Battle Callback of the Tiger Cub

Right now, all across America, there are Iranian-American parents printing out and framing copies of the Wall Street Journal excerpt of Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother", a book about her experience raising children in America according to extremely strict Chinese parenting standards.

The Iranian parents I know (not least of all my own) are probably dancing in circles around their kids with in gleeful validation. They now have written proof - in the Wall Street Journal, no less! -- that:

1) they weren't as strict as some other people
2) someone finally defended the immigrant style of parenting

In fact, some of them may even have gotten new ideas ;)

Before I go any further, it's worth pointing out that the excerpt is from a part of Chua's life when she's extremely hard on her kids (ahem, "disciplined"). The excerpt, just a snippet of the book, did a great job in garnering publicity- except it publicized a book that frankly isn't. Many who read only the short excerpt assumed she had written basically a parenting manual -- but the book is about an unusual parenting model in the US environment and ultimately she, as a parent, transforms, as any good book protagonist does.

But we live in a time and place where people don't have the time to trouble themselves with context - and now she's getting death threats. It reminds me of Once Upon a Time when I turned a rant about not feeling like working out into a funny blog post called "I Hate Skinny People". My "fan mail" was something for the books... did you know I was obese? Yeah, neither did I ;)

Publicity: can't live with it, can't live without it!

The Tiger Mother Debates have led me to these thoughts:
1) Chinese people take the hit.

That's the thing about Tiger Mothers... they exist in many, many cultures, not just certain Asian cultures. Strictness was something that bonded me to people quickly when we were growing up; although our parents' homelands were worlds apart, my friends whose parents were Korean or Greek or Indian always "got it". I never had to explain to them why I had to go home right after school and why I didn't talk back to my parents and why when I got a B+ I sunk in my chair. It's a way of life that exists around the world that only raises eyebrows when it happens here.

2) The book/excerpt is intriguing because it is extreme.

Um, hello, that's the POINT -- Chua takes it to another level. Now, the book is interesting because she (Chua) is extreme and she knows it. No one wants to read about a hiker who accomplishes their trip; we want to read about the one who has to cut off his own arm. They say in gambling that you should pick your strategy and stick to it; in Blackjack if you are going to hit on a certain number, then always do it.

Part of what is fascinating about Chua's approach is that she appears to do just that -- she is unbending in how she approaches parenting. She does not seem susceptible to the homework one day, tv/friend's house negotiation the next day that 99.9999% of American parents fall prey to.

3) My mom wasn't the biggest tiger. (But she could roar!)

Obviously, as you read you reflect on your own life. My sister and I give my mom a lot of grief for the strictness with which we were raised. But on second thought my mom (who was definitely the disciplinarian between my two parents) falls squarely between Amy Chua and western parents like Ayelet Waldman, whose counterpoint "In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom" is an entertaining read. She never made me sit at the piano and play whatever that white donkey song was; she, like a normal human being, would have gone bonkers if we had sat at the piano and played some kiddy tune ad nauseum.

Sometimes I think she (mom) wished she'd leaned one way or the other instead of wavering between the two, which is what she ultimately did. When recently I saw a performance by Lang Lang and told her I wanted to take up piano again, I could swear I could see her smack her hand to her forehead, thinking of how she let 16 year old me drop classical piano and take up... hip hop dance... instead. But I have this to say: if and when I take up piano again, it will be because I want to; and when I play it will be with a passion and joy all my own. And that's what it's all about, homey! (here: homey=Mom)

4) Tiger mothers sacrifice.

She would never admit it, but I'm sure my mom laughed out loud at Waldman's wish to avoid ever attending another piano recital. I shudder to think of the performances we put our parents through. And the sheer horror of coming home from a six day workweek to help your kid learn a BS version of American history or make a diorama, much less pretending you cared when there is a new episode of Dallas on that you could be watching instead. I don't know how she did it, and I should probably take notes.

But that's what Tiger Mothers do- they don't just point and tell you to do something, they are engaged. (I swear, to this day my mom remembers more than I do from my classes.) The tiger mother suffers alongside the child; it sucks as much for them as it does for the kid.

Another point I don't believe was brought up in the article but is true in my case is that many Tiger Mothers are probably successful themselves. Tiger Mothers may know what they're doing because they themselves are accomplished and confident and so they are passing on the rites of passage of what they felt worked for them. If my mom was lying around eating bon bons and subsisting off a sugar(my)daddy, that would be one thing for her to tell me to go do my homework, but she was busting her butt to run a practice and teach at Northwestern University's dental school. Chua is a law professor, so she's no slouch either.

Maybe this is a passing-the-TypeA-torch. Some people really, really want their kids to be into sports and the kids aren't. I'm not entirely sure how it's different, but in the west you'd never criticize a parent for putting a kid in a tee ball class if they cry and say they want to go home or they don't want to play with other people. We prioritize building different skills in the US, but sometimes similar methods are used to get there.

Add to the time investment that tiger mothers frankly sacrifice their run in the popularity contest. As a kid, It's really hard to be buddies with the person who tells you to stop goofing around and go do your homework, the person who acts as your conscience, pointing out that you could do better. Once someone asked me how I did two graduate degrees; to this day I swear high school was harder for me, possibly because I had the shadow of the Tiger Mother over me.

For sure the Tiger Mother loses against their candidate in the popularity primaries, ie. your other parent (if they're around). My dad sat back and reaped the benefits of us being hard workers and studiers, but my mom was the one barricading herself in the dining room reviewing vocab words with us most of the time (she's a published author now, so Mom, you're welcome ;).

5) Anyone who says your parents are the basis of your self esteem needs to make more friends.

Parents do affect your self-esteem, absolutely. The other day I reminded my mom of my first kiss and how when he decided he didn't want to date, her response was to look up from the kitchen counter and shrug: "Well, maybe you weren't a good kisser!"

But ultimately you're with your parents a fraction of the day and you are with your schoolmates the rest of it. Your parent can tell you the sun shines out of your a$$ but if your classmates call you ugly or stupid or say you have funny hair, you're screwed. I would argue that your self esteem and subsequent self-conduct takes a way bigger hit from the treatment (and encouragement) of your peers; how else to explain the perpetuation of stirrup pants?

I was borderline midget size in elementary school (<--not joking) and my mom told me I was "big inside". Well, kids at my school called me a shrimp. Guess whose opinion hit home.

Joking aside, the Tiger parenting itself affected my self confidence a lot less than the friends who made me uncomfortable about it.

6) To each their own.

I loved Ayelet Waldman's response for so many reasons, not only because she was honest about being a relaxed western parent. But I specifically loved her point that, as a parent, you ultimately do what will work best for that child. My parents' relaxed parenting of my brother, who is 10 years younger than me, was met with dramatic dropped jaws and eye rolling by my sister and myself. If they had told him to be home by 10:30pm, which, for the record, was my curfew my senior year of high school, he would have laughed in their faces. Maybe pointed.

They were strictest with me and had my brother later in life. My mom liked to joke "We didn't know if you would give us grandkids - so we had our own!"

My sister and I got spanked, my parents wouldn't so much as lift a hand on the golden child (ok, and maybe we asked them not to). Maybe they felt we required a different level of supervision and nudging in order to accomplish what we (my sister & I) were able to; my brother didn't need it-- nor did he want it.

Ultimately, parents have to decide what will be best for their children. And here's the part the people making death threats to author Chua are forgetting: it's their right to raise their kids however the heck they want to. (Granted... maybe next time don't write a book about it.)

I like to think my parents could be tough on me because I was born with a big dose of suck it up. I could handle it; it didn't crumble me for my mom to tell me I could do better- where it was possible, I did better. The end. I love her, she loves me, we are able to sit over coffee and discuss the Tiger Mother article and both laugh about it. If that's not a sign of the fact that how they raised me worked fine, I don't know what is.

I have to say, it's a lot of fun writing and philosophizing about raising kids, seeing as I have none yet. I quite enjoy the armchair quarterbacking of the whole thing.

Let it be said that my hat's off to the parents all around the world who raise kids, especially teenagers. The fact that we have all made it to adulthood is a testament to their good will, I assure you.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. Great article