By the standards of modern parenting, my son’s soccer coach is a disaster. He tells his son that he would love him better if the kid scored more goals. The team played their hearts out in a loss a couple of weeks ago. “I am disappointed in you,” the coach told them.
I thought a lot about that soccer coach while I read Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s new book, The Triple Package: What Really Determines Success. You remember Chua: She’s the Tiger Mom and Yale law professor who so upset the internet a few years ago by arguing that North Americans are too easy on their kids. Rubenfeld, another professor at Yale law, also happens to be her husband. Their release is one of two books causing me to reassess my parenting strategies. The other is journalist Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, which amounts to a twist on that line from the Philip Larkin poem: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Senior’s thesis suggests the opposite is also true: Kids are fucking up their parents.
More than ever, Senior observes, we put pressure on ourselves as parents to make our kids happy and successful. Dads spend more time with their kids today—by a multiple of three—than they did in 1965. The role of “housewife” has been redefined as “stay-at-home mom,” an indication, Senior argues, of parenting’s primacy over housekeeping. It’s not enough that we keep our kids clothed and sheltered. Now we must monitor them at all times, reason with them rather than punish them, chauffeur them from play date to swimming lesson to the math tutor. In the process, we parents are driving ourselves insane.
In a sense, the thesis of The Triple Package actually praises a particular way that parents can fuck up their kids. Chua and her husband researched the child-rearing style of ethnic groups who tend to create more successful and higher-earning offspring. They discovered three commonalities: The kids tended to display an innate sense of their own cultural superiority (Jews as the “chosen race,” say), as well as excellent impulse control—the discipline to focus on a goal.
But the third component, Chua and Rubenfeld hypothesize, is personal insecurity. The kids believed in the conditionality of affection. Love—from moms, dads, whomever—depended on their achievements, so they worked harder to be successful.
The thesis has the ring of truth, at least in my experience. Think of the most successful people you know—many of them are seeking to prove themselves. Rower Silken Laumann’s memoir, Unsinkable, features a classic conditional parent-child relationship. She describes her mother as a woman who “could cut a person to shreds while wearing a lovely smile,” who imbued in her daughter a mania for control that led to anorexia and cutting—and, Laumann argues, the determination to win three Olympic medals. My son’s soccer coach gets fantastic results out of his team of seven-year-olds, who look to him for approval every time they score a goal. And his son is the best little player I’ve ever seen.
If insecurity breeds success, it’s intriguing to consider the implications of Jennifer Senior’s book alongside The Triple Package. Together, the books suggest the possibility that, decades from now, our kids may blame us Senior-type parents for parenting them too well. “My parents loved me unconditionally,” I can imagine them complaining. “That’s why I didn’t get this promotion.” Or make it to the Olympics. Or become a billionaire. After all, the “triple package” theory suggests that it may be impossible to raise kids who are happy and successful, because happiness precludes success.
One could be rather depressed about all this. Instead, I see the possibility of liberation. All us Jennifer Senior parents are putting so much pressure on ourselves to make our kids prosperous and content. But what if we choose just one of those goals? Or what if we split the difference, focusing on raising decently happy kids who are sort of successful? That doesn’t sound terrible. As for me, I’m taking a break from all this strategizing to play in the snow with my children. The future is a long time away—and I’m keen to enjoy my kids now.