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I’ve been fascinated by all the discussion about the “Tiger Mother,” Amy Chua, who has stimulated a lot of debate about American parenting by talking about the rigorous standards to which she held her daughters. She didn’t let them watch TV, play video games or go on play dates. She demanded nothing less than perfection when it came to things like academics or playing the piano.

While I think the Yale professor’s approach to parenting seems a little extreme for my tastes, I think she makes a legitimate point about our national tendency to give trophies just for showing up, and for not demanding the best of our kids. We often demand the best for our kids, but that isn’t the same thing; they grow up feeling entitled and exceptional, but they haven;t really done anything to earn it.

This sort of ties into my general feeling about the phrase “American exceptionalism,” which gets tossed around by politicians like it is some sort of divine birthright. It isn’t. Not in my view. America provide the opportunity to be exceptional, but it is only an opportunity. We have to be exceptional every day, prove ourselves every day.

The other reason that the Tiger Mother has generated such strong feelings, I think, is an abiding fear that there may be about a billion Chinese children out there who have been held to the same high standards, who understand that they need to be relentless about achievement. As a society, we are rightly insecure about our place in the world, and Chua has smacked us upside the head with our own insecurities.

However, in his New York Times column this week, I thought that without being defensive, David Brooks caught a different side of the issue, noting that while Chua pushed her daughters about individual achievement, she actually may have been too soft in terms of demanding that her kids learn to play well with others - a talent that is extremely important when it comes to things like creativity.

Brooks writes, “Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon have found that groups have a high collective intelligence when members of a group are good at reading each others’ emotions - when they take turns speaking, when the inputs from each member are managed fluidly, when they detect each others’ inclinations and strengths.

“Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.

“This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.

“Chua would do better to see the classroom as a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood. Where do they learn how to manage people? Where do they learn to construct and manipulate metaphors? Where do they learn to perceive details of a scene the way a hunter reads a landscape? Where do they learn how to detect their own shortcomings? Where do they learn how to put themselves in others’ minds and anticipate others’ reactions?

“These and a million other skills are imparted by the informal maturity process and are not developed if formal learning monopolizes a child’s time ... I wish she recognized that in some important ways the school cafeteria is more intellectually demanding than the library.”

Somehow I missed this story when it first came out late last year, but I was amused this week to read about the fact that Swiss bank UBS is revising its 44-page dress code, and may reconsider suggestions that female employees wear flesh-colored underwear, as well as recommendations about how to trim your toenails, apply makeup, and how often men should get haircuts (monthly).

Men who deal with clients will still be required to wear dark suits, black shoes, white shirts and red ties, but the company says that it will eliminate some of the recommendations that some folks found onerous, and others found amusing.

Funny, isn’t it? Talk about cultural divides as great as those between Chinese and American mothers. In Switzerland, companies are telling employees what underwear they should have on; in America, at least here on MNB, we’ve been talking about tattoos and piercings.

Black Swan is a truly disturbing movie, far more so that I expected, but I also have to admit that I was riveted by it, and especially by Natalie Portman’s amazing performance as a ballet dancer veering dangerously between reality and paranoia. Watching the movie can be an exhausting experience, because director Darren Aronofsky ratchets up the tension from almost the first minute of the movie and never lets it lag, showing an almost Hitchcock-like virtuosity. There also are some scary and strong supporting performances from Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder, and the general theme of obsession - of losing connections with reality because you forget about context - is fascinating. There’s even a business lesson hidden here, about the importance of never being so single-minded about one’s job and life that you ignore the greater realities. Just a terrific movie.

Finally, thanks to all of you who wrote in about my video commentary yesterday. FYI...we’re looking into why a few of you experienced a video in which the sound did not synch with the picture. And I’m taking all your comments to heart as we move forward...

That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend.

Until Monday....Slainte!
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