Raising the Jewish slacker

“The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America,” a book published earlier this year, has garnered a lot of attention. “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua and her Jewish husband, Jed Rubenfeld, argue that three cultural traits account for the disproportionate success of Jews, Mormons and other immigrant groups: a sense of superiority, insecurity about their place in American society and the self-discipline parents inculcate in their children.

Mention of Jewish success or superiority typically elicits equal parts pride and unease among American Jews. In this case, however, both are unwarranted, because whatever the merits of Chua and Rubenfeld’s historical claims about American Jews, they no longer apply. Today’s Jewish parents are so taken with contemporary laissez-faire child rearing and so unlikely to demand self-discipline from their children that one wonders if we’re not raising a generation of Jewish slackers.

Here in the trenches, for instance, it’s not uncommon to hear a permissive Jewish parent offer this bit of wisdom: When your children are ready to potty train, they’ll let you know.

If this advice worked for you, congratulate yourself. You’ve raised a high-minded little sophisticate (i.e., a girl.) I have twin boys, and though I managed to successfully bribe one onto the seat by plying him with candy, his brother wasn’t budging. 

I waited for him to “let me know,” while a drumbeat of contemporary wisdom thumped through my brain: Don’t break his spirit. Let it all happen “organically” (a favorite word of contemporary Jewish mothers). I met frustrated mothers telling themselves the same thing, patiently changing the diapers of 4- and 5-year-olds, who eat like frat boys and defecate like farm animals. 

As my son neared 3 1/2, I began to fear his “Eureka!” moment might coincide with his receiving a driver’s permit. So, I threw the approved orthodoxy to the wind. I waited for his moment of desperation to rise. Then, I grabbed the potty and pinned him to it. 

Mothers I’ve told this to have reacted with horror. It’s child abuse, they say, disregarding a child’s agency this way. To say nothing of the harm to his self-actualization. 

But right after I let up on Mr. Refuses-to-Potty-Train, he stood up with a giant smile, did a little dance, and we all celebrated with mouthfuls of gluten and white processed sugar (formerly known as Snickers bars). Over the next few days, his reluctance disappeared, and he announced his triumph to anyone who would hear it — Grandma, the mailman, all manner of visitors to our home. Whatever small fortune I may have added to his future psychotherapy bills, I’d inadvertently given himself something else, too: an opportunity to be proud of himself. 

This was the central insight of Chua’s first book, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” I was Chua’s student at Yale Law; I liked her then, and I enjoyed “Battle Hymn,” and was perplexed by the righteous uproar that greeted it, all from people who seemed to take a self-deprecating memoir far too personally. Chua is exceptionally bright, lucid and engaging, both in person and in print. But she also has that rare quality I so appreciate in a person: She never lies to you. 

Jewish parents today are a different matter. Here’s another lie I often hear from them: Rote memorization is harmful to children. Gone are the Jewish parents who obsessively drilled their kids before tests (producing the cultural phenomenon Chua and Rubenfeld describe). Today’s Jewish parents are more likely to prefer “organic,” child-directed learning.

Call me a Jewish throwback, a Yiddishe Tiger Mama — with two totally potty-trained little boys. Call me unenlightened. But it’s pretty great for kids to know their ABCs. If there’s an interpretive dance method of inculcating them, I’d love to hear about it. But I’m a reads-books-with-a-pen kind of girl, a maker of charts, so I made them. My kids were just 1 year old when I started drilling them on ABCs. All in good humor of course, but I kept drilling. More than one Jewish parent informed me this was “developmentally inappropriate.” 

Maybe. But by 16 months, something wonderful happened: The world began opening up for them. My boys spotted letters everywhere and pointed them out, always with shrill exclamations of joy. There was, quite suddenly, emerging sense in the symbols they saw around them. A vast code out there, and for the first time, they were in on it. 

Today’s version of Jewish parenting purports to be more compassionate than the old by allowing “kids to be kids.”  Parents hover but never discipline, and they don’t demand self-discipline, either. We’ve all seen the Hobbesian results: boys with long, messy hair and no set bedtime, children whose spelling and grammar goes uncorrected in school (so as not to impede their self-expression). Too shy to say “thank you” or greet an adult. Not to worry if they can’t construct, much less diagram, a grammatically correct sentence. Children are endlessly creative little creatures, they say. Why constrain them?

Future achievement? Perhaps that’s not a good enough reason. But if Chua and Rubenfeld’s trifecta is to be believed, American Jews have a choice: They can either return to the wise ways of their forebears, or they can finally stop worrying about how to react to reports about disproportionate Jewish success. In another generation, there won’t be any.

Abigail Shrier (@abigailshrier) is a writer and graduate of Yale Law School living in Los Angeles.