We’ve never met, but the person you list in the New York Times as your closest friend was in my high school class and rode the very same van I did every day for four years. So as the friend of a friend, I want to take this opportunity to give you and your husband some Jewish parenting tips, since you are already an expert at Chinese parenting and you’ve stated that you are raising your daughters as Jews.
I think we have similar values in terms of education; I, like you, would like my kids to go to Ivy League schools, though I don’t see your parenting style as the only way to get them there. Or that having an Ivy League degree is the only measure of anyone’s success or self-worth. Here, then, are some Jewish parenting themes for you:
1) The first thing any Jewish parent should be aware of is that each individual is uniquely created in the image of God, b’tzelem Elokim, and deserves dignity, understanding, and respect. I am horrified to hear of any divine creation being called “garbage” as you claim to have done in the Wall Street Journal article excerpt. Treating anyone created in the divine image like garbage is contrary to Jewish teaching. As a parent, I try to keep in mind that I have been privileged to have the responsibility for another life entrusted to me and that I have a chance to raise a person who has an opportunity to do good in the world and be a unique human being.
2) The second credo of Jewish parenting, I believe, is rooted in Haggadah. There are four children: wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. And we are commanded to teach each of them differently. Though the goal for all at the Passover seder is the same, a need to “see oneself as though he personally has gone forth out of Egypt,” the teaching methods for each of them are not. Your strict parenting style may have worked with one child, but it did not work as well with another. As parents, we can certainly push our children to excel. I have no problem with that. But we also need to be aware of the best ways to teach each child and to help them learn what is necessary, while showing them compassion and sensitivity.
A simple child can’t be expected to learn in the same way that a wise child does. Actually, you are aware of this in writing about your youngest sister who has Down syndrome. “My youngest sister, Cindy, has Down syndrome, and I remember my mother spending hours and hours with her, teaching her to tie her shoelaces on her own, drilling multiplication tables with Cindy, practicing piano every day with her. No one expected Cindy to get a PhD! But my mom wanted her to be the best she could be, within her limits.” However, you don’t make the leap that I would, to say that a Down syndrome child is no less valuable than any other.
3) My third point, related to learning styles, is that drills and individual learning are not the only ways to achieve. Traditionally, Jews study sacred texts in pairs, in havruta learning. We also seek out rabbis as guides to help us. There is a Talmudic teaching that speaks to this point. Rabbi Yohanan’s pupil and study partner, Reish Lakish, has died and to comfort him, the rabbis send another study partner to him. He doesn’t like this one. Why? Because whenever he makes a point, the new study partner only brings points which back him up. A great rabbi needs to have someone come and contradict him, in order to get him to sharpen his ideas. Learning alone, or with a sycophant afraid to contradict you, will not bear the same fruits that learning with others will. We need to be in dialogue with others to sharpen and challenge ourselves.
There are certain subjects that can be learned best by solo study, but it is certainly not the only way to learn and should not be promoted at the expense of all else. Keep that in mind when making decisions for your kids.
4. To continue on the subject of community, as Jewish parents, we need to find community and create a sense of it for our children. One of the most effective ways to do that is through Shabbat. Jewish parenting stresses taking one day a week to unplug from technology and connect to the people that are physically present with us. If you ever decided to keep the Sabbath in a traditional way, without driving, you would live in a neighborhood of like-minded people. This means you could share Shabbat and holiday meals with your friends and neighbors, and they can be role models for your children. To me, giving my children a chance to interact with a variety of people, particularly those who share my Jewish values, is an important way to shape them.
5. And finally, you should be aware that a Jewish parent wants children who know that the world does not revolve around them. I’m afraid that your emphasis on individual achievement above all else will create narcissistic children who don’t have any sensitivity or responsibility for others in society. Jews have a whole system of commandments whose goal is to get us to be compassionate beings who are able to do acts of kindness to others, and to be in partnership and relationship with the divine.
The goal of the 613 Jewish commandments is to get us thinking about how we can together make the world a better place. That is ultimately the task of any parent, Jewish or Chinese.
Beth Kissileff, a writer and teacher of Jewish and literary texts, is editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis. She has completed a novel, and is working on her second novel and a volume of short stories. Her BA, MA and PhD are all from Ivy League schools.