I was submerged by a wide variety of feelings while reading this book.
My first reaction was “Mom has done her job right“, followed by “Wait a minute… she missed this… and that…! Is my mom NOT the manipulative, guilt-inspiring, perfect mom I had always thought her to be?” A while later, I gained profound respect for the author, who, even after discovering her mother’s manipulation and guilt methods, still thought she did a great job. I love my mom, but I can’t say I fully approve of some of her education and caring methods, as described in this book. Finally, I realized that my mom had been of the ‘old generation’ of manipulation and guilt, like the author’s grandmother, and it is because she had not had the opportunity to perfect her child-rearing curriculum that she had failed to bring me up as ‘the perfect child’. She tried her best, but limited by her generation and the lack of know-how from other mothers such as Elizabeth Beckwith and her mother, she was unsuccessful in putting the cherry on top of the cake: finalizing her mind game in making me believe her mothering method is the best, and thus inspiring me to write a book lauding her efforts and achievement. Or maybe I’m just not as good a daughter as Beckwith.
The author believes in the ‘what is not stated’ rather than the blunt ‘Don’t do this‘, ‘This is bad‘, ‘You’re a bad child for doing this‘. Instead, it’s the ‘Look at him/her. I’m not the one telling you not to do things. There’s an example of your future if you don’t do as I tell you. But hey, it’s your choice. Whatever. I love you‘.
This latter method implies a lot of things the innocent child is not aware of (I have highlighted the key words/expressions). First, the mother is not the ‘bad guy’ who forbids you to wear that skirt that is too short, or who doesn’t want you to have a sleepover at a friend’s house. She is merely pointing out that if you start wearing that skirt that barely covers your ass, you might just end up as the bimbo over there. Secondly, she provides a concrete example of what you might end up if you don’t listen to her. And examples, boy there are plenty in real life. Just turn on the news. Thirdly, and most importantly, she leaves you the ‘choice’. Or, should I say, she makes you believe you have a choice. After all, technically, she’s not openly telling you not to have a tattoo. She’s merely pointing out at the miserable guy at the end of the street, and well, he happens to have a tattoo. Maybe the tattoo and his current state are connected. Maybe not. But hey, if you want to take a chance and screw your life, then you decide. Finally, telling the child ‘I love you’ is just as important as the third step. This is not a simple ‘I love you unconditionally, no matter what you do’. The innocent child doesn’t know this, and naively believes that whatever he/she does, the mother will be supportive. But the mother knows that by instilling her child with these fatal three words, the child will have this uncomfortable, inexplicable feeling that his/her mother will love him/her even more if he/she listens to what she said. It’s the power of the invisible words that always follow these three words, invisible to the child’s eyes, but masterly impregnated in the child’s brain by the mother: ‘I love you AND I know you won’t disappoint me‘.
And so, constantly afraid to ‘let mom down’, the perfect child abides by mom’s laws and doesn’t doubt that he/she will be spared of all the dangers in life.
This is where my mom failed, I think. She did manage to put the guilt in me for some time, and I have tried to be the docile little girl for… perhaps 22-3 years. Maybe the fact that we lived in the middle of nowhere instead of a big city where the temptation of ‘being a cool kid’ is always lurking around, did help. But she was too blunt at times, instead of being subtle. And the moment I saw a tiny escape, I took it and although I was often eaten by guilt, that guilt didn’t stop me from… ‘ruining (part of) my life’, as my mother would say (or think). Or maybe Beckwith is genuinely a ‘good person’ and a ‘good child’, who has enough self-esteem and pride not to be allured to belonging to the ‘cool group’. Unfortunately, I’ve never been immune to it and I chose to be ‘cool’ despite the guilt and the ‘You have let me down’ looks I would inevitably get from mom after a night of heavy drinking.
One thing my mom got right though, was what the author describes under the chapter titled “How to Scare the Crap Out of Your Child (in a Positive Way)”. My mom has this ‘thing’ (that we both call ‘insanity’ but that she probably thinks, deep inside, is a ‘sane and perfectly reasonable concern’) with worrying. She is constantly worrying. Literally. I wish I were kidding, or even exaggerating a bit, but I’m not *sigh*. We miss a call and the first thought that goes through her mind is not ‘Oh, she probably didn’t hear the ring’ or ‘She’s probably busy’ or ‘The battery must be off’. It’s in the lines of ‘She must have been kidnapped and her kidnappers have thrown the phone somewhere under the bridge so that we won’t even be able to trace her’ or ‘Some random person must have shot her and she is lying, lifeless, in a ditch somewhere’. And unfortunately, she’s made sure that we know what she’s thinking. When we are abroad, she tells us about ‘foreign (Asian) girls’ who have been killed. When we go out drinking, she tells us about ‘all these girls’ who have been drugged and raped, or took a cab home and got killed. When we go out clubbing (which, in my defense, hasn’t been that often), she inevitably tells us about ‘all these girls’ who followed a guy they didn’t know and were raped. It’s one thing to ignore her and roll her eyes at her, but you hear these things basically all your life, and it’s not that easy to take ‘the fear’ out of you once it has set its claws in your mind.
There was this one time when I was in Spain in 2006 and spending my nights clubbing away (ah, the good ol’ days), my flatmate of that time and I met these Spanish guys who proposed we take their car and go to a ‘hotter, cooler’ club in their neighborhood. In the matter of seconds, I already saw the headlines in the Spanish newspapers next day: “Two foreigners in language course killed and ditched”. I saw my mother having to fly to Madrid to confirm my body, sobbing inconsolably at the morgue and blaming me for not having listened to her countless warnings “Don’t follow strangers”. The guys were very persuasive (and well, cute) and my flatmate, who, with her Amanda Bynes looks (not the Amanda Bynes of 2013, but the one in ‘What A Girl Wants’ or ‘She’s the Man’), seemed to be used to this ‘kind of invitation’, tried to convince me ‘It was not a big deal’. My older flatmate, who, looking back, was wiser, flatly said she was going home, but I, young and immature, and desperate as ever to ‘be cool’, didn’t want to be the ‘scared Asian girl’ who doesn’t know how to have fun. So follow the strangers, I did. I was lucky I guess, but it really could have gone either way (this is the Fear talking). Nothing happened, since I am well and alive to write about it 7 years later with perfect nonchalance, but that car ride was probably the longest I had had in my life, and I couldn’t help but imagine our bodies, lying next to each other, on the road, at any point.
The author also talks about awakening the ‘teamwork’ feeling and responsibilities in the child, by supporting the same sports team for instance, as a family, among other manipulation tricks. All in all, it’s a good and fun read, and it’s entirely up to the reader to take her lightly or seriously, but I must say, if I ever have children, I know I will avoid some of my mom’s less polished methods and take on a tip or two from Beckwith. After all, it will all be for my child’s own good.
Note: even if you do make mistakes and are not the accomplished manipulator, you will have things to laugh about with your child when he/she reaches the late 20s, so not all is lost.