Tiger Mothers, Mama Grizzlies and Helicopter Moms

Disclosure: I have not read the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother; I have read the reviews, several excerpts and commentary from the author herself. This is not a review of the book or a response to the book, it is inspired by the book in so far as it got me thinking about mothers…

Just a few things that occurred to me on first encountering the Tiger Mother values of academic achievement and limited artistic choice: if everyone behaved as she did and maintained those standards of achievement we would have no theatre (no plays written, no one to act in the non-existent plays, no one to build the stage sets or design costumes, etc.), we would have no literature or poetry (not arts supported by the Tiger Mother), we would have no symphonies because it is hard to have an orchestral movement with only violin and piano (the only two approved instruments), and related no other kinds of music, no rock no pop no blues no jazz – just a whole lot of classic duets. If everyone behaved as the Tiger Mother we would be rather top heavy in law, medicine and politics but rather short in any other career field, not to mention more vocational fields like mechanics, carpenters, plumbers, electricians which may not be professions she values but are certainly ones that I like having access to. And though we are really just scratching the surface of what we lose if we all parent as the Tiger, let’s not forget food – who is going to grow it, harvest it, ship it and prepare it if we are all sitting around studying and playing our violins?

Now I know perfectly well that the Tiger Mother doesn’t think everyone should act like her, because I am pretty confident that she does not believe everyone can achieve what either she or her children have achieved. They are superior and need superior motivation is one implicit message of the story she is telling. But, there have been more than a few articles in the aftermath of the book launch suggesting that what all of our children need in order to achieve success is Tiger Mothering. I think this presents two related questions: one, whose definition of success, and two, how do you expect everyone to achieve success based on that single definition? The Tiger Mother has a very clear picture of what success means to her, and she did a great job of making sure her children understood that if they wanted her approval they would succeed by her standard, which by the way, I’m not sure included being well-adjusted, psychologically healthy individuals. The second part of my question is more practical: we can’t all be doctors, we can’t all be professors at Yale, we can’t all be the president of the United States which means that if success is being the top of your field and achieving at the greatest possible level of attainment the possibility of failure becomes very large regardless of how accomplished you may be.

I grew up in a small town where I did pretty much jack-nothing about school work until my senior year of high school when I got straight A’s because I was finally in a good mood. I went to community college for two years, transfered to a university and from whence went on to law school. I did well enough. I passed the bar my first try. I had a job before I graduated. Objectively could I have worked harder and done better, sure. And it would have made life easier in the long run. But, I did pretty well. By the standard of the Tiger Mother? Abject failure. Might as well jump in front of a train – oops, that’s what all kinds of kids are doing because they aren’t perfect and may not be the best at everything they do, maybe that’s not the best standard for parenting.

I have been a mother for nearly fourteen years now, and I have had a mother for just over thirty-seven years. In the big picture of mothering I’m not sure this really qualifies me to know much about the subject, except of course my own anecdotal experience, on the other hand we all have a somewhat limited opportunity to gather information in this subject and you never really know how you did until it is too late anyway.

I like to joke that I am batting 1,000 in parenting, having been wrong about pretty much everything to date. So my second disclaimer is that I may very well be wrong about all of this as well. What I believe today, based on watching my children as they grow, is that they are pretty much who they are when they arrive on this planet and that we, as parents, have an enormous capacity to shape what they feel and think, how they act and react, but that we are fundamentally dealing with a fixed package of ingredients. It is then my job to look at what I am working with and figure out the best way to nurture those ingredients into the best of what they want to be. Sometimes this may mean getting out of their way, sometimes it means letting go of our own assumptions and desires, sometimes it means kneading those ingredients actively and strenuously. All the time it is a combination and the challenge is in knowing what should happen when. The risk is making them believe that if they don’t play ball the way you want they lose your love. It is really hard!

I live in an area that is incredibly self-aware. We do a lot of thinking and talking about ourselves, our feelings, our needs and we still, collectively, do a pretty crappy job of parenting because we let too much of ourselves into what we are doing. Think of the parents who give up their entire being once they have children (the helicopter moms – or dads) who hover over their children not just because they believe the child needs their constant protection but because they have nothing else to do! When my daughter was in kindergarten there was a mom who would often just sit in the back of the class watching the kids. One day the teacher, who had so many parents volunteering to work in the class she could only give you one day every other week, looked up at this particular mom and said, “Good morning Ms. X, I don’t think today is your day.” To which Ms. X replied, “oh it’s not, I just don’t have anywhere else to be so thought I would stay today.” Really? You are 30+ years old and have nothing better to do than go to kindergarten? How about read a book, assuming you have mastered that skill? Go for a walk, volunteer in a classroom where there are no parents to help, pick up a hobby, anything! Have a life so that you model for your child what it looks like to be a healthy adult.

You may say that this is ridiculous and extreme, and it is on the extreme end of the story, and it may turn out that I am the bad, uninvolved parent who has children who feel unloved. Or not. I think it is wonderful that there are so many parents who want to volunteer in the schools, but I am not one of them. I love my children but I don’t want them to come to work with me everyday. I want them to go to school, and have their life that I am not managing where they learn to work out problems and navigate friendships and make mistakes that they have to figure out. When my son goes to his soccer training program I sit in the car and read because I enjoy reading more than sitting in a cold building watching him run around. I walk him in and make sure he is safely in the care of the coach, then I read for forty minutes, then I walk in and collect his tired, sweaty self. I have to walk past the rows of parents sitting in the bleachers video-taping (or video digitizing or whatever the hell we do to get that video now) every move their child makes. Some are chatting, it is their opportunity to be social, many are shouting instructions to their child which is probably not as helpful to the instructor/coach as they may think. After I collect my son he tells me about the practice because I want to hear about the things he does; I don’t feel like I need to be an active part of all of them. He is his own person learning to navigate his own life, the best I can do is lay a foundation that I hope can provide the support he needs on his way.

And, of course, to be there to rip anyone’s head off who hurts my child. The grizzly mom being my personal parenting challenge to overcome. Another disclaimer: please do not confuse me with Sarah Palin and her pack of rabid bear-mama lunatics who just want to attack anything that moves in a sane way. I don’t know what any of that has to do with parenting or if it’s just more folksy down-home realness to confuse you so you don’t notice that she lacks the ability to think logically, but it is not what I am referring to. I am referring to that wisdom of don’t come between a bear and her cubs because she will do whatever necessary to protect them. I let my cubs wander and explore their world, but I want them to grow up strong and capable to manage their world once they are adults so tend not to react real well to people who I perceive as threatening to that opportunity for healthy, safe growth.

At the end of the metaphorical, life-time day, none of us actually know the right way to be a mother. I think that a lot of us really want to do a good job for our kids, because we want them to be happy, we want life to rise up and meet them so that their struggles are few and their burdens light. And since we have no idea who they really are when they land in our lives we have to go from our own experience until we learn better – and that I think may be a key: not looking too far down the road that we forget to look at who they are and what direction they are heading in…

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