Thursday, January 20, 2011

In the Defense of Tiger Moms (And Housecat Moms, Too)

A few days ago, I called both of my kids, "dummies". You don't need to know the gory details. I snapped because they were careless after I had reminded them to be careful about something obvious. Twice.

Voices were raised, doors were slammed...we all went to bed in a huff.

I apologized the next day. In return, the girls verbalized their regret about provoking me by ignoring me. After the dust settled, I decided to retract my application for Mother of the Year from the governing association, Perfect Parents, Perfect Kids. Sigh. Now I have to wait a whole year to reapply without falling into some other boneheaded parenting trap. It's embarrassing. For some reason, 15 years of experience has not kept me from retaliating against my children's childishness by being so completely...childish.

At the same time that the dirty deed was did, the story about Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, broke wide open in the media. Quite coincidentally, I also became engrossed reading one of my most excellent Christmas gifts: The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant.

The synchronicity of these three occurrences has inspired me to think deeply about my role as a parent. Whereas many people are up in arms about Ms. Chua's alleged abuse of her children and others are predictably calling for "balance" in parenting, I am unconvinced that either opinion is really helpful in the long run. Let me explain.

Ms. Chua is of Chinese descent and the Amur tigers in Mr. Vaillant's book live in a small, strange biosphere on the Sino-Russian border. A good deal of his narrative speaks to how culture influences the lives of both humans and animals. Both types of animal are fearsome and strong, able to surmount seemingly impossible physical obstacles in the quest for survival. Like that of the tigers, life is still extremely brutish and short for most Chinese and Russian people. While we Americans pontificate about which cell phone app will work out best for us, most of them are wondering where their next meal is coming from. We go to the grocery store. They head to the forest.

For people trying to survive in a wildly unpredictable world, the tiger symbolizes the cunning, virility and grace under fire needed to succeed, i.e. live.* Tigers are considered by many in these cultures to be living gods...beings worthy of veneration and appeasement. The people respect the tigers who survive to adulthood for their hard-earned experience and subsequent wisdom.

This culture deeply informed Ms. Chua's parents' beliefs and, unsurprisingly, her own. For time in memoriam, life has been downright medieval for most Asians. If the offspring do not "listen", if the parents fail to impart their wisdom, by hook or by crook, the children are set up for the ultimate failure: Death.

Isn't that what all parents are trying to avoid? Western parents, for the most part, mercifully no longer have to warn their kids about apex predators. Yet, we still have to scare the bejeezus out of them about "strangers" who are actively plotting their demise.(Not so, in Japan, where 5-year-olds ride the train without an adult.) Maybe we don't have to worry about our cheeky kids mouthing off to some government official and risking dismemberment or death but we do have to guard against them provoking some random psycho with a handgun.

For the parents over-coddling their kids, to the parents calling them "garbage" for disrespecting them, it's all about trying to control the environment for their ultimate safety. If I give my children everything, they will have great self-esteem and thrive. If I ride my kids hard, they will respect me and survive. For some, they come from a culture of "surthrival"...and others, survival. To quote Cloris Leachman in the movie Spanglish, "None of it works."

The fact remains that it is extremely difficult to find balance raising little ones in a continually shape shifting universe. Conditions change and one strategy will succeed. They change again and the same approach will be considered villainous.

The cliche is annoying but true: The best we can do is to do our best. We can try to do no harm, to our own kids or to other parents who are just trying to get their cherished ones to adulthood. Sadly, we will do harm, no matter what our strategy. The affectionate, permissive parents will continue to screw up their kids in ways that are very different, but equally burdensome as the Ways of the Tiger Parents.

After beating myself up about my tiger ways, I think that getting past the "dummy" remarks, for both sides, is difficult but not impossible. Good communication allows for all parties to atone for mistakes and have greater understanding for each other. This is my ultimate Western Parent Wish for my children. One day, if I don't completely bungle my job as a parent AND we are all very lucky, my kids will raise their own imperfect babies...and will come to understand that I loved them just as desperately. The only thing I know to be true about parenting is quite simple: I love them more than life itself.

*(Guess which "enhancement" drug derives its name from the Sanskrit word for tiger, vyaghra?)

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