I just finished reading “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Unless you tuned out the past several weeks, you’ve heard of the book and its author, Amy Chua. She fired the first volley of her battle in a Jan. 8 Wall Street Journal piece provocatively titled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.”
Chua describes how she imposed stringent rules on her two daughters: no sleepovers, no play dates, no TV or computer games, no grade less than an A — and that’s just for starters. Her exacting efforts yielded results. She raised two brilliant, attractive, successful, musical-prodigy teenaged daughters. The WSJ article, followed by the release of her book, set off an epic war of words. Parents, journalists and radio and TV commentators pilloried Chua for being too harsh, too controlling, too demanding — and too darn tiger-like. Rather than joining in the pitched battle, I present myself as a Tiger Mother of a different stripe.
Chua derived the Tiger Mother handle from her Chinese zodiac sign. She explains at the beginning of her book, “I don’t believe in astrology — and I think people who do have serious problems — but…I was born in the year of the tiger. I don’t want to boast or anything, but tiger people are noble, fearless, powerful, authoritative and magnetic.” This bit typifies her somewhat schizoid style. She’s too evolved to believe in astrology yet deploys it to make her case.
This passage inspired me to look up my Chinese zodiac sign. Guess what? Chua and I were born in the same year of the tiger — 1962. Does this make me a Jewish Tiger Mother? Hmmm…let’s see what else Chua and I have in common:
We’re both lawyers. She earned her undergraduate and law degrees at private, prestigious Harvard University. I earned my degrees at two respectable public schools, UC Berkeley and UCLA School of Law.
After law school we both married Nice Jewish Boys. She worked at a high-powered Wall Street law firm for three years and had her first daughter. I served as a deputy at the California Attorney General’s office for seven years and had two daughters.
Chua had her second daughter and became a Yale Law professor (joining her husband on the faculty). I had a third daughter. And here’s where my resume diversifies. I became a stay-at-home mom/columnist-writer/room parent-school volunteer/essay-writing tutor/PTA vice-president/Brownie troop leader/estate executor/carpooler/community activist.
Chua’s daughters are 18 and 15 years old. My daughters are 17, 15 and 11 years old.
Now for the HUGE difference — our parenting styles. I fall into what Chua derides as the permissive Western parental camp, because I allowed my daughters to have play dates and sleepovers, and I still do. I believe social interaction teaches kids how to navigate life. I allow my daughters to watch TV, including some really middlebrow stuff like “American Idol” and “America’s Next Top Model.” (I’m not proud of this and wish they read more books.) I allowed my daughters to stop taking piano lessons last year. I miss listening to them play and having music in the house. In our family, a sublime musical experience now means watching “Glee” together and singing along.
As a Jewish Tiger Mother, I prize the Talmudic ideal of shalom bayit (peace in the home). This sets the behavioral bar very high. Because as any sentient parent of teens knows, keeping a peaceful home borders on impossibility. My husband and I insist our daughters treat each other and us with respect and chesed (loving kindness). We all have our combustible moments but work hard to get through them. Nothing makes me prouder than watching our daughters develop into kind, compassionate, tolerant young people. (Of course I’m also proud of them being good students.)
Reading about Chua’s extreme method of Chinese Tiger Mother parenting made me uneasy. Her approach conflicts with my idealized shalom bayit. Her trenchant ambition for her daughters to become superior musicians resulted in hours of screaming and battling wills. All this screeching over music strikes me as ironically discordant. Chua admits to being humbled when her youngest daughter rebelled against the violin and took up tennis instead.
As both Chua and I know, mothering teenaged daughters presents one of life’s greatest challenges. Not even a Harvard law degree (in her case) or a stint as a state prosecutor (in my case) comes close to preparing one for the task. Sometimes our daughters grab us by the tails and swing us around for all we’re worth. Then, whatever stripe of mother, we’ve got to get our paws back on the ground and figure out the next, best step.