I saw Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom, last night at the 92nd Street Y. Actually, I ran into her on my way to the bathroom, before her talk started. I wasn’t positive it was her, but I had a feeling. She was wearing a hot pink dress under a fitted leather jacket. Her hair was perfect. I looked at her and she looked at me, as though she was waiting for me to say something (like “Oh my god, I LOVED your book!” or “It’s women like you who are ruining this country.”), but I didn’t, and we awkwardly squeezed by each other in the narrow hall. The sleeve of her jacket brushed my arm.
Like a lot of people, I didn’t read the book, I read the Wall St Journal excerpt. Like a lot of people, I joined in conversations about parenting styles and whether “eastern” or “western” parenting is better, and how much tiger is too much. Everyone was shocked by her. Everyone was horrified. “This is why kids kill themselves,” people said. “Because there’s so much pressure to succeed.” “Her daughters will have eating disorders,” people said. Everyone was defensive.
In her talk, Amy Chua was funny and a little overeager. She kept starting thoughts and switching over to something else, so that her sentences tumbled together, breaking off and beginning again in crisscrossing excitement. She had so much correcting to do. The book was supposed to be funny. It was supposed to be a confession. She was shocked by the response. She would much rather her children were happy than successful– what parent wouldn’t? And can we not call certain things success? How about we just say “overcoming challenges,” because that’s what makes life fulfilling. The book, she said, was a celebration of rebellion, not conformity. Her youngest daughter rebelled, and she was forced to reexamine the parenting style she’d adopted from her incredibly hardworking, poor immigrant parents. But she did reexamine, and she changed.
The Tiger Mom came off as earnest, humble, and extremely loving. Not at all the way she’s been described. She came off just like most of the parents I know and have known, growing up. She was just trying to figure out what was best for her kids.
If this is the Tiger Mom, then where are the real tiger moms?
Chua explained that her parenting is based on a fundamental belief in her children’s abilities. She thinks they really can do anything. She also described herself as “hands-off.” She thinks there is too much “helicopter parenting” happening around these parts. Don’t do your kids’ homework for them. They can handle it. Teach them that they’re smart enough to figure things out on their own.
There wasn’t too much East vs. West in what Amy Chua had to say, but at some point the woman who was interviewing her (who could barely get a word in) said something along the lines of, “But what if your child is not musically inclined? What if they aren’t above average academically? What if that’s not their talent?”
And Chua said that in China, she hasn’t seen this idea, of talent. This idea that your kid has a talent that needs to be discovered doesn’t exist. Everything is about hard work.
I’m not sure I believe that everyone in China would reject the concept of natural talent, but I really like placing the emphasis on work instead.
Seeing the Tiger Mom in person made me angry. Why was this even a thing? Why were we so worked up? Why does everyone think they know what’s best when really everyone is just trying to figure things out?
I think that maybe my mom was a tiger mom, in many ways. She was pretty strict. Laziness wasn’t acceptable. Quitting was a very bad idea. We practiced our instruments every day. She thought we were capable of greatness, and it was clear that we should aspire to do bigger and better things. When we did those things, she was incredibly proud, but that didn’t mean that we got to stop for a second. My mom had a lot of rules. We definitely weren’t allowed to stay out late. Or watch TV. Or see movies with a PG 13 rating or above for the LONGEST time. We didn’t bring “store bought” food into the house. We ate organic and drank water. Our time on the computer was limited.
I also had a ton of freedom. I was in charge of a lot of my education. I chose how to spend a lot of my time. I had to be productive, but I loved to be productive, so it wasn’t an issue.
I didn’t go to school until college. Sometimes I describe my education as “unschooling” because so much of it was up to me. And yet my mom was strict and organized and fond of the phrase, “Because I said no.”
My upbringing sometimes sounds like a contradiction of terms. How can these things go together? Isn’t it either a super chill homeschooling mom or a ferocious high-powered mom who makes her kids take six APs a semester? Isn’t it either a lax western mom or a tough eastern mom? Isn’t it either a homeschooling mom who teaches her kids every single subject, at a blackboard in the living room, just like a school teacher, or an unschooling mom who smiles munificently from her watercolor pad as her children play in the woods all day, every day, discovering themselves without the repressive constraints of normative education? Mean or nice? School or no rules? Strict or loving?
THESE ARE NOT DICHOTOMIES. I am so sick of people trying to divide everything in the world up into neat categories.
Sometimes my mom drove me crazy, but I knew how much she loved me, all the time. And I loved her. My mom was brave. She was trying to figure it out. She was trying to find the right balance.
When I’m a mom, I’ll be trying to find the right balance, too. I’m trying to find the right balance right now, with my work, with my friendships, with my happiness/sadness, with being a wife, with life, in general.
We want so, so badly to simplify. You’re either fat or you’re pretty. You’re either a prude or a slut. You have a college degree or you’re stupid. You’re ambitious or you’re a stay-at-home mom. You’re pretty or you’re too old.
If we can stop, for just a moment, being so defensive, so anxious, so afraid that maybe someone is doing it better, so afraid that someone else’s experience is somehow negating our own, then maybe we can learn something from that someone. Maybe they have something interesting to say. Maybe I shouldn’t have told Marius that he was naturally talented– maybe I should’ve told him that when he works hard, he’ll always get ahead. Maybe I should have told him that hard work is satisfying, no matter where it takes you. Maybe I should have told him that he has what it takes– he doesn’t have to be special. Specialness is beside the point. He just has to be himself, and be willing to challenge himself.
I think that structure is important. And structure requires rules. I think that freedom is important, and freedom requires space. I think that finding a way to integrate both of these things into your life and the lives of your children is an enormous challenge. Everyone handles it a little differently. Some people really mess it up, but I’d guess that most people are trying their best. The Tiger Mom is trying her best, my mom tried her best.
Let’s talk about that for a couple minutes. We might learn something. We might notice that all of this is really just about love and fear.
Isn’t that weird?
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What kind of mom do/did you have? Do you think hard work should be emphasized over talent?
Unroast: Today I love the way my hair looks when its curl comes back (it’s long enough again now)
A version of this piece appears in the Huffington Post here.