Perfect Parenting? Perfect Nonsense!!!


Why The ‘Chinese Mother’ Method Is Bad For Kids


Uh-oh Good Enough Mother is fired up again!

What’s got my goat? Well over the weekend I read an article by Yale professor Amy Chua, titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” and it’s got me steaming! Take a read and see what you think…

Chua contends that the no-nonsense, take no bull/prisoners method of parenting often employed by Chinese mothers (and other non-Westerners) is the reason their children are academically superior. After I read it (and picked my jaw up off the floor) I thought I’d put together a little list of my own. Sure I’m no Yale professor – just a state school graduate who paid her own way through college and barely made it out on the five-year plan (thanks to that evil math tripping me up).  So, with that obviously limited background, here’s my list, “The Five Things My Slacker Kids Will Learn From Their Good Enough Mother”. (Obviously my kids are not slackers but they do just about every single thing that is on Chua’s no-no list)

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HOW TO BE SOCIALLY ADEPT: I don’t know Chua’s daughter’s Louisa and Sophia so I can’t really make a judgment about their social skills and whether they are up to par. But I absolutely believe kids need to spend time with their peers in settings without parents hovering about, listening and guiding the conversation. Where’s the best time and place for that to happen? Sleepovers. At 3 am. If you are the mother of a daughter, you know how this typically goes down. It’s a birthday party; there are 6 guests, along with your daughter, which is an uneven number. That equals disaster as soon they will be arguing and taking sides and due to sugar rush and fatigue, tears will be inevitable. Did I mention this all happens at 3 am? But guess what? By 4 am, they have cried, hugged, worked it out and are friends again by the time the sun peers over the horizon. Those problem-solving skills will serve them well into adulthood.

HOW TO RELY ON EACH OTHER: Years ago Casey and Cole went through a phase where they were arguing quite a bit.  I was stumped as to why they were at each other’s throats all the time because up until then, they had been pretty good. Once, out of sheer desperation and exasperation, I told them they had to work it out on their own. But before I closed (and locked) the bedroom door behind me, I used this as a teachable moment. “You two are going to have to learn to work together because there will be a time when mommy and daddy will not be here to help you and you’ll have to rely on each other.” Cole looked up at me with his big, blinking eyes and said, “ You mean when we’re away at camp?”  “NO!” I screamed.  “When mommy and daddy are DEAD!” Of course they worked it out and continue honing that skill to this day.

But Cole was right about summer camp too.  Last year they went to a small, music camp for the second year. Even though it was only seven days, when I picked them up, I was amazed at how mature they seemed to me. But the bigger issue was their relationship with each other had developed more and deepened in the absence of their father and me. They shared experiences and jokes that we didn’t know about and learned to speak a sort of shorthand that we could only wish we were privy to. That would not have happened had they not spent any significant time apart from us.  Learning doesn’t just take place in the classroom; Casey and Cole absorbed a lot last summer, about music, nature, life, relationships, friendships, how to make crank calls and not get caught and much more.

HOW TO ACCEPT THAT THEIR BEST MIGHT NOT BE THE BEST: Another of Chua’s tenants is that Chinese mothers will not accept their child not being the number one student in every subject except gym and drama. Oh brother. So what if every student in the classroom has a Chinese mother? The law of averages means someone’s not going to be the best and God help the kid brining up the rear.

What if you kid has a learning disability? Are you supposed to just keep at them, without making concessions? If you do, is that a sign of weakness on your part? It sounds a little to me, like part of the purpose of having a kid be the very best is so the parents can bask in the glow of their friends’ approval. Yeah, smacks a bit of competitive parenting and you know how we feel about THAT. The point in the article at which I sucked my teeth and shook my head was when she talked about teaching her seven-year-old daughter a piece of piano music. She was having a hard time with it and (surely out of frustration) ripped up the sheet music. Chua taped it together and put it in plastic so that wouldn’t happen again. Then she threatened to take away every toy her daughter had until she played it correctly. They worked through the night on the piece and until she finally mastered it and presented it a few weeks later. Chua says:

When she performed “The Little White Donkey” at a recital a few weeks later, parents came up to me and said, “What a perfect piece for Lulu—it’s so spunky and so her.”

Yes, how lovely, that her daughter was able to perform and receive accolades from friends, neighbors and strangers and her mother was able to bask in the glow of that. And all it took was her threatening to take away all her kid’s toys and work her like a slave through the night. She must have been so proud. Yuck.

HOW TO HAVE A WELL-ROUNDED CHILDHOOD: When I think of the essence of childhood, several things come to mind. Certainly school is the centerpiece of that. But there is a place for sleepaway camp, sleepovers, school plays and extracurricular athletics. Why wouldn’t you want your children to be well rounded? Honestly that doesn’t make any sense to me. We know as adults, life isn’t all about work; there is time to foster friendships and have fun. I would take it a step further and say it is essential for balance. My kids also play video games, eat fast food, text their friends and talk back to me, which I’m pretty quick to nip in the bud. But they have a clear understanding of what’s important. If grades slip, videogames get locked up. If the talk back gets out of hand, I earn a cell phone for a week. But I am going to let my kids learn to be individuals and as such, they will test boundaries. But I’m there to catch them when they call or step out of line as opposed to keep them in place.  A safety net, not a safety harness.

HOW TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS: I think sometimes we don’t understand the true and motivating power of failure. One of the things I get from Chua’s piece is that her daughters will never fail, at least on her watch. I don’t think that’s necessarily a great thing. Sometimes lifes most powerful lessons must be absorbed by every fiber in our being. Guest blogger Rachel Vidoni illustrated this point perfectly when she had to allow her son to get a bad grade for a project he worked on minimally. Do you think that was easy for her to do?  Of course it wasn’t but she taught him a powerful lesson and one that he won’t soon forget. I have had instances like that with my own kids. But you best believe that when Casey and Cole go off to college, they will know what is expected of them. They will know how to meet deadlines and manage their time, all while being thousands of miles away from me. I won’t need to hold their hand or constantly remind them of their grades or their future. The power of one poor grade for a project or test that they know they could have done better on will do that for them.

If the end result is about producing a child who is academically superior, then there’s no arguing with Chua and the Chinese mother method. But is that what childhood is all about? Getting straight A’s to the exclusion of everything else? The pursuit of absolute perfection even though we know that is an unattainable goal? Could that mindset be partly to blame for the fact that China reportedly has one of the highest suicide rates in the world?

When I look at the photos of Chua and her perfectly coiffed daughters, sitting with their instruments at the ready, I try to picture myself there. Here’s how mine would look: I would be in a pair of saggy jeans, messy hair, two kids chewing gum, one with the drum set, the other with a guitar, both wearing wrinkled screen t-shirts and jeans. There would be an old pizza box on the living room table and a rug stained with dog pee in the corner. You might even catch a glimpse of the cat litter box.  But the most prominent part of the picture would be the smiles worn by all. We know, accept, live with the fact that we’re doing our best. It may not be THE best, but we’re okay with that.

What do you think about Chua’s piece? Does she make some valid points or is she living in a dream world? Or am I? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Rene Syler is a wife, mother, breast cancer advocate and television personality whose burning desire to tell the truth about modern motherhood led her to create GoodEnoughMother.com . When not spending time with her family or burning something for dinner, Rene travels the country as host of Sweet Retreats on The Live Well Network and Exhale on Aspire.

33 Comments

  1. Joss

    January 11, 2011 at 11:45 am

    She’s a racist and a bigot. I can’t stand her philosophy. She keeps trying to bring up the “Asians that find how horrifying Westerners parenting is.” She’s completely psycho.

  2. Smarty P. Jones

    January 11, 2011 at 11:55 am

    It was certainly a hard read, but a necessary one, I think. Here’s the deal, it’s a matter of culture, I think.

    The idea of parenting is to correct the mistakes we feel our parents made with us while doing all the things we think they did right. That’s why there is no one model. People were raised differently and they’ll continue to be raised differently.

    Every person you see is walking around with three to four generations of quirks and weirdness they end up passing to their own children. So, don’t look at the author with anger. She is simply a product of her environment, just like the rest of us.

    If I had to endure that kind of abuse and emotional distress and I made it out, I, too, would likely feel superior.

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  4. VictorHM

    January 11, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Are you sure that wasn’t a satirical piece from The Onion? Whether she realized it or not, it does read that way.

  5. DawnKA

    January 11, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Well, since my parents weren’t Chinese, I would have to disagree with her methods termed the Asian way. We weren’t allowed to have sleepovers perhaps it was because there were 10 of us children. My parents believed that church (attending every time as long as the doors were open), education (being the best), music (playing an instrument) and having good manners/respect was the only thing we needed to master as children. It was their way to ensure that we would be set for a successful future. I personally endured 7 years of piano lessons with the meanest most cruel instructor who held a long ruler in her hand ready to strike my knuckles when I played the wrong note. It was awful the worst ever. Once I became a mother, I decided to do things differently. Sleepovers were at my house almost too often but hey, it was fun, the girls would watch movies, sing at the top of their lungs, play with their dolls, go to the mall, etc. fun, fun…. My children all play multiple instruments because they expressed interest and took lessons that they enjoyed with their instructors. However, there are some things I felt were no slacking off areas in education and good manners/respect. If they wanted to enjoy the perks of having their own TV’s in their room, ability to make or receive phone calls, use of the computer, etc. they would have to be sure that they are holding up their end in education/good manners/respect. My youngest daughter attends a different church where she plays the piano and drums and goes to every service faithfully even Sunday School. The others attend the same church with me but we’re not as consistent as we would love to be, we’re often late and do not attend every Sunday. All this to say, parenting requires a balance whatever that means to you.

  6. jethrolyn

    January 11, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    I couldn’t agree with your philosophy any more Rene! This woman ( I’m being polite) & her so called parenting is absurd! I was watching her this morning on the Today Show and was horrified! I am far from perfect but I do think that encouraging and supporting your kids to do their best is what works for me. That might not mean being number one in all cases but as long as my children put their best foot forward, I am pleased! Also my kids hearing…good job or way to go…isn’t foreign to their ears. This lady certainly has issues and in my opinion needs professional help. You know the kind of doctor that has a sofa in his office and asks ” So, let’s start with your childhood. What’s going on?”…lol. Nothings wrong with that either…ijs

  7. Kolleen

    January 11, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    It will be interesting to see what her daughters have to say once they are adults. Maybe they will turn out just like their mother, but it seems like a hard thing in Western society.

    I read about her book in a magazine book review the other day. I would not be able to read something like that without getting sick to my stomach.

  8. Auntie Lisa

    January 11, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Although there is a time and place to push your kids harder than they’d like to be pushed, she’s definitely too far on the pushing continuum for my taste. In the piano lesson incident (and I have taught piano to children!), I think a better approach, when the child got totally frustrated with that one piece, would have been to allow the child to sleep on it with the understanding that she would try it again the next day. Things can gel while you sleep. They certainly do NOT gel when your frustration has reached a boiling point! Same reason we re-boot a computer… get a fresh start!

    The one caveat… with something like piano, if the child does not want to be good at the piano, let them choose something else. Something they are interested in. As long as they are interested in what they’re trying to do, a little push now and then to get thru a rough patch can be a good thing. But this Chinese mom is definitely TOO MUCH. There’s no need to belittle your children and override your spouse’s input… sheesh! What a Momzilla!

  9. Sarena

    January 11, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    The following is a true story.

    My older brother is one of the most phenomenal pianist around. Because of his amazing skill, my parents, without my permission, decided to place me in piano lessons too. I HATED IT! To this day, the only song I know how to play is the one I had to play for my final recital; final because the piano instructor told my parents they were wasting their money.

    I did freely write about this chapter in my life and my parents picked up on that skilll instead, and let me take creative writing classes. (I love you for that mom and dad!) My brother is now a happy student at Berklee School of Music in Boston, and I am just as happy writing about him.

    I can’t help but wonder if Chua’s style of parenting is a “script” from generations past, that leaves no room for improvisation, or celebrations of individuality.

    Rene, one of the things I love most about the story of Cole getting his guitar is the role you and Buff played in it. You listened to (by reading) his proposal, his ideas, his angle. I think that’s the character of a Good Enough Mother (parent) is that they listen to their children’s voice and actually let them participate in their own lives!

    I can not applaud a parenting style that makes the child feel less than every time they don’t measure up to the false perfection in their parents’ mind.

    Thanks for sharing this one Rene!

  10. Rene Syler

    January 11, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    LOL @ Momzilla. Maybe she’s just trying to sell books. Surely very few would call their own child “garbage”!?

  11. Rene Syler

    January 11, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Thanks Sarena. I wholeheartedly agree with your notion of letting the child participate in their own life. Novel approach, I know. I wish you could have seen Casey and Cole’s faces when I told them a little bit about the Tiger Mother. My wise daughter said, “What role does fun play in their lives?” Well said, Casey. I wonder if Chua ever asks her daughters what they would like to do, rather than what she expects them to do.

  12. Deanna

    January 11, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    If you listened to the one daughter….she didn’t appear to be that upset about her mother! She stated: “I wouldn’t be what I am today” if it wasn’t for my mother.”
    Now the drawing comment was not the correct thing to say, but then again…..I have seen something my daughter has completed and I think….”what in the world”. One time she made this pottery; suppose to be an animal….looked like an amobea. (think my spelling is wrong.) Anyway she knew it was terrible….so I didn’t have to make up something to make her feel good about what she attempted to do with the art assignment!
    I envy that mother as far as academics, because she knows what the youth are going to have to do as far as competing for jobs and coporate America is not kind to people who have poor academic standing…..employers want effiency and performance at optimal levels….you are not going to get that with a mediocore student!

  13. Rene Syler

    January 11, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    I did listen to the one daughter but what exactly did you expect her to say, “Help me my mom is crazy!” ? Doubtful. It’s all about what you see your job as a mother to be. If it is to produce an academically superior student, then go for it, use the Chinese mother method. If you job is to prepare your kid for ALL that life has to offer, good, bad, ugly and to be well rounded, this is not the way. Come on, no computer? No TV? No sleepovers or sleep away camp? How’s that going to be for her kids’ socialization? And don’t say they can play with their friends after school because, let’s not forget, they’re working on music for three hours a day, including weekends and vacation. And sorry, under NO circumstances do I condone calling your kid garbage, i don’t care what culture we’re talking about. This woman is a bully and way out of bounds. I wonder if this attitude could in any way be partly responsible for those countries having among the world’s highest rates of suicide…

  14. Mia

    January 11, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    I think Smarty hit the nail on the head. It is a cultural difference and one thing about us Americans we are a judgemental bunch who think our ways are superior.

    I haven’t read the article but I saw her on 1 segment of the Today show this morning ( I heard she was in a couple segments) and she said that maybe she should have named the book something different because it is just a story about her life not to tell others what to do. Again, I didn’t read the article or the book.

    I have lost it with my kids and said say way out of line things, nothing like calling them garbage, but I’m sad to say I’ve crossed the line. Of course, I apologized and talk through it, but even parents lose their temper and filters from time to time.

    Suicide is always awful, but the Asian actually tend to take responsiblity if you want to call it that when they do wrong. The CEO of the factory with the tainted toys, suicide. I guess that is there way of dealing with shame. I think it is also cultural.

  15. Mia

    January 11, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    PS I agree with what you said regarding the 5 areas. I’m a firm believer in letting our children figure it out and be there to help pick them up or catch their fall upon request.

  16. Allyson

    January 11, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    I linked here from Catherine’s site and love what you have to say about this article and this mother. I read the WSJ article too and I have to say there were moments of pure cringe worthy behavior. I read about half way and then scanned to the end, also thinking I was being duped. I don’t agree with her parenting, especially when she didn’t allow food, water, or a bathroom break during the piano piece. I don’t agree with not fostering friendships throughout school. I don’t agree with talking down to a child…ever…for anything. My house has expectations and most of the time they are high expectations, but that doesn’t include belittling my child.

    I agree with your assessment of possible lack of social adeptness, I thought the same thing. But there is a nagging thought in my head that I still can’t shake and for me, it is: where does all of this get them? (And by them, I mean the children of the Tiger Mothers) Are they better off professionally? Are they our captains of industry? Are they our billionaires? Are they the top in all of their perspective fields? (Are they the bloggers I read? Heh, heh) Sure there are some that might be, but people who are at the top of their games have intelligence, but they also have people skills and a foresight into the future that can’t be drilled into them for 3 hours after school.

    I will continue my imperfect mothering and have happy, intelligent and respectful children who won’t eventually be spending money on therapy talking about me. And we will do it in an imperfect house, imperfect clothes, but with perfectly happy smiles. Thank you for your imperfectly perfect post.

  17. Marcie

    January 11, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    Dear GEM,

    I’m so glad you addressed this-I read it & was left with so many mixed feelings. I do not agree with Chua’s rearing, but my biggest fear is that some innocent, vulnerable pregnant woman (of any race) may try out her methods-with damaging and unsuccessful results. African-American mothers dealt with an issue sort of like Chua’s description. Many black mothers believed in a good old fashioned whupping (for any misbehavior) to put their children in place. Schools use to believe in the paddle. Gradually as we grew wiser, read more, opened up to better ways of handling discipline, these old ways fell to the wayside. New generations survived & thrived. I guess I just want to point out her-just because her parents and those before her did it-doesn’t make it law….or right.

  18. Cee Richardson

    January 11, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    What would she have done if one of the daughters had a learning disability? Would she use the same system of discipline, or would she modify it? As someone who works with children, I have seen the effects of parents who push their goals and dreams on their children. Conversely, I’ve seen what the lack of parenting is doing to kids. There’s got to be a balance somewhere.

    It seems as though the girls don’t get much interaction with other kids. Do they associate with classmates who are not in the same classes as them? Do they know how to have a relationship with people they don’t know? Can they handle conflicts with other people?

  19. David

    January 11, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Excellent article. Higher grades doesn’t make your child any better than another person’s child. Parenthood is something that comes to people naturally. Treat your children with love and they will grow up happy and stable. Make your children feel bad because they’re not the best performing student in class, and you will invite disaster.

  20. Jen

    January 12, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    My husband is Chinese (I am not). He brought this article to my attention earlier this week and thought I should read it so I could better understand the way he was raised. He endured a lot of the same upbringing this woman talks about but he rebelled and now he’s the black sheep of the family. He has a poor, rocky relationship with his parents which stems a lot from his rearing.

    I’d be curious to know what Tiger Mom’s relationship is like with her parents. She talks about being raised in a firm but loving environment, but she never mentions how close she is to her parents.

  21. Rene Syler

    January 12, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    I wondered the same myself. Your husband’s reaction seems completely understandable after that sort of upbringing. I hope for Amy Chua’s sake, her daughter’s show more compassion to her when she’s an old lady and that they skip calling her “garbage”. Time will tell.

  22. Shay

    January 12, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Yes, excelling in math and music is admirable. But what about excelling at “making it work”? A child who has never failed has never had the chance to test their creativity and their out-of-the-box thinking skills. One of the most amazing things to see is a child with their tongue stuck out, intently focusing on something that isn’t working right, and that beautiful brilliant moment when they either struggle through on their own or figure a way around after failing time and time again. That AH-HA! moment is priceless.
    American students might not be at the top of the list for math, but they are typically at the topic of the list when it comes to creative problem solving. And what does our world need most? Those who can solve problems only in ways in which they’ve been taught and guided, to answers their ancestors came up with, or those who see every problem as a challenge and want to try new ways of thinking and approaching a solution?

  23. Rene Syler

    January 12, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    EXACTLY! Thank you Shay. I have always believed that failure is a powerful teaching tool. And I don’t think we can dismiss how important socialization and the development of interpersonal skills is either, both of which sound like they get short shrift in this method of motherhood.

  24. Will Jones

    January 12, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    Amazing! Amy Chua has figured it out! She’s absolutely RIGHT! Reading her story has made me a better parent! Finally, I have a pan that will work!
    I’ll start tomorrow morning by waking up my daughter and calling her a fat piece of trash. That way, she’ll learn that when the world treats her that way, that it’s her fault and that she needs to change herself to make others happy. Then, I’ll take away my son’s guitar, which he started teaching himself to play at a young age because he loved it so much, and I’ll force him to play an instrument he doesn’t like, because we all know that only the piano and the violin are REAL instruments. …And no more sleep-overs! How can I possibly control my daughter’s life if I let her spend the night around all of those free-thinking girls? Before I know it, she might want to make her own decisions or live her own life… and we can’t have THAT going on! No way! I want my children living the life that makes ME happy; not themselves. Oh, if I could only go back in time to when they were babies. I would have potty trained them at gun-point… and by now, I would have three wonderful, straight A, violin playing, robots. Now that’s good parenting!

  25. Rene Syler

    January 12, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    Oh man, you slay me.. Good points, made with humor.

  26. Nancy

    January 13, 2011 at 8:53 am

    I read this article the other day and all i can say is i am thankful to have had my parents and not hers…It baffles me that she lives in the United States, and yet wants to raise her children in chinese culture? If it really means that much to her, she should have stayed in her own country where her parenting skills would be the norm….. Us Westerners like the way we raise our children and see her ways as disturbing, as far as i am concerned it was all about the attention and money she is getting and its just not worth my time to play into someones hands that way!!

  27. Mark

    January 20, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    The real shame is all the fake 5-star reviews her “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” book is getting on Amazon. The entire internet has turned against her (seriously, every article and blog is against her parenting), but somehow the book is at 3.3/5 stars?

    How do I know they’re fake? Many of the reviews were published the same day the book came out. Really? Dozens of people concerned with raising their kids right had the time in one day to read 256 pages? I can understand 1-star reviews on the first day, you can base your review on the first dozen pages that you didn’t like, but 5-star? Someone’s paying for these 5-star reviews, shame we don’t have more honest people on the internet to go rank her book the way it should be.

  28. pattyrowland

    March 30, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    i’ll take a gem raised kid over a non-westerner any day!!!! xoxoxo

  29. Faun Reese

    March 30, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    Her kids are NO BETTER or NO MORE SUPERIOR than anyone else’s kids!!

  30. Sang Duong

    March 30, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    I will admit that when I read this article by Chua, I related! Why? Because I grew up with a Vietnamese dominating father who raised me in that very fashion. I was not allowed to have friends over nor was I allowed to go to their houses, I was only given ONE extra curricular activity (luckily, I got to choose). We ate dinner at a certain time, as a family, however were not allowed to talk. I could write stories for days about this :) Some things have been great and some things have been terrible for me raising my children now.

    My opinion, is that parenting is something we learn as we go based on our own personal morals and values and I always so that I will never know I messed up until later on! :) Of course we all parent based on what our parents did and did not do and how it made us feel as children. For us, each kid has their own personality and as a mother, I must adjust to such!

    My thoughts and experience :)

  31. Rene Syler

    March 30, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    @Sang: Totally agree! I absolutely subscribe to the “one size does NOT fit all” way of parenting. I love my kids dearly and differently as they are motivated by different things. I think it’s important to recognize and parent accordingly.

  32. Irene

    March 30, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    This is the absolute honest to gem truth written here….

    When I was younger I went my freshman year of highschool to an all girls school….I won a scholarship and had part of the tuition paid…we had girls from all over the world literally attend our small school. I remember this one girl vividly…she was from Korea and we called her Yum Yum…this girl made straight A’s pressured herself, lived in a private room….it took her most of the year to warm up to us as her parents influence and expectations always worried her, etc….All I could think is thank gosh her parents sent her here because this girl needs to go horse back riding, or to a movie, etc more than she needed an education.

    Life is all about balance…I just want my kids to take on life in moderation….sorry but I think these moms heart is in the right place but there is more to life than all that pressure because for example when Wall street fell a few years ago..some IVY league schooled people lost jobs, etc just like the average joe.

  33. Irene

    March 30, 2011 at 5:46 pm


    pattyrowland:

    i’ll take a gem raised kid over a non-westerner any day!!!! xoxoxo

    Me too patty

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