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Battle Hymn of the Mouse Mother

A lot of people wonder how it is that Jewish parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many doctors and lawyers, so many rabbis and Hollywood producers, one Itzhak Perlman and the occasional Madoff. They want to know what it’s like inside the suburban minivan of a Mouse mother’s world, to see whether they, too, could drive a perfectly normal child into years of psychotherapy.

Well, I am here to say that they can, because I am doing it.

People see me out with my daughter in public and comment at how well behaved I am, even as she is brow-beating me and publicly humiliating me. So many people wonder why, when my children call me stupid, I am able to remain calm and not smack them upside the head. They say, Mouse mother, how can I emit calm like you, even while raising independently-spirited, self-directed, emotionally strong children? How is it that your children are bright even though you got a D in 8th grade Latin and attended a college known more for its fraternity system than for academic rigor? Mouse mother, please, they beg, tell us your secrets. And so, after generations of protected silence, I am here to squeal the truth.

With a little practice, you, too, can be a Mouse mother like me.

Not sure why you’d want to, but that’s for another memoir with a high six-figure advance entirely.

Anyway! Back to my battle hymn, which is really much more of a whine.

Anyone can be a Mouse mother; you need not be Jewish to lack Tiger skills. So, please understand that for legal purposes, I’m using the term “Jewish mother” loosely. So loosely, in fact, that when I say “Jewish Mother,” I mean absolutely anyone except for Amy Chua.

Here are the things that I, as a liberal Jewish mother have allowed my children to do and/or done for them:

• Skip 2 months of Hebrew school in order to perform in a local performance of The Nutcracker • Bribe them to play piano, practice the violin, make their beds, brush their teeth, and to be nice to me and others – oh, what the heck, let’s just say “bribe them constantly” and leave it at that • Talk them out of playing any and all contact sports for fear of them breaking their noses • Talk them out of playing any sports that involve running because of the funny way they run • Allow them to watch no less than 2 hours of television a day and to not let them stop until they had both committed to memory a complete episode of iCarly • Suck their thumb until the age of 7 and/or carry around a dirty, beloved shmatte like Linus from The Peanuts • Write notes to a teacher excusing their inability to do homework because American Idol was on • Choose all their own extracurricular activities, including fencing, Lego robotics, and a class in which my 5-year-old daughter was taught how to sing karaoke like a drunken idiot at a bar.

Now I know some of these seem unconventional, but if your goal is to have a human child like mine, as opposed to an automaton, for example, then you’d do well by following my example of mediocrity and a little dose of who-gives-a-hoot. To prove that this type of parenting can achieve the desired results, I would now like to share a few success stories.

A Tiger mother might spend two complete chapters of her memoir explaining how to get one’s children to perform at Carnegie Hall, or at the very least, how to obtain an audition to the Pre-College program at Julliard. But a Jewish mother can boil the answer to that down for you in a few simple words: by kicking and screaming. As a Mouse mother, I prefer to regale you with impressive stories of just the opposite, and so I shall call this instructional section of my writing “How To Ensure That Your Child Never Achieves Much of Anything in The Arts.”

I recently took my daughter, Zoe, for a trial class at a ballet studio where some of her friends were enrolled. After the class, we discussed what she thought about it and tried to decide together whether or not she would be signing up. Being a Mouse mother, I didn’t really care either way. The signature move of the Mouse mother is the shrug, which I did repeatedly as we spoke. I wrote down our conversation verbatim because I thought it was so emblematic of our mother-child dynamic.

Me: So, what did you think of this ballet class? Zoe: I didn’t see any machines there. Me: Huh? Zoe: You remember that place where Andrew took a class once? They had candy and drink machines. Me: Oh. Zoe: And ice cream. We used to eat ice cream before his class. Me: You mean, that hip-hop class on Central Avenue? Zoe: Yes! And they had stuffed animals to buy and also dance clothes. And a TV to watch. Me: Uh-huh. Zoe: That’s the kind of dance class I want to take.

It’s clear to any Jewish mother out there that this girl understands her culture. Zoe knows that professional ballet is just not in her future, so why even try? How smart of her to know that, come puberty, her Polish genes will betray her, ensuring a body so low to the ground that it’s better constructed for potato farming than arabesquing. The closest she will ever come to doing a split is with her Barbie doll’s legs. And that’s so totally cool with her, as long as she can buy stuff and enjoy snacks.

It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

My firstborn, Andrew, proved to be another story entirely. He actually seemed to have some drive beyond the candy-and-shopping aspects of the theater. In fact, he tried out for and was given the coveted role of Fritz in last winter’s production of The Nutcracker at SUNY Purchase. Now, a Tiger mother would have spent weeks, days, and hours preparing her child for such an audition and would then feign modesty and humility but secretly take credit for the child’s success when he did well. But not me. I merely got Andrew a nice haircut and told him to smile a lot in front of the choreographers. Like the Mouse mother I am, I believe a nice Jewish boy with dimples can get ahead in this world merely by knowing his left from his right and by following his own interests.

Seeing that her child has a passion and talent for something of worth, a Tiger mother would certainly push and squeeze and prod and threaten to the point that a) the child got really freaking amazing at the skill and b) the child really hated both the activity and the Tiger mother. Where a Tiger mother values perfection, a Mouse mother values diversification above all else. Why stick to just one thing and become the best at it when you can try so many fun activities and be mediocre at all of them? Which is why, once Nutcracker season had passed, I did not take Andrew to The New York City Ballet. Instead, I took him straight to rec basketball.

Call me naïve, but so far, this renegade technique really seems to be working. And by “working,” I mean its produced children who, at the ages of 8 and 5, are pretty happy doing their job…of being kids.

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