Tiger Moms in Tigger Times

I doubt many parents have failed to find Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother blipping over their radar, Tigger-triggering little waves of unease.  But as the dust settles, I want to employ this latest meaningless tempest in a teacup to further the aim of facilitating calm amongst parents.

Therefore, let’s not bother debating the merits of tiger parenting vs. Chua’s gloss on Western parenting; I imagine you already have your opinions on that and will not benefit from mine.

Instead, let’s consider why this issue has gotten so much ink, so many comments at the Wall Street Journal, where Chua’s essay on her parenting philosophy ruffled feathers, and sparked wide ranging debate in the New York Times and across the blogosphere.

I suspect that this all distills down to fear.  Fear that we are not good enough parents.  Fear that we, and/or our children, will be left behind (and the feeling of being left behind distills down to abandonment, which distills down to annihilation—to feelings swirling below the radar of many an unsuspecting grown-up that are akin to excruciating dread, angst and lonely shame).

Fear is largely what sells books, newspapers and the tiger’s share of media striving to be monetized.

Thus it strikes me as no mere coincidence that since the Wall Street Journal was bought by Rupert Murdoch, we have had faux controversies such as Erica Jong attacking attachment parenting and now Amy Chua attacking Western Parenting.  Murdoch is a bit of a P.T. Barnum for our day, and in a world where newspapers are dying like dinosaurs after the comet hit, he knows how to put on a freak show and fill seats in the carny tent.

So, if you enjoy the circus (and I do not), then enjoy the Wall Street Journal, enjoy the constantly escalating train wreck that passes for authentic discussion in our terrified culture, but do not take it seriously.  You are better off to breathe and realize that this is all akin to show-biz—drenched in brazen inauthenticity and pandering to you no less than reality TV.

While I believe that Chua, in her article in the WSJ is actually writing with a large dollop of irony, she does conclude provocatively with:  “many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly.” (And one can easily see how this is a direct attack on the insecure parent and at the same time a stirring of fear—fear that parents are messing up their kids, fear that if they don’t buy the magical book they will in fact be content to raise a loser).  Then, more sensibly she adds:  “I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that,”

I had a conversation with an editor at a large publishing house with regard to my own book, which is neither fear-driven, nor soon to be published by a large publishing house.  The editor suggested that, in order to sell, parenting books need to stir up fear, and then offer a solution.  She offered for me to propose such a book and I had to explain how that was the exact opposite of what I choose to stand for because it is the opposite of what I believe can help parents be their best Selves.

We might as well sell Thneeds (if you know Seuss’ The Lorax).

Now if a person, such as Amy Chua, goes on the attack against other parents in a public forum, and holds themselves up as a paragon of how to parent, it seems fair game to speculate on her own psychology.

Chua strikes me as deeply confused and conflicted (and therefore I counsel compassion for her and her likely to one day crumble certitude about “success”).  Firstly, I doubt a traditional Chinese mother would be so grandiose and publicly proud of herself—and while I see little gain in making the division cultural (why not just contrast driven parenting and attuned parenting?) she seems entirely Western in her attitude of severe, virtually anti-social, competitiveness.

Isn’t the cliché of the West the loner, the Marlborough Man, the individualistic maverick?  Isn’t the cliché of the East the uniformity, and conformity, of mass culture?  Thus while I’m keen to bust these facile and prejudicial myths, Chua is either subversive or unconscious in wrapping herself in the American flag and calling it the Chinese flag.

I have a deep respect for Chinese thought, but I do not see anything resembling Amy Chua’s attitude in my readings of the I Ching, or the Tao Te Ching.

In fact, Lao Tze suggests, in the Tao Te Ching, that it is the person who treats the world as if it were her child who is most fit to rule, or at least lead, that world.  Amy treats the world as if it is a ladder for she, and her children, to climb.  Chinese wisdom does not bode well for the long-term success of this attitude.

Whatever her parenting, what Amy Chua has done is to succeed in positioning her book for so-called success in a nervous, competitive and phony world.  But she’s just shooting nervous fish in a pee-tinged barrel.

Chua’s husband, like her, also a Yale professor (and who can say they are not smart?), is Jewish.  And just as the Jewish psyche is deeply informed by Babylonian exile, the Inquisition and the Holocaust—and this helps explain how a people without a land might become a people of a Book (with education as the penultimate path)—when it comes to the Chinese psyche we must ask, “Which Chinese psyche?”

Lao Tze also lived in Tigger times as well and, by legend, only wrote his wisdom down when asked, as a favor, on his way out—leaving a messed up civilization that he was fed up with living in.  The self-centered egoists he disfavored are long gone while the ideas Lao Tze left us endure as a Wisdom text.  Does anybody think that people will be reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom more than a thousand years from now?

Perhaps Amy Chua’s mind is haunted by the Cultural Revolution, by terror and persecution, by attitudes toward female babies and women in general?  Again, I implore compassion:  Amy herself asserts that the Tiger approach is a shame-based approach, and even if it comes from love, it is ruled by fear—fear not just instilled in the child, but effused by the rigidly certain parent.  The tiger is an endangered species; thus tigers may have nothing to fear but humans who want to kill tigers or take their land.

Be it a tiger or a human mother, when triggered into fear, we are talking Lizard Brain—and as we have discussed in previous posts, lizards do not attach.  Some scared humans become fight-flight outlaws; some go for Yale-lock-down.  While in America, Yale is old-school, when it comes to China, Chua is Secondary Modern.  Either way, it’s a lonely and frightened path—one that leads to asocial conquest, and ultimately, to war.

Yes war.  Tiger thinking is akin to military training (it is a battle hymn after all)—and it’s a brilliant way to turn humans into soldiers of one stripe or another.  In the parenting scenario, however, there is not even an army to be faithful to; perhaps it’s more like the Chinese Tony Soprano?  In any event, Georges Battaille, a French philosopher, suggested that materialism (which is very much like relentless competition at the expense of social fabric) inevitably leads to the overproduction of goods (Thneeds) which, in turn, leads to war.

Chua herself previously published a book entitled:  “World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.”  Here, it sounds, she knows well of what she speaks (but how many books does that sell compared to Tiger with Her Head Cut Off?)

Be it a brain, a family or a world—an optimal expression of each is marked by differentiation of parts, which are then integrated into a cohesive and functioning whole.  We do not need to be, or think, or parent in lock-step conformity with each other—but we do need to connect.  Fear is the antithesis of connecting and it trumps it.  I fear that tiger parenting is really lizard parenting in tiger clothing—it is a Wizard of a twitchy Oz, and my hope is that Toto (which is Latin for “everything”), might pull back the curtain and out the Lizard (for he too is a trickster, and, ultimately, a rather nice, reasonable and helpful fellow).  We already have the right shoes, we just need to realize it and we are safely home.

While a reasoned and compassionate exploration about how we might take the best of different parenting perspectives and work cooperatively toward an optimal environment for supporting all kids toward excellence would be a more useful book, it would certainly not be such a “successful” book.  For this we truly cannot blame Amy Chua or Rupert Murdoch—we must blame ourselves, or else change ourselves.  And to change ourselves is to tame our fear—at which point we have little use for snake oil.

As every con artist knows, from P.T. Barnum to Rupert Murdoch, the key to the con rests on the greed of the “mark.”  Our collective greed truly may be for the “perfect child,” and thus we may publicly excoriate, and feign outrage at, the Tiger Mother’s tome… and then secretly drink it up, searching for that little edge that will get our nascent champ the gold.  Maybe… but I hope not.

So, in this little quiet corner of the non-fear-driven and non-sensationalistic virtual Our Town, let’s get a grip, a loving virtual hug of a grip on each other.  Let’s breathe in love and breathe out fear and desire.  And if you want to crack the whip on your kids, maybe we can love you and your kids all he way to Carnegie Hall; and if you want to opt-out of the ceaseless terror, maybe we can love each other all the way to story time… maybe we can join Ferdinand and just sit quietly and smell the flowers—in the service of all our collective children, be they driven tiger cubs or daisy-chain-making hippy kids… or just our diverse and universally wonderful kids, all of whom defy easy categorization much less cook-book parenting.

Namaste, BD

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26 Responses to “Tiger Moms in Tigger Times”

  1. Beth K Says:

    I enjoyed this thought-provoking and humorous post. I especially liked the line, “Some scared humans become fight-flight outlaws; some go for Yale-lock-down.”
    Happy Wednesday,
    Beth

  2. Katy Says:

    Excellent post. Really enjoy your blog.

  3. Mark Brady Says:

    “Shooting fish in a pee-tinged barrel” kind of makes me what to go get my AK-47 from beneath the floorboards! 😉

  4. Cherilyn Says:

    Excellent commentary. Many, many thanks for those of us working on compassion for ourselves and in our parenting in this fear-stricken world.

  5. Jen Says:

    Thanks so much for this. Great insights as usual. Love your blog.

  6. Steffi Says:

    Thank you so very much for your thoughtful and compassionate post. I, too, felt that Amy Chua was at least in part purposefully provocative, that there was an effort to create outrage in order to get attention, spark fake debate and ultimately to sell books. I was saddened by some high profile responses which took a rebuttal stance, adding to the media frenzy about parenting camps and fueling false east/west stereotypes etc. rather than calming down our discourse. Just because we are not raising Carnegie Hall worthy violinists doesn’t mean we can’t encourage a child through the sometimes tedious part of music practice. There is a middle ground and I most often find it when I breathe deeply, pause to consider and respond with love… to both my children and all of us fearful parents.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Steffi—maybe we find more joy in our kids singing together, than in lionizing (or is it tigerizing) solo perfection at Carnegie Hall. Makes me, however naively, imagine some collective Om offered up by parents on every side, and middle, of the issue that still boils down to: we all love our kids. It’s loving each other’s kids that just might get us all singing along to the same song on the radio.

  7. walkingonmyhands Says:

    Bruce,

    I too felt that the WSJ article was a ploy to sell papers. I am not sure if you read Ayelet Waldman’s response to Ms. Chua, but I was impressed. It was compassionate and honest.

    Your post is such a great expose of parenting in the age of fear. Thank you. Every time I read your blog, I remember that parenting is supposed to be enjoyable – not every minute, but enough minutes so that the fear can dissolve. I love this: “To change ourselves is to tame our fear.” Thank you Bruce!!!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I went to go read it at your prompt—so thanks, I found it balanced, respectful and human: just the sort of voices we want to connect with. Ayelet’s vulnerability and self-examination point the way to being connected with differing points of view without hostile attack (although interesting that she finds the aggression being held in her own kids and their reported opinion of Ms. Chua).

      For others who want to read it: http://on.wsj.com/eugH8u

      Meanwhile, here’s to taming our fear through connecting without losing our own individuality. Namaste

  8. Wolf Pascoe Says:

    Bruce,

    Much to chew on here. Your conversation with that editor really struck home. Ours is a culture so permeated with banality that speaking from the heart becomes a political act. And yet the longing for authenticity is palpable everywhere. Rhetoric is of no use. Perhaps the best we can do is to gather in the quiet corners tell our stories.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi WolfP, Speaking authentically may be becoming political… but it’s wellness and happiness that are truly subversive; for when fear tames, the meaningless waste of time and money reduces… which is bad news for those who profit from terror.

      So, here’s to quiet stories in quiet corners.

  9. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    What Chua is: a brilliant self-promoter. Ka-ching! That’s the sound of her pocketbook.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hey KW, I guess if we put coin at the top of our realm, we’d have no need to tame the tiger… it’s in the emptiness that follows where I hope we can pick up the calming thread. Here’s to promoting something beyond the self, while striving for compassion for those whose selves desire promoting.

  10. rudrip Says:

    Bruce: This post has depth and insight. I also feel that the book publishing business is about who you know and how you sell it. I believed Chua knew exactly what she was doing when writing her manuscript and as a consequence had an immediate platform for marketing.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Rudri, Even when we think you know exactly what we’re doing, we never really do. Many try to calculate, sell-out, etc and fail nonetheless. One of the biggest errors we make upon gaining “success” is to attribute it to smarts and hard work alone rather than luck (it’s all of the above, of course); conversely we tend to blame our “failures” on bad luck. From a marketing standpoint, Chua appears to be genius, but I suspect that publishing is a lot like Hollywood: a place where people keep rushing to where lightning has just struck. Can we be far away from tiger-whisperers and tiger-balm for the soul?

  11. Alana Says:

    Thank you Bruce for this compassionate, humorous and intelligent look at the frenzy that Chua’s article and book created. I found myself sucked in for a moment or two, then laughed and moved on. I am grateful to not buy into that fear and I would buy your book in a second. My monkey mind creates enough fear for three lifetimes, I don’t need to add more. Peace, love and compassion please. Who knew I’d be such hippy – and happy – mama.

  12. BigLittleWolf Says:

    All I can say is bravo.

    How is this “fear parenting” any different than stirring the proverbial pot in the blogosphere? Don’t we all know (and many admit as a strategy) that kicking up a little controversy adds to page views, and all the commercially-driven-dreams of an increasingly narcissistic society?

    Fear is nothing new as a marketing tactic. I don’t know why we’re surprised at any of this.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hey BLW, How many times can a parenting pundit cry “Tiger,” before our reflexive response becomes to yawn and move on? If happiness, calm and wellness are a bit subversive to the standing order, and I believe that they are, perhaps by cultivating loving kindness and compassion we heal our narcissistic society at the micro level, reaping the gain of lives more richly lived in the bargain.

      Here’s to no longer being surprised and no longer being riled up by such obvious ploys that truly insult our intelligence (not as marketeers, to be sure, but as parents if we hope for anything resembling a kinder world for our kids).

      Namaste

  13. Chris White Says:

    Well done Bruce! Some really great lines and insights in there.
    Tis’ a shame that nuance and deeper perspective is not as well linked to the fear-buying circuits of our brainstem. Keeps the culture stagnating longer than it should.
    But alas, the drive to mature — to understand and express more and more truth and beauty every day — is an unrelenting force. This debate was placed in our laps to test our commitment to compassion and the slow, quiet transformative power of love.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Chris, I guess if we parent whatever ends up on our laps things might trend toward increased calm and greater kindness—at least in our own little circles. Either way, All Good Wishes

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