tiger bait

February 6th, 2011

Comparing our kids to one another is the most juvenile thing we grown ups can do. But amid all the recent hubbub over so-called Chinese style parenting,  I’ll take the bait.

Unlike some other kids, here are some things my daughter is allowed to do:

• spend time making friends
open her eyes to a world that is not defined by rank, culture, race, wealth, elite performance, or my ideas about the same
• be in a school play
• complain about not getting the part she wanted
• perform in the play anyway and overcome the sting of not being “best”
• learn by her own disappointments to be kinder to others
• obey me, disobey me; gladden, frustrate, and defy me; and one day repudiate me, as she must
• watch TV on weekends, learning that when it comes to finding TV entertainment, the first hour is easy and the second and third hours are hard
• devote herself to extracurricular activities that I was never good at or afraid to try
• remind me, when she sees my face collapse in horror, that “a B is a good grade too.”
• manage her own mind, body, responsibilities, motivation and interests
• waste what precious little time she has left over
• trust me to tell the hard truth and yet be her ally when life is tough
• because life’s real lessons are much harder than playing the violin
• see that the earth beneath us is full of bones, including the bones of all those who ever made it to Carnegie Hall
• show me how relentlessly I judge her on the basis of my own distorted view of what is “best” and “right” and “good enough” and “successful”
• wipe away all my self-righteous anger and doubt in the shine of her smile
• make me wonder: if someone can remain overbearing, hidebound, small-minded, self-absorbed, greedy and unhappy having attained the pinnacle of Darwinian achievement as a Yale Law School professor, what is the point of all this? What is the goddamn point?

Every couple of years the news media bathes us in the blood of a manufactured mommy war wherein we prove to be little evolved from barbarians. Everyone believes that their way is best. Even when you change your mind, you believe your new way is best. Believing that you have all the answers is delusional. Motherhood teaches this well.

Let’s remember that debating parenting styles is a sport practiced by only the most privileged. If we look closely at what we are contesting, it amounts to an argument about Harvard versus Berkeley, law school versus medicine, and violin versus tennis. I find arguments of this kind to be arrogant, rude and ignorantly self-serving, so I apologize to tigers everywhere.


  1. I been waiting for you to take the bait!
    I have been spending time doing a little bit of comparing in my head. I have been spending time evaluating my approach to parenting. To be reminded parenting debates are a sport for the privilaged helps me keep things in check.

    Comment by brigid — February 6, 2011 @ 5:40 pm

  2. Oh Karen, thank you for this. It speaks to my heart. Such good timing, as today I am feeling a little uneasy about my mothering skills. I know it will pass, but this post comforts me along the way. Thank you.

    Comment by Michelle P — February 6, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

  3. I’m glad you weighed in on this, even if it was grudgingly.

    My motherhood mantra has been “the only right way to parent is the way that works for your family.” And like the notions of “better” and “worse”, “right” is purely subjective.

    Comment by Emily — February 6, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

  4. It is a complicated relationship, as well as the easiest relationship in the world 🙂 Looking at my mother is like looking into a mirror with unfathomable depths…
    Happy Mother’s Day to you, for every day!

    Comment by Shaista — February 6, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  5. I think taking the bait here was a necessary move.

    I love your reaction. It’s filled with so much wisdom.

    What about the idea that we are not here to raise our children to meet our expectations of success, but instead to guide them as they find their own standards?

    I will never forget, many years ago, my son was struggling to learn a new skill and I was struggling to remain patient and to keep his strengths in mind, not allowing any weaknesses to overshadow them. I confessed my frustration and fears to my wise father. I even, perhaps completely in fantasy mode said that I can’t possibly handle this with my two other children also demanding my time and attention. I confessed that perhaps my son should have been an only child so I could devote all of my efforts to just him, guiding and helping him. My dad quite uncharacteristically cut me off, saying “And how do you know that he is supposed to become what YOU want him to be!? What YOU want to help and guide him to become?! ” I have never forgotten that!

    Comment by Meredith Resnick — February 7, 2011 @ 12:11 am

  6. I’m glad to hear your view of this silliness, Karen. And thanks for not making us feel silly for taking the bait. And yet, well, I was silly to take it!

    Thank you for reminding me that motherhood is self-expression. And self-expression is limitless with possibilities… And it’s crazy to try to express some other mother’s self as I raise my child.

    Comment by char — February 7, 2011 @ 12:46 am

  7. Exactly; what is the goddamn point?

    Comment by Mama Zen — February 7, 2011 @ 2:12 am

  8. Unlurking….
    I didn’t even know there was a tiger mom debate until I read this! I have not read much news, having devoted available brain space to anxiously reviewing our available public schools trying to find the best place for our son. Just gave up putting as our first choice a school I really liked because I had to admit it probably was not the best choice for our son. Like this professor parent, I want the world and all its possibilities for my son, but reading about her methods is like reading about someone from Mars. It’s so alien to think of treating a child that way that I almost don’t care. Her daughters can be as powerful/wealthy/whatever as she/they want. As long as my son is what he wants and loves to be, then it really doesn’t matter how he, or they, got there, does it? She is so over the top that she just seems, well, irrelevant. I almost wish you hadn’t risen to the bait Karen. Almost, but not quite, just because I do like to be informed of things, to learn from them, and realize what I can relegate to irrelevant status and work on my/our own lives. And, as always, I appreciate your kind and thoughtful points!
    Anonymous in Minneapolis

    Comment by Kristen — February 7, 2011 @ 2:18 am

  9. The tiger wave just washed onto the shores of Australia on an Australian National Radio programme called “Life Matters”. The presenter couldn’t help but laugh her way through the interview as some of the reflections of Amy Chua appear to be so … culturally Chinese and a product of American ivy-league academia. However, at any private school in Australia there are ‘Western’ parents moulding their children in much the same way. There is much to say for practice and perseverence. But I feel this ‘parenting style’ stems from a deep anxiety … and at times I have struggled with this myself. Amy Chua wins my gold for the Über-competitive Mum.

    Comment by Virginia — February 7, 2011 @ 4:44 am

  10. Amy Chua’s story is unconvincing (especially for a Yale professor), and even tongue-in-cheek, at times, but clearly a marketing coup for her book. That she would take credit for her daughter’s successes begs the question of what they might have been had they not been bullied, likely just as successful in their pursuits and maybe more so. She is fortunate that her daughters were not severely damaged by her parenting, as some would certainly be. I once learned that real strength is gentle and in gentleness there is real strength.

    Comment by Jen — February 7, 2011 @ 6:37 am

  11. I have more highlighted sections of “Hand Wash Cold” than of any other book. I know because the Kindle tells me the count. Until your book, the India section of “Eat, Pray, Love” gave me the most. I am thinking of this because your statement that your daughter may obey, disobey and eventually REPUDIATE you is totally brilliant language – just the sort of thought/wording combo that makes you so valuable a source.

    Comment by Bill Kirby — February 7, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

  12. As always, I love and value your honest thoughts and opinions.

    Comment by Swirly — February 7, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

  13. Thank you, Karen. I am grateful to be able to read your words.

    Comment by Ines — February 7, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

  14. Oh, thank you.
    The unmeasurable achievements are at least as important as the measurable.
    Your daughter thanks you too.

    Comment by 6512 and growing — February 7, 2011 @ 10:08 pm

  15. I also was not aware that the article about how Chinese Mother’s are better had raised a debate topic. I read the original post and was able to finally relate to the mother of my daughter’s friend who is Chinese. And reading about it also made me realize that some times it is OK to push your kid harder to succeed. It actually made me feel less worried about me pushing my daughter to excel. I am not particularly strict, but I do like her to do her best and I would sometimes worry that I was pushing her too hard. Now I don’t really feel bad about it anymore. But I allow my daughter to be on the school plays and encourage her to do the things she loves.

    Comment by Laura Vivoni — February 8, 2011 @ 1:59 am

  16. What a resounding call to common sense!

    P.S. My absolute favourite: Allowing your daughter waste what precious little time she has left over.

    What an exquisite way to be reminded of reality.

    Comment by Christine — February 8, 2011 @ 4:47 pm

  17. I’m new to your site and so grateful for your comments on the tiger mom phenomenon. I think it’s actually a good thing for kids to be bored! And you’re so right about what precious little free time they have. My son commutes an hour each way to his middle school and does his homework immediately upon entering the house(a minor miracle in itself). Weekends are his time to recharge and our time to reconnect as a busy, two-parents-working-full-time family. What you said about privileged people having the luxury of deciding tennis vs. violin, is spot-on. Folks in my neck of the woods are just trying to figure out how to pay the rent and feed their kids.

    Happy to have stumbled upon your site!

    Comment by Robin — February 9, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

  18. While I appreciate your approach to and thoughts about parenting, I think you missed the point of the book. Disclaimer: I haven’t read it yet, but I have heard her speak about it, and the point that she was trying to make (as she asserts) was that she *herself* found her own parenting style to be too harsh, too unforgiving, and the lessons she learned were about lightening up and letting go of some of the really stringent child-rearing practices that she has been brought up with as the daughter of immigrants.

    Yes, it is easy to judge. And to see what you want to see.

    Comment by Caterina — February 9, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

  19. Amen!! I gleaned one morsel of excellent practice from Amy Chua’s obviously outrageous attempt to market and sell her book: that in general, Western parents assume weakness whereas Chinese parents assume strength. I considered myself highly… evolved for not throwing everything out. I also understand how fucked up the world of literati is, because she knew damn well that she wouldn’t be on any bestseller’s list if she wasn’t completely outrageous. I’m pretty disappointed that that level of absurd is what it takes to get the attention of a media-saturated, information-numbed culture. It’s what my high school Puritanical sex-crazed teachers used to refer to, when pontificating on the dangers of heavy petting, as the Law of Diminishing Returns. When telling our truth doesn’t get us enough retweets or blog hits, then the ante is upped. Pathetic. ~self-righteous, soapboxxing Heather

    Comment by Heather — February 9, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

  20. I think instead of saying “Progress Not Perfection”, I’m going to start telling myself “A ‘B’ is a Good Grade Too”. It means the same thing, but makes me smile more 😉

    Comment by Erica — February 10, 2011 @ 11:06 am

  21. Really, really, really good. I am not a parent but as a child psychiatrist I have had the benefit of watching today’s parents from a distance and the competition factor scares me and scars others.

    “Believing that you have all the answers is delusional.” Stitch that on a pillow I say…


    Comment by Bobbi — February 22, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

  22. “Let’s remember that debating parenting styles is a sport practiced by only the most privileged. If we look closely at what we are contesting, it amounts to an argument about Harvard versus Berkeley, law school versus medicine, and violin versus tennis. I find arguments of this kind to be arrogant, rude and ignorantly self-serving, so I apologize to tigers everywhere.”

    I certainly don’t believe I have any answers….in spite of devoting a blog post debating parenting styles….my own understanding is that the answer is different for each family. I think it’s up to each family to wing it and find their own idiosyncratic way. Does that make me arrogant, rude or ignorantly self serving for even opening a discussion on it? Is this not the same as what is going on here? Parents thinking aloud together to help them understand/formulate/clarify their beliefs and attitudes about parenting?

    Comment by Motherfunker — February 8, 2012 @ 11:50 am

  23. No- this is a response to the media/publishing industry fabrication of a battle between Chinese-style (good) and American-style (bad) parenting. Of course there is no such thing. It was pure rhetorical invention in order to rile people up. And it happened a year ago. To revisit it now is to only cause yourself self-doubt, anger or confusion. That’s what we have to see. How we undermine ourselves.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — February 8, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

archives by month