ironic therefore, that while Lactivists were holding a global 'Boob Out', I was busy taking down photo after beautiful photo of breastfeeding women and children from this blog. Slowly but surely, I deleted images from a gallery of Breastfeeding Beyond One, and then from a comic post about nursing in public Boobylicious Baby Feeders Unique Portable Travel System. And I didn't stop there. I then erased photos from all of the guest posts on birth, and a few extras of parents and children from around the blog.

I've already said a little bit about my reasons for taking this action, but I'd like to give more detail in this post. Whilst it may at times make uncomfortable reading, I think it's relevant, not just to this blog, but to all of us who are parents and who, to one degree or another, share photos of our children in cyberspace.

So, let me tell you the story. The fact that there might be a problem, and that individuals might be finding this blog for all the wrong reasons, came to my attention in two ways. The first was by seeing, via a part of Blogger called 'Stats', the words and phrases that people were typing into search engines that were subsequently leading them to my blog. And the second was by two rather disturbing comments left on the post, Amazon, We Find Child Abuse Offensive.

Let's look at the issue of search terms first. Somehow it seems that the stars have collided and through a combination of naivety and coincidence I've managed to bring together in one place a collection of words that you wouldn't necessarily associate with a blog about parenting. Here they are:

breast / breast feeding - from a selection of breastfeeding posts
nude - from the  post Acceptance Nude about post pregnancy bodies
bending over naked - from a description of my own post natal body in Acceptance Nude
spanking - from a guest post about corporal punishment: Spanking, Regret and Parenting in Technicolour
child abuse - from the post title Amazon, We Find Child Abuse Offensive
xxx - on many of my replies to comments I have ended with three kisses - Triple X
the mule - this pseudonym has an association with child abuse

So, it turns out that someone googling any combination of the above terms could find their way to my blog. A while back, myself and blog followers on Facebook shared a titter about this, when I discovered that someone had found a picture of my wrinkly post birth tummy after googling ''bending over nude'. I thought this was a one off, but of course, it wasn't, and my laughter turned to concern when I started to see search terms such as 'breastfeeding xxx'.

Then there were the comments. The first, a few weeks ago, made reference to the connection between 'The Mule' and child abuse. I don't want to give any more detail about this connection, but the comment disturbed me, as it was clearly left by someone who either had ill intent towards children, or a sick sense of humour, or both. Then, about a week ago, another anonymous comment was left. This second comment was extremely unpleasant in its content, and left me feeling deeply concerned. Both comments were anonymous, and left on the post 'Amazon, We Find Child Abuse Offensive'.

I wondered what to do, and gave the matter much thought. Although the comments made no reference to breastfeeding or any of the other images on the site, I felt that what I had here was clear evidence that a person or persons will ill intent towards children were visiting this blog. I thought about my own photos. One image, in particular, ran through my mind. My eldest daughter, then three, snuggled close to me and beaming up at the camera whilst taking a break from her beloved Boobie. I couldn't bear the thought of anyone looking at this image in an abusive way. I then thought of all the other beautiful pictures, entrusted to me by women all over the world, of their intimate moments of breastfeeding and birth. I felt I had to act. And so, this was how I came to find myself deleting almost every image on this blog, while across the world women were protesting their right to share their nursing images in cyberspace.

Did I do the right thing? Most people seem to think - yes - that I had little choice under the circumstances, in particular as so many of the photos were of other people and their children. However, a few people have shared the thought, summed up well by this comment, "I refuse to live my life catering to the perversions of others. People can be turned on by literally ANYTHING, and I'm not able, nor willing, to wrap myself and my family in a bubble on the off chance something I say, do, or publish might get somebody off." Whilst I agree with this admirable desire for freedom, what I've been wondering about this week is whether we really understand the Internet, its impact, and its implications just yet. It feels so strongly a part of our lives that I found myself watching The Social Network the other evening and marvelling that they weren't in period dress. But this wasn't long ago, or even in the nineties that Mark Zuckerberg was coding out Facebook - it was 2004! This method of sharing and communicating, that many of us are confidently using every day, is only a few years older than my daughter. We think we know where we're at with it all, but like my daughter, we haven't really thought it all through, nor can we, with our understanding still so much in its infancy.

Let's take the example of images of breastfeeding. I'd be first in the queue to extol the virtues of sharing images of nursing. I created two online breastfeeding galleries on this blog, and have happily shared images of myself nursing my children on my Facebook account. Up until now, I've been convinced that doing this will help to normalise breastfeeding, help women to feel confident in their choices, and even help to improve breastfeeding success rates. Just like nursing in public? Right? Well...maybe not.

When we nurse in public, we get to look around and see who we are going to breastfeed in front of. This might be a small collection of people in a cafe, or a park, or a busy high street. We get to decide if we feel comfortable with the people who are around us and in the setting we find ourselves. We might feel that we are ok with nursing at our local toddler group, but would prefer not to feed our baby in a pub full of football fans on a Saturday night. Or we might be absolutely comfortable to nurse our baby anywhere at all (that's me by the way). But if we fall into this category, there is still a difference between nursing in public and sharing our breastfeeding images online. Because once our nursing pictures are on the internet, they can be viewed again and again by absolutely anyone. They can also be copied, shared, printed out, or even doctored, without our knowledge.

Still feel comfortable sharing your images? Let me tell you about another revelation that the events of this week have brought to me: there are people who find the act of breastfeeding itself erotic. Perhaps I'm exposing my naivety here, but I'd always assumed that people who had a problem with nursing in public were concerned about someone else seeing their (or their partners) exposed breast, a part of the body that is traditionally kept covered and considered erotic in our culture. But a quick google of 'breastfeeding xxx' enlightened me, and I was pretty shocked by what I found. I've always nursed in public and shared my breastfeeding images online because I was of the mentality - "I don't care if you get off by looking at my breast - I'm feeding my baby". But the idea that someone might be finding the act of breastfeeding itself sexually stimulating bothers me, because this involves my baby or child in the erotic experience.

I contacted breastfeeding guru Dr Jack Newman about my concerns. By coincidence, he was asking on his Facebook page for people to send him images of breastfeeding in unusual locations, exactly the kind I had just removed from my blog. I wanted to share with him a little of what had happened, and ask whether he knew what a large amount of pornographic content online is devoted to breastfeeding. And I wanted to know his view on my action of removing the images. He replied, "I don’t know if you should have taken it down. Maybe if people going to see these photos are doing it for the wrong reasons, they may, at least some of them, get the message that breasts are not just for titillation (sorry for the bad pun)." I'm a huge fan of Jack Newman, and I'm grateful to him for his response, but I felt he was missing the point. I'm desperately keen for positive messages about breastfeeding to be spread worldwide, but not at the expense of images of my children being used for someone's sexual gratification.

In child protection training, I have been given the message: be vigilant, and don't be tempted to talk yourself out of your uneasy feeling or suspicions. Above all, don't let your desire for something not to be the case be so strong that it blinds you to the actual truth. We can't afford to be naive about this, to the extent of hoping that someone viewing the images with ill intent might suddenly have an epiphany about the wonders of breastfeeding. I don't want to paint a picture of the internet as a threatening world full of perverted predators, but at the same time, there are issues here that need to be discussed, and not just regarding breastfeeding images, but indeed ALL of the images of children that we share in our online world. On the one hand we wouldn't be happy with a stranger taking photos of kids at the park, on the other we are happy to put photos of our kids at the park on Facebook; on the one hand we sign a consent form so our school can take photos and share them in a newsletter, on the other we add pictures to blogs that are viewed globally and without limit. We need to think these things through.

As always, I welcome your varied views. It's by talking that we can move things forward in positive ways. But please don't try to comment anonymously. I'm afraid that's no longer possible on this blog. If you've got something to say, you'll have to put a name to it, or keep your opinion to yourself. And for now, I'm really sad to say, you won't find any images here, now or in the future.


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Sunday, 5 February 2012

All Images Removed Due to Child Protection Concerns

It has come to my attention that this blog is being found in Google by people with the very worst of intentions.

Through Blogger I am able to see the search terms that people have used to find this blog, and there are some that give me cause for concern. Unfortunately, it seems that there are a combination of search terms that are leading people who wish to harm children to find this site.

Two comments have been left on the blog by such people. They are not publishable. 

At the moment, I have no idea of whether this is just one or two individuals, or more. I have contacted the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.

This blog has, as I hope you know, the very best of intentions, and is run by a person who has extensive professional experience of working with both adults and children who have experienced abuse. I recognise that we cannot always control the way certain images are viewed, and that the internet is full of perfectly innocent pictures that could be seen very differently in the wrong hands. However, because of the fact that it seems that an individual or individuals are finding this blog when they are searching the internet with ill intent, I have removed all images of children from this site.

I have also removed both breastfeeding galleries completely. 

I am deeply saddened by this, as I know that the images, both of positive birth, and of extended nursing, have been immensely helpful to people.

Please share your thoughts with me on this matter.


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Friday, 3 February 2012

Let's Pretend: Helping Your Child Express Feelings Through Play

Often we really want to help our children express how they are feeling, but find that our questions are met with silence or a change of subject. In this situation, we might feel that they are not opening up to us, that the lines of communication are broken, that they are keeping their feelings bottled up. We might find ourselves asking,"Why won't you TALK to me?!". But there is something we can do. We can play with them. Through play, we can connect and communicate with our children at an emotional level, in a way that feels safe, natural to them, and fun.

  • Why?

Play is a Child's Natural Language
Play is the way that a child makes sense of their world. Children use play to process and explore events that they experience, from the day to day, such as shopping and 'mummies and daddies', to the traumatic. Children who have witnessed or been involved in a frightening situation will rarely, if ever, choose to process this by talking about it. Instead, they re-enact it, or explore it through stories and games with similar themes, playing out endless different versions and roles and alternative endings. It is as if they literally want to 'get inside' life, and understand it by exploring it first hand.

Play is Experimental
Through play, children experiment, and learn. In the world of play, we can be different people, and make things turn out just the way we want. Or we can experiment with how it feels if things don't go our way, and then change everything, all over again. We can find out what it's like to be the giant, and experience just how he feels when he sits alone at the top of his beanstalk. Or we can spider our way up that water spout when the rain has just washed us down for the zillionth time. In play, we can be a new version of ourselves, someone completely different, or just the rock at the bottom of the pond. And at any moment, we can stop that game and move on to something else.
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Play Feels Safer Than Talking
Talking is one hundred percent real. But play? Play is fictional, isn't it?  When we play, the story, the metaphor, becomes a 'container', a safe place in which lots of feelings and emotions and explorations can be held, and if it all starts to feel a bit too much, well then, it was 'only a story'. As adults, we do this too! We watch soaps, or films, or go to the theatre. We become involved in the story, and we form opinions, judgements, about the characters and situations. We wonder how and if we would do things, if we were 'in their shoes'. And, yes, we get emotional, we feel. Sometimes we might even change something in our actual lives as a result of this fictional experience. But on other occasions, we might dismiss it as 'just something on the TV'. For both adults and children, the fiction gives us a sense of 'distance', that at times can help to shed light on reality, and at other times allows us to feel confident and safe: this is not about reality at all, it's 'only a story', and our feelings therefore cannot overwhelm us.

  • How?

Make sure YOU are feeling Playful!
Before you begin playing with your child, check in with yourself. If you have just fallen out with your child, got mad, or are feeling frustrated, tired or emotional for this or any other reason, you need to let go of this before you begin to play. Remember, above all, this is supposed to be fun!

Let Your Child Lead
Suggest to your child, 'Shall we play', and then allow them to be completely in charge. Don't be tempted to 'agenda set', or to use the play as just another approach to 'get them to talk'. If you are going to take roles, let your child choose who you are both going to be. If you are to 'play yourself', (as often happens, especially with younger children) ask your child for some direction, for example, 'Where shall we pretend to be?', or, 'Shall I be nice, or grumpy, or something else?'. Try to keep your questions as open as possible and keep them to a minimum, after all, you are here to play!

Accept and Build
Keep this classic law of Improvisation at the front of your mind at all times as you play with your child. Accept, and build. It simply means that whatever the other person suggests, accept their idea, and then feel free to build on it in a positive way. If your child says, 'Now we are at the beach', don't say, 'The beach? I thought you just said it was raining!'. Instead, accept: 'Oh, the beach, I love the beach!', and build, 'Shall we paddle in the sea?'. By not creating barriers to ideas in this way you will both be able to move joyfully forward in the play, and your child will be encouraged to keep offering their ideas and suggestions. They will also feel validated, heard and respected. 

Respect the Play
As you play with your child, keep in mind a strong sense of how important this time and experience is for them. They are expressing themselves in your presence, they are sharing their world with you, and even if you do not understand the play at a grown up, 'literal' level, rest assured that it is important and of great meaning. For this reason, don't break off the play suddenly and without warning, don't dip in and out of role, and don't make fun, even 'gently', of your child's ideas. 

Notice Themes (But Don't Analyse Too Much!)
As the adult you might feel desperate to know what is going on in your child's life or feelings, and play does sometimes provide us with a window into their world, so it can be tempting to try to interpret the meaning of their play and draw analytical conclusions. Try not to do this too much, as not only will it spoil your own fun and playfulness, you might also be barking up completely the wrong tree, and in doing so miss what your child is actually trying to communicate. Instead, just keep a casual awareness of the themes in your child's play, and notice if they recur often. 

Stay in the Metaphor
Children and adults enter fictional worlds to feel safe and contained. You can help to maintain this for your child by not suddenly introducing ideas or interpretations from 'reality'. You might be tempted to say, 'Are you worried about something?' or 'Are you being bullied at school?', or 'Is this about your Dad?'. But this will only serve to break the spell of the play and possibly cause your child to feel upset or confused. Instead, keep your discussions metaphorical. You might ask, 'What did it feel like when the beans grew into a beanstalk?', or 'What's it like having magical powers?', or 'I felt so sad when the ball fell in the pond, did you?'. By doing this, you are allowing your child to talk about all kinds of feelings in a way that feels safe.

Know your Limits
This post is intended to help parents use playful ways to improve their emotional communication with their child on a day to day level. If you have serious concerns about the physical or emotional welfare or safety of your child, don't hesitate to consult your doctor or other professional. 

Keep Playing!
Hopefully you already play with your child as much as time allows you to. So please, keep doing this! And of course, offer them plenty of opportunities for different sorts of play, in different settings, with other children, and by themselves. Remember that whether or not you understand your child's play simply doesn't matter - for them, this time is invaluable. Through play they are constantly exploring, experimenting, trying, failing, learning, experiencing, expressing, wondering and feeling. And of course, most importantly, (although it's amazing how often it's underrated!) they are having fun!




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