Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tiger Mother? Or Eagle Mother?


I'm sure by now most people with a computer or TV have heard about Amy Chua, the "Tiger Mother" whose philosophy of child-rearing is debatably Chinese and completely Type A, and has caused considerable heated discussion among parents and professionals and pundits around the world.  I don't know what you think of her child-rearing methodology.  I know I could learn some useful things from her, but I could never be her (nor do I want to be her).  Frankly, as the mother of a child with special needs, her approach to parenting makes me very sad.  Her daughters are lovely young ladies now, intelligent and talented and no doubt gifted with abilities above average in many areas, which have only been honed by their mother's obsessive focus on perfection.  But I have to ask, what if one or more of her children had been born with a disability?  What would the Tiger Mother have done then?

I think Ms. Chua is right to emphasize practice and rote learning for basic skills.  She's right to encourage her children to do their best, and not stop at "good enough."  However, her parenting style is predicated on the idea that her children have the innate ability to be THE BEST in almost everything they do.  Nothing less than THE BEST is acceptable to her, therefore she will demand and pull that desired result out of her kids, no matter what.  That kind of soul-crushing pressure put on a child makes my heart ache for her daughters.  Not everyone can be the best at what they do.  By definition for every "best" there are dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions of others at varying points below best in every subject of human endeavor, from "worst" to "pathetic" to "fair" to "good" to "close but not quite" to "silver medal."  For lack of a better term, for every "winner" there are many "losers."  And don't we hate that word?

I have to make an argument, for the sake of our children (with or without special needs) that BEST is not an objective, numbers-driven, rank-mandated, attainable goal for most people.  It's just not possible for many children to be the best at a physical, artistic, or academic skill, as defined by the world around us.  This is not to say that children with all kinds of special needs can't excel at their chosen specialties, or even just in everyday things.  But the Tiger Mother mantra of "Nothing but the best is acceptable" realistically cannot apply to most children, born average or not.  Expecting our children to do their best has to be leavened with the realistic expectation that sometimes their best will not be superior to their peers' best efforts.  And that's okay.

I want my children, with and without their own unique or special needs, to know that I love them no matter how well they perform in school or in extracurricular activities.  I've been careful to tell them that as long as they try their best, I will not punish them or belittle them for getting less than an A in a particular subject.  Yes, I want them to do well.  Yes, I push them to correct their mistakes, learn basic skills thoroughly, try hard, admit failure and pick themselves up again and keep going.  They have their gifts, but not every talent can be quantified on a test, or corroborated by winning a competition.  When they win a prize, I'm happy for them.  When they try hard but aren't Number One, I'm still proud of them for doing their best.


If I'm not a tiger mother, then what am I?  Maybe I'm an Eagle Mother:  fierce in protecting my kids, quick to give tough love when it's needed, diligent to provide for their needs, selfless to shelter them from storms that could harm them, swift to teach them what they need to know, and hopeful that my children will soar to the heights they are capable of, while enjoying the view along the way.