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.