Yale Law Professor Amy Chua created quite a stir a couple years ago with her book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, advocating parents’ high expectations for their children. Much of the contemporary media rose up to attack her since her position runs counter to what has become “accepted wisdom”, that self-esteem is much more important than achievement. The opposition to her book illustrates many of the reasons that American society is in such rapid decline. Feel-good complacence cripples much of modern western civilization.
I grew up in the 1950s and was blessed with parents who expected me to excel. All the kids at my schools, both the Jewish Day School I attended and the public junior and senior high schools, were brought up with the same demands. Not only that, but our teachers also took it for granted that we would study hard, learn our subjects and be an entire classroom of excellent students. No, we didn’t alway meet those expectations and we certainly weren’t angels (I and my best friend seemed to spend most of our fifth grade year in the sixth grade classroom–not because we were so smart, but because the sixth grade rabbi was also the school principal and we were almost daily sent to stand in opposite corners of his room because our high spirits disrupted our own classroom!). But when we fell short the expectations remained high. No one considered us incapable just because we’d occasionally fail. They also taught us that failing is part of the process and that it’s bad only if we let it stop our continuing efforts.
It should go without saying that frustration is frustrating. But it can be a vital tool instead of an unbearable agony. Avoiding frustration doesn’t lead to success, but rather guarantees failure. Complacence with mediocrity, at the end of the day, won’t increase self-esteem.
Among the many general lessons from our Talmud, we repeatedly see the tension of premise and resistance, challenge and objection, attempt and failure, resolving into solutions and insights. We also learn to develop and adapt our abilities to our entire environment rather than avoid possible failure in our areas of lesser strength. This is part of the six-sectional nature of ש”ס, Shas, the Six Orders of Mishna. (For one thing, six represents the four directions plus up and down, in other words, our entire three-dimensional physical world. It is also a “multi-purpose tool”, giving us skills to succeed in such diverse areas as agriculture, holidays/liturgy, emotion, relationship, ritual and the totally abstract/intangible). Our entire tradition assures us that we can succeed, no matter what the field. Challenges are to savor as opportunities to grow, not feared as pitfalls of feeling bad.
The Shulchan Aruch, one of two master-configurations of halacha, begins with the phrase, יתגבר כארי לעמוד בבוקר, Yitgaber c’Ari l’amod ba’boker“, Invigorate yourself like a lion to stand in the morning. Only slightly facetiously, perhaps we can learn to be equally fierce as the tiger, to be as loving, supporting and demanding of our children as the Tiger Mothers (and as were our own parents).