Monday, January 31, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Turtle* Mother: Why I am Not a Tiger

A few weeks ago the whole world, or at least the world of modern parenthood, was abuzz with chatter regarding the Wall Street Journal’s article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”, by Amy Chua.  Parents all around me were outraged, confused, and concerned.  How can a mother be so cruel and demanding?  Yet, were we pushing our own children enough?  Are we providing them with adequate opportunities to succeed?
I bit my tongue for a few weeks while I was able to buy and read Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, as well peruse most of the counter articles that appeared shortly after Amy Chua’s.  I wasn’t even sure if I was going to write about this topic at all, since journalists and mommy bloggers alike have beat this roaring tiger to death.  However, I found that I did have something unique to say, a point that seems to be missing from the other posts: What about the mom?
For those of you that have yet to read this article, I suggest you do.  Here’s the link:  (However, I would not recommend that you bother with the book.  The WSJ article provides a nicely detailed summary of her opinions.  The rest of the book is a mix of overstating her point, and not so eloquent writing.)   Since the publication of the article, Amy Chua has been dragged across the attachment parenting coals by mothers across the country.  Amy has attempted to backtrack, claiming that the WSJ took just a portion of her book, and failed to mention how she came to the conclusion that a mix of Western and Chinese parenting was best.  
However, after reading the book it is evident that she does not truly believe in Western parenting at all.  In fact her exact quote was “I’ve decided to favor a hybrid approach… The Chinese way until the child is eighteen, to develop confidence and value of excellence, then the Western way after that.” The book concludes with a conversation between Amy and her two teenage daughters agreeing how happy they are to have a mother who drilled and calibrated their every move.  Basically, during all of the child’s true childhood Amy Chua believes in, and endorses, the extreme helicopter parenting, tiger mother, approach.   This doesn’t leave much room for alternative child-rearing styles. 
To be completely clear, we are not discussing a mild case of hyper-parenting.  Amy Chua is the most extreme mother I have ever encountered.  Here is the list of things her children were never allowed to do:
  • attend a sleepover 
  • have a playdate 
  • be in a school play 
  • complain about not being in a school play 
  • watch TV or play computer games 
  • choose their own extracurricular activities 
  • get any grade less than an A 
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama 
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin 
  • not play the piano or violin.
In order to accomplish this, Amy spent hours a day hovering over her two daughters. She monitored their piano and violin practice, correcting each note that wasn’t “musical” and each imperfect finger.  She drilled their schoolwork, ensuring that each daughter would be number one, not number two, in every subject.  When her youngest daughter became a pupil of a highly esteemed violin teacher in NYC, Amy would chauffeur her two hours, each way, every Saturday for an hour-long lesson.
There have already been a slew of articles crying out about the horrors of her children who seem to have been deprived of a happy and carefree childhood.  Of course I agree with this, with every fiber of my Western parenting being,  but I am not going to discuss this further.  Instead I want to emphasize how horrible this is for the mother!  It sounds absolutely dreadful to be so involved with every last detail of my children’s’ day.  To monitor their every step would require not being able to take any of my own!
Here is another look at the list of activities Amy Chua's children were not allowed to do, and what that would mean for the parent:
What Amy Chua’s children
were never allowed to do:
The implications for the parent:
Attend a sleepover

No mornings off, no times when you and your partner can sleep until 9, watch the morning news in your PJ’s and participate in that long forgotten pastime: Morning sex.
Have a play date

Never being able to sit on couch and sip a glass of wine while the kids sequester themselves in their bedroom while they destroy every last organized square foot.
Be in a school play

Ok, this one may actually be beneficial to the parent.  It lets you off the hook from ever having to attend a school play.
Watch TV or play computer games

How else are you going to shower when the kids are toddlers?
Choose their own extracurricular activities

If they don’t choose them, then you have to.  I had a hard enough time doing this when I was in young.  I'm still regretting my decision to join The Rotary Club.
Get any grade less than an A

In order to ensure this, the parent must supervise all homework time, check papers and worksheets for accuracy, all the while constantly searching the internet for extra practice problems.
Not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

This means more parent directed drilling and supervision.  Bleh.
Play any instrument other than the piano or violin

You have to listen to classical music every day of your life!
Now here is a list of the things that I would rather be doing that supervising my children’s music practice and homework:
  • Reading a book, and by book I mean People Magazine.   
  •  Watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.  
  •  Talking to another adult.  
  •  Playing Angry Birds on my iPhone.  
  •  Writing.  
  •  Running.  
  •  Knitting another demon spawn hat.  
  •  Playing Tangled with my toddlers and pretending to the be evil Mother Gothel for the five hundredth time.
Please don’t get me wrong; I do believe that raising my children is my most important job.  (I do know that the children are our future, and all that crap.)  However, I don’t believe that it should be my only identity.   Not only is it healthy for my girls to see a well-rounded, feminine role model, but also it is critical for my own mental health and happiness to have a life beyond my children.  I am a better mother because I have balance. 
I also don't think that I have the sense of perfection that it requires to be a tiger mom. It’s not that I don't believe my daughters can achieve greatness- prima ballerina, grand pianist, professional tennis player, or even win Miss LGTB San Francisco- it's just that I don't really care if they do. Sure it would be fun for a few minutes to brag about how they played Carnegie hall, but that novelty would eventually wear, and we would be left with more hours of practice and arguments about not attending school dances.

On Saturday, as I was watching my nearly four-year-old’s toddler ballet class today, I began to wonder how a Tiger Mother would approach this lesson.  I, the turtle mother, had half an eye inspecting the seven pairs of pudgy little legs attempt to pirouette, and the other 1.5 eyes on my game of iPhone backgammon.  If I really wanted Elana to realize her full potential and turn herself into a self-obsessed, bulimic, prima ballerina, I would have to be vigilantly noting each of the teacher’s instructions all the while monitoring Elana’s steps searching for any areas in need of perfection (at this stage, this would be every plie and releve).  During my down time, I would need to read every book published about raising the perfect ballerina, and scouring the Bay Area for the top teachers to mold and stretch my not so graceful and not so skinny four-year-old into the model of dancing excellence.  Umm... no thank you.

Mostly, I really don't want to spend the next sixteen years of my life centering every decision around my children's practice schedules. If that makes me a bad, or selfish, mommy, then I proudly accept the title.

* Sea Turtles lay their eggs in a hole on the beach, and then return back to the sea, allowing her children to survive on their own.


  1. I'm so proud to be in the sea turtle club! (although I do my fair share of yelling from the soccer sidelines :)

  2. Love it! I actually was not completely outraged by Amy Chua and thought that her perspective on cultural difference and parenting was really interesting, but I also fully embrace the turtle, although my backgammon is a trashy romance.

  3. LOL!!!! You said it girl. Pass the wine.

  4. I'm a turtle, too. Doesn't Chua's approach highlight her very different values? I mean, our children are going to be sooo much more fun at parties. And making friends. And smiling. And laughing. And participating in all those things that make the world a happy place to be.