In one very intentional and fluid motion Amy Chua flung a hand made birthday card back into the open hands of her daughter Lulu. In an infamous sentence that would soon reach the appalled lips of book club mothers and helicopter parents across America, Chua announced; “I don’t want this…I deserve better than this. So I reject this” (http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2043313,00.html).
A collection of anecdotes and quotes echoing this strict perfectionist art incident make up Chua’s now famous book: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A weaving maze of 6 hour torturous practice sessions, straight-A demands, strict “no sleepover” or “playdate” policies, and countless threats made in the face of disobedience, Yale law professor Amy Chua shared her self-proclaimed “Tiger Mom” parenting philosophy and was met with an American roar. Attacked as an unfeeling monster and Nazi parent, American parents tore into Chua’s philosophy–a defensive chorus of critiques driven by a very carefully disguised yet palpable fear. The real question that Amy Chua’s memoir presents is not whether her parenting style is correct, but why we care enough make such an aggressive effort to tear it to shreds.
The first thing that comes to mind is the increasingly competitive nature of society and the world. For example, along the top of the first page of the TIME Magazine article “The Truth About Tiger Moms” (January 2011), a carefully plotted and brightly color coordinated grid of math and reading scores across countries in Europe, Asia and America offers a visual depiction of the fears of parents across our nation. In a country that has developed a palpable superiority complex, being ranked in the middle is unacceptable. There must be a reason though, right? We can’t actually be average. To avoid this reality, we take the defensive position. “Tiger Mom” (and the sweeping generalizations about “Chinese Mothers” that have come to be associated with her) becomes an immoral and heartless mother. Westernized parenting is praised as healthy and essential on the path to cultivating “happiness.” Our way must be the right way because it is the only way we have ever known. We take on this mantra of superiority–this notion that have been and always will be the best–and we use it to inform our parenting identities. Yet, in the back of our minds, (and perhaps at the front as well) the need to compete lurks. Behind masks of smiling pride and the bragging that takes place on elementary school soccer fields, American parents are more feline than they let on.
In the recent State of the Union address, President Obama asserted with clenched fists that we need to ”out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” The recurring theme of the evening became “winning the future.” Watching this speech, I saw this theme as the foundation of the American mentality. In a capitalist society built upon the “freedoms” of Democracy, I often think of American society as one of those cartoon character horses chasing a dangling carrot–motivated by material success and measuring victory by the size of the “prize.” Sure, it’s important to motivate innovation and encourage progress. It’s important for our children to have the same access to education that children in other countries experience. However, I have a problem with the loss of cooperation. What ever happened to working together? What happened to alliances and compromises and acknowledging other perspectives? Why does parenting have to be black and white–right versus wrong? Why has having a strong and unwavering opinion become more impressive than embracing ambiguity?
I was raised in a town where parents hold the hands of well-dressed first graders as they walk the tree-lined sidewalks to school, attend PTA meetings, wear the obligatory “school spirit” themed gear to athletic events as they go hoarse yelling from the sidelines, keep track of every grade logged on the electronic school system’s database “Family Access,” discuss the college choices and test scores of high school seniors over picket fences on lazy Sunday afternoons, and “encourage” their children through 12 years of schooling as they point out the article in the local paper about so-and-so’s soccer star son down the street and the and GPAs and extra curricular activities of those 5 overachieving kids who got into Ivy League schools last year. My town was simultaneously an idyllic apple pie slice of the American Dream and a pressure cooker. Most of us were not explicitly told that we had to get straight A’s (as Ms. Chua blatantly demanded of her children) but we understood the standard just the same.
Reading about the “Tiger Mom,” the controversy is all in the details. On a more general level, Ms. Chua’s parenting is actually pretty “American.” She wants her kids to succeed. She operates with the goal of giving her children as many future opportunities as possible. Isn’t this the bottom line of the American Dream? The right to compete?
It seems like every decade brings a new set of directions and “trend” for parenting. For example, in response to all of the hype about “Tiger Mom,” a parenting blog found on the nytimes.com revealed that “The latest parenting trend in the United States is potentially Chinese in origin while the latest parenting trend in China is potentially Western”(://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/on-chinese-mothers-and-american-kids/). Apparently, as we fight tooth and nail to defend our “American” parenting, we begin to stealthily take on aspects of the competing style. We attempt to use their strategy to beat them in a never ending game. As we adjust and supplement disciplinary strategies and parenthood expectations based on books we read and seemingly casual conversations with the neighbors, where do we find ourselves?
From Dr. Spock, to Dr. Phil, Oprah, and the constant release and analysis of scientific success studies, I feel like the true meaning of “parenting” has been lost. Where are we as individuals in all of this? What really makes us into the parents we will become? Is it the way our parents raised us, the desperate need to compete imbued by American culture, or the constant influence of celebrity opinions and the inescapable impact of media? To me, parenting is a unique puzzle of each of these pieces. It should be holistic and integrative. It shouldn’t be a competition or a trend, but an individualized experience. Perhaps if we took the time to understand why we do what we do as parents instead of merely acting and reacting in response to memoirs and statistics, we would feel more secure and be better parents because of it.
Amy Chua is one person telling the story of the way she has raised her children. Somehow, her book, which originally served as a personal explanation for why she approached parenting the way she did, became a warning about the growing global inferiority of the U.S. and a challenge to the “wimpy” parents of America that ended in a defensive battle cry. Though these defiant parents tear apart Chua for her “heartlessness” I wouldn’t be surprised if they began to run their children through a few extra rounds of math flashcards after they finish their broccoli and skim milk at the dinner table.
This brings up an interesting point. If we all become Tiger Mothers in order to compete with the Tiger Mother, what kind of world will we live in? All of our children can’t play the violin and score 100% on every math test. We need the English majors and the trombone players and the actresses. We need to remember that we are all part of an inextricably linked web of relationships. A teacher of violin and viola (she has been my violin teacher since the 2nd grade…but we never played ‘The Little White Donkey’ piece that Chua made famous in her book), a luthier, and a professional blogger, Korinthia Klein makes this argument in her blog “Holding Down the Fort” as she states;
“In a world of science leaning professionals and violinists, there is no one to design our clothes, build our homes, fly us across the world or cut our hair. There would be no restaurants, no novels, no art, no sports…. It’s inhuman, unsustainable, and frankly very, very dull. To label one path superior, but not to acknowledge dependence on the rest of the world taking different paths that support your own is peculiar, and a tad insulting. I’m pleased her own daughter is an accomplished pianist. But her daughter depends on someone else to build pianos and keep them maintained for that to happen. What is gained by labeling that career and those talents as inferior?”(http://blogs.babble.com/holding-down-the-fort/2011/01/23/the-full-orchestra/).
This gets at the heart of what bothers me so much about the entire “Tiger Mom” controversy that has occupied so many headlines and served as a conversation starter on talk shows and over steaming cups of coffee. We don’t see the big picture. We lose to ability to connect. We don’t see Amy Chua as a way to supplement our perspective, but as a reason to cross our arms and defend it without taking the time to think through the way we see the world and why.
Parenting is a constant balancing act. I’m not a parent, nor do I intend to be for several more years, but I can already see this much. Perhaps I have a more holistic perspective on the matter because I am not a parent. The moment a child is born the parents are transformed. The meaning of life changes. Ends of the earth would be reached for the sake of this one tiny being in a sea of six billion. Raising this helpless creature into a fully functioning and “successful” human being is a beautiful conundrum. Become too much of a helicopter parent and you end up sheltering your child to the point of handicapping them when they finally venture out of the safety bubble of parent-funded education. You risk defining them to the point where they are unable to define themselves–leading to issues like depression or living in the parents’ basement after the age 30 “deadline” when certain life goals are expected to be met. Refrain from getting involved and play the part of the “cool parent” and you risk raising one of those out of control beings without any reality of expectations, goals, or ambitions. One extreme propels the other. The over-involved parents with completely stressed out kids who burn out by the end of high school (notably, this is what most people predict will happen to Amy Chua’s children…I’m very interested to see where they end up in ten or so years) inspire the extremes of laid back parenting. In many cases, it seems people become the parents they do because of who they declare they will not be.
In a world that is in many ways tearing apart at the seams, I believe that hope could be one of the most important tools a parent could offer. Though many will probably disagree, I think that Amy Chua does offer her children hope in a world where economies are failing, resources dwindle, and nuclear weapons threaten to destroy us all. In her own way, Chua tells her children they are capable of anything. She pushes them to do what they never believed they could do themselves. Of course, she bases these achievements on socially constructed norms of what “superior” means, but she still does it out of love. Ms. Chua restricts the choices of her children so that they will have more choices in the future. Ultimately, this is what we should strive for. Not necessarily the restrictions, but the choices and the possibilities for our children. The next generation needs to feel capable of taking on the world, because the world is what will test them. How can we raise our children in a way that makes the future seem a little brighter? In a way that gives them hope and confidence when the news seems a little bleaker every day? How can we cooperate across cultures instead of constantly judging and competing? How can we learn from each other without first tearing each other down? How do we find and accept our unique parental identities (as Tiger Mom arguably did)? There is no one solution to end with. There is only a series of questions.
Side Note: I came across this article in the New York Times this morning, and it fit right in with the Amy Chua conversation. Titled “Ensuring Domestic Tranquility During Sleepovers,” it discusses Ms. Chua’s rule of “no sleepovers” and what sleepovers mean as a social rite of passage. Sleepovers are glorified on the movie screen and often reminisced fondly, but should also be acknowledged as a source of anxiety. When can you trust someone else’s parents with your child? (obviously Ms. Chua didn’t) What about bullying? Bedwetting? Sleepwalking? In this particular article, sleepovers are presented as a rite of passage. They are defined as “an ineluctable component of the pursuit of happiness.” So the question arises: Is Amy Chua denying her children their right to happiness and a sense of mock independence by barring them from sleepover late night gossip, sugar overdose, and toenail polish? She would likely say that they were made better because of it, and will have plenty of time later in life to jump on beds and watch chick flicks all night. I don’t know if Ms. Chua’s children are “better” for their lack of sleepover experience, but I do know that my sleepover experience did help me figure out who I am, and who I wanted to be friends with. Sleepovers become a space to negotiate boundaries, to move outside of a bubble–even if it’s just down the block. In some ways, sleepovers are more challenging than math problems.
For example, when I was 10 years old I attended a huge sleepover party at the house of what was then one of my best friends. We ate bag after bag of M&M’s, froze a bra, and ran screaming around the house like banshees. I’m sure her parents hated us, but they left us to our scheming for the night. Around midnight it was decided that we should watch a movie. “Center Stage” was the first choice. The only problem was, this movie was rated PG-13. As the eldest child in my family and someone with a very strong conscience, I was faced with a moral dilemma. I was not allowed to watch PG-13 movies. Curled in my red sleeping bag on the floor, I told my friends this. They laughed and (of course) said that we could watch it anyway–my parents weren’t there and they would never know. Feeling guilty, I went into the other room and called my Mom. I told her the situation, and asked if I could watch the movie…just this once. Sticking to her rules, she told me no. Teary eyed, I returned to the girls and told them I couldn’t watch the movie. We were stuck watching some PG-rated “baby” movie. I received the stabbing glares of tweens for the remainder of the night. From then on, though I still had a killer conscience and a very close relationship with my parents, I had a new take on decision making. It is situations like that sleepover that create important opportunities for the creation of individual identity and independence.