Welcome to Laurie Goodman's blog. I use this space to share news and opinions about education and schools in Ridgewood, the state of New Jersey and the nation, in addition to other issues I'm personally interested in. I invite you to share your thoughts, feelings, questions or opinions, too, by posting comments on any blog entry. Please observe basic courtesy -- keep your comments focused on issues, no personal attacks or bullying, please. Contact me directly at: lauriegood@mac.com

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tiger Mother, burning bright.

Have you been following the “Tiger Mother” story all over the media over the past 10 days or so?

In a nutshell, a Yale law professor, Amy Chua, wrote a book (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) describing how she’s brought up her two daughters in the strict Chinese fashion that her own parents used. The original story in the Wall Street Journal – Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior – described a childhood with no playdates, not TV, no computer games and hours of music practice. Her daughters are not allowed to: attend a sleepover, be in a school play, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, or not be the No. 1 student in every subject (except gym and drama). Mrs. Chua told about her priority to raise “successful” kids, often with “tough love” tactics. For example, the time her 4-year-old daughter brought her a homemade Birthday card and Mrs. Chua returned it, saying “I want a better one – one that you’ve put some thought and effort into … I deserve better than this. So I reject this.” Yikes!

Needless to say, mothers around the country reacted…and they were not supportive.

Mrs. Chua started going on the defensive, and tried to explain in a follow-up WSJ interview that she was telling about how she parented in the past, and now she has learned some lessons and is not so harsh. Her protestations were a little weak, if you ask me, and she really doesn’t apologize or regret those rules and tactics she used when her girls were younger.

I’ve read a few interesting responses to Mrs. Chua’s “tiger mother.” I recommend Jeff Yang of the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate, who wrote a column featuring stories of his own “crazy Asian mom” and his own interview with Mrs. Chua.

This past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a feature under The Way We Live Now header, titled “No More Mrs. Nice Mom,” in which author Judith Warner discussed the Tiger Mother and hit on some points that really resonated with me and the way I often describe the Ridgewood parents I encounter at HSA meetings and soccer sidelines. Ms. Warner writes,

The terror of losing ground is the ultimate driving force in the middle- and upper-middle-class American family today, and however unique Chua’s elaboration of it…however obnoxious and over the top her attempts to cope, she is hardly alone in believing that, in her carefully considered ministrations, she will find the perfect alchemy that will allow her to inoculate her kids against personal and professional misfortune.

Through all the iterations of Mommy madness, “good” and “bad,” this article of faith always remains intact: that parents can have control. Developmental neuroscientists may talk of genes and as-yet-undiscovered-and-hence-uncontrollable environmental factors that affect the developing fetus, social scientists may talk of socioeconomic background and the predictive power of parents’ level of education — the rest of us keep hope alive that parental actions, each and every moment of each and every better-lived day, have the ultimate ability to shape a child’s life outcome.

That, my friends, is the source of so much frustration here in Ridgewood (and undoubtedly elsewhere in other so-called affluent communities). We are in a strange time, as we parents start to acknowledge how our children are under so much pressure to succeed, that the college acceptance merry-go-round and the AP course race might be out of control, that the childhood resume-building could be unhealthy (you think?). Parents at our high school and middle school HSAs have been captivated by the movie Race to Nowhere, and have begun questioning the amount of homework kids receive or how many AP classes they really need to take.

At the same time, sometimes even in the same room (at the high school HSA meeting, for example), parents are strategizing and looking for the magic combination of courses and GPA and AP scores that will make their child most attractive to colleges. I’m still trying to understand the parents who commented in the District’s recent parent survey that they wished their 1st grade child had more homework, or wished that there were more history and science tests in 2nd grade. I have often commented and attributed some Ridgewood parents’ drive to this phenomenon described by Ms. Warner – the belief that every little decision parents make for their children, every teacher assignment, every single activity or project or sports team, etc. – will actually determine their child’s future success (and, presumably, earning power). It's crazy, if you ask me, but it's there all the time: If I do everything right, then everything for my child will work out OK. Don't you think that's just a bit conceited of us? And isn't history riddled with stories of perfectly good people who did all the right things and yet life doesn't work out so well for them?

We parents have got to reconcile this dichotomy. We can’t simultaneously decry the stress our kids are under while maneuvering to get the “right” extracurriculars onto their resume. We can’t say “give them less homework and fewer tests” and then turn around and complain that RHS is not ranked high enough in New Jersey Monthly magazine.

One thing this "tiger mother" story is bringing to light for Ridgewood parents is that we are all part of the problem and, thus, we all need to be part of the solution.


Konquista said...

I personally welcome any provocative book that elicits strong feelings, prompting conversation about raising children. As a parent, this book motivated me to reflect on my own parenting style, and discuss it with others. That's got to be a good thing.

As a college consultant, I wouldn’t mind a judicious sprinkling of the Eastern approach in raising American high school students. Parental involvement varies across the board in our society, from abject neglect to hypermanaging. Ironically, helicoptering in our culture seems more about micromanaging a kid’s resume and decisions than being engaged with the SUBSTANCE of learning.

By contrast, I was struck by Chua’s description of Tiger Moms’ hands-on role in their children’s ACADEMICS: “It’s true that Chinese mothers get in the trenches, putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring…” That’s impressive. Among my clients, I see so many parents who attend every soccer game, but have no idea what their student is studying in history, or what he got on the last test. They're obsessive, all right, but not about the things that will get their children ahead in life.

In my practice, I see many parents who are so long on self-esteem (or at least ego) and so short on drive to build their child’s competencies, that they unwittingly create unrealistic expectations for college admission. The child is given a false sense of entitlement to be accepted at an elite college, without the qualifications for today’s competitive college marketplace.

“By contrast,” Chua says in her book, “the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”

Will those kids end up in therapy? Probably. But underachieving kids with no direction end up in therapy too. I obviously could lose Professor Chua's harsh, in-your-face style, but I think she does have an important lesson to teach American parents.

Laurie Goodman said...

I will agree with you that Chua's book has had some positive effect on some parents, causing them to reflect on their own parenting styles and practices. That's never a bad thing. I also think you make some good points about parents focusing on college admissions rather than what their children are actually learning or how they are developing their minds. Unfortunately, too many parents really just don't see the difference.

Derrick Lin said...

I published a book in response to her. Its called "Tiger Mother Son of a Bitch". Lets see what she thinks of that.