I’ve been trying to figure out why Amy Chua, aka The Tiger Mother, gets under my skin so much. On Christmas Eve, The Wall Street Journal published a follow-up piece of hers, which dealt with the relatively hands-off approach she and her husband adopted when their daughter (or “tiger cub”) went off to college. At first blush, it might seem like the sort of anti-helicopter statement that we tend to applaud on this site. But it turned out to be as exasperating a mixture of caricature and self-promotion as her more well known columns last year, just as mired in unsettling assumptions about children, life and human nature as before. I’ve commented at greater length at the bottom, ht RT:
Tiger parenting is often confused with helicopter parenting, but they could not be more different. In fact, the former eliminates the need for the latter. At its core, tiger parenting—which, if you think about it, is not that different from the traditional parenting of America’s founders and pioneers—assumes strength, not weakness, in children. By contrast, helicopter parenting—which, as far as I can tell, has no historical roots and is just bad—is about parents, typically mothers, hovering over their kids and protecting them, carrying their sports bags for them and bailing them out, possibly for their whole lives…
For most kids, college is their first experience truly on their own. Tiger parenting prepares kids for just that moment. For kids who are used to hearing “You’re amazing, that’s great” in response to whatever they do, it must be pretty shocking to fail at something. Tiger cubs, by contrast, are typically resilient. It’s empowering for them to know that you don’t need to be brilliant to succeed—that hard work can fix just about anything…
If anything, I’ve found that tiger cubs raised in America have really high emotional intelligence. For one thing, they’ve spent their whole lives maneuvering around their crazy, strict parents. For another, they don’t tend to be prima donnas, because tiger parents are brutally honest.
A lot of parents today are terrified that something they say to their children might make them “feel bad.” But, hey, if they’ve done something wrong, they should feel bad. Kids with a sense of responsibility, not entitlement, who know when to experience gratitude and humility, will be better at navigating the social shoals of college.
When I’m not the Tiger Mom, I’m a professor at Yale Law School, and if one thing is clear to me from years of teaching, it’s that there are many ways to produce fabulous kids. I have amazing students; some of them have strict parents, others have lenient parents, and many come from family situations that defy easy description.
It’s also clear that tiger parenting means different things to different people. For me, it’s ultimately not about achievement. It’s about teaching your kids that they are capable of much more than they think. If they don’t give up, don’t make excuses and hold themselves to high standards, they can do anything they want in life, break through any barrier and never have to care what other people think.
That last part, of course, is a blatant untruth and disqualifies any claim to “emotional intelligence” the piece may be boasting. But never mind the dishonesty about the (obvious) underlying obsession with achievement, or the complete unacknowledgement of tragedy or compulsion: this is the pop-parenting equivalent of religious people talking about the “graciousness of the Law,” i.e. that regardless of what it may seem or feel like, the real purpose of Command/Demand is love, not judgment; that Control actually exists in the service of mercy, rather than being the vehicle by which someone comes to grips with their need for mercy. In other words, what your child really needs is for you to stand against them (as if they didn’t have enough standing against them already). The parents’ job is to reinforce the voice of accusation – pioneer bootstrapping, indeed! This is tough love all the way, especially during the years when a child is most apt to internalize it. We can make distinctions between the ‘first use’ and ‘second use’ of the law all we want, but it doesn’t stop the self-justifying human from using it’s-good-for-them reasoning as an excuse for all their/our most dictatorial impulses. Chua may be immune, but I doubt it. What I don’t doubt, however, is the power of shame as a motivator when it comes to parental approval.
Ultimately, as much as Chua demonizes helicopter parenting, her approach isn’t any less controlling. A tad less fearful of the outside world perhaps, but that’s not saying very much. (That neither leave much room for G-O-D is beside the point). At least helicopter parents understand the parent to be the child’s helper as well as protector, maybe even friend on occasion. The “helicopter” part is simply what happens when the helping becomes (too much of) a source of identity/purpose for the parent, rather than an act of love for the child, and the protecting gets swallowed up by paranoia and woundedness. Truth be told, helicopter parents are a little easier to sympathize with, especially given the compulsive dimension – they obviously can’t help themselves. Tiger parents, on the other hand, almost flaunt their reserve, which is somehow more offensive. As the Seinfeld cab driver once said, “Smugness is not a good quality!”
Standing with your child, being their advocate – and letting them know you are – does not necessarily entail letting them run the show, or steamroll parental good sense. If anything, it gives you a stronger leg to stand on, without being so future-oriented that neither you nor the child enjoy their upbringing. Just ask Dorothy Martyn. And maybe that’s my main objection: the whole Tiger thing sounds so incredibly joyless.
The real question, of course, is why yours truly would expect anything different from Chua, why on Earth I keep holding out for even the smallest bone to be thrown in the grace direction. This is a Yale law professor after all – if she did it this way, she wants to believe that with enough grit and determination, others can too. Her gospel is one of agency and admonishment, and given her achievements, why wouldn’t it be? If Chua is presenting herself accurately, she would likely have little to no entree into either the concept or reality of Grace… She would see it as the height of irresponsibility, nothing more.
Suffice it to say, I would hate to read her book on marriage.