Tigers vs. Dragons The New Mothering Movements
By Angela Davidson
my Chua catapulted to celebrity status this past year with the publishing—and attendant publicity—of her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In the book and her many interviews, Chua, a self-described “tiger mom,” talks about how she has raised her children “the Chinese way.” What does that mean? According to Chua, it means telling her kids they were “garbage,” that a grade of an A- was shameful, that the only activities worth pursuing were ones in which you could win a medal—and it had better be gold—and the only artistic paths worth exploring were piano or violin—and then only if it led straight to Carnegie Hall. Despite the many cries of parental abuse and tyranny levelled at Chua, one can’t deny her results. Her oldest daughter is a piano prodigy who debuted—at Carnegie Hall—at the tender age of 14. The second daughter, naturally, is a gifted violinist. And, yes, they both achieve excellent grades in school. The concept of loving parents who inflict pain in their child’s best interests is not new in Chinese culture. Up until the early twentieth century, most Chinese mothers forced their daughters to go through the prolonged— and horrific—process of foot-binding to ensure their success in marriage. (Girls whose feet were not bound were often relegated to the servant class and were considered unmarriageable.) However, such concepts are not exclusive to Chinese culture. The Soviet system of education institutionalized the concept of “loving pain” by forcing children to study and practice arduously in order to achieve near-perfect results, which, in turn, would yield satisfaction to the child and the whole family, what Chua calls “the virtuous circle.” According to Chua, “tiger moms” can be met with in every culture—wanting success for your children is a mindset that translates cultural boundaries. While Chua and her ilk are an extreme example of mothering gone wild, it’s not a far cry from many parents who demand excellent grades and high achievement in competitive activities in a desperate bid to make sure their children are “marketable” in an increasingly competitive world. In contrast, parents like Emily Rapp, the mother of a child with Tay-Sachs and a self-described “dragon mom” who was recently profiled in The New York Times, takes the opposite approach to parenting. Rapp’s philosophy is, necessarily, a product of her circumstances. Her child will never grow up to achieve brilliance in any field, for the devastatingly simple reason that he will never grow up. Tay-Sachs is a rare genetic degenerative disorder that strikes hard and fast, and most children diagnosed don’t live to see their third birthday.
As a dragon mom, Rapp is permissive to a degree that most, under ordinary circumstances, would deem faulty. But hers are not ordinary circumstances. Beyond keeping her child safe, clean, fed, comfortable and, hopefully, happy, what else can be expected? The term she has coined, however, has now become the standard behind which the “anti-tiger” movement is rallying. These are parents who have decided not to ask anything of their child other than to “be themselves.” This has created an interesting question: Where is the tipping point between too much expectation and not enough? Is the new “dragon mom” movement one of excess permissiveness doomed to create a generation of underachievers who will never know the satisfaction of success gained through hard work and sacrifice? For most of us, parenting is a future-oriented activity, one filled with plans, activities and hopes, all designed to create that “bright future” for our child that every parent, no matter how permissive, dreams of. The lesson that most of us can—and should—take away from Rapp is to enjoy and love our children in the here-and-now, to relish the loud, noisy, messy, unorganized, delightful and perfect thing that is childhood. As for Chua and her “tiger” mentality, perhaps there is a lesson there as well, having to do with the benefits of persistence of hard work. For me, this will never translate into seeing my child perform at Carnegie Hall, but, perhaps—someday—I might get to see him act at the Playhouse. In a leading role. Okay, I’m good now.
January/February 2012 33