"The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" controversy just doesn't seem to be going away. The parenting book by Amy Chua is not only a major bestseller, but it has created a firestorm of media attention.
The news from Harvard that Chua's daughter, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, has just been admitted may have anxious parents with kids who want to get into the Ivy League opening their bottles of Tums.
Mothers are the canary in the coal mine as far as our social anxieties are concerned. So it's no surprise that this book by a professor at Yale Law School presents a style of mothering that we see either as a blueprint for success in the Ivy League, or as the Joan Crawford "Mommie Dearest" mode of parenting. (Remember the immortal line in that book, when Joan's daughter broke her mother's basic rule of storing clothing. Joan shrieked, "No wire hangars!" and wacked her daughter with the offending object.)
There are no wire hangers in Chua's tome, but she reveals that she wouldn't let her daughters have sleepovers or play dates, be in a school play, get any grade less than an A, play computer games or refuse to practice the violin or piano for many hours at a time.
The mother is this case is Asian -- and that has a lot to do with the furor. If Amy Chua was, say, Amy Jones, would the book have topped the bestseller charts?
Author and critic Sandra Tsing Loh is right when she notes in The Atlantic that:
The book wouldn't have inflamed readers so much if they didn't harbor the troubling suspicion that at least in these nosebleedingly high stakes times for upper-middle-class children -- Chua was right. Even before Hurricane Amy made landfall, anyone in the chattering classes would have had to be blind not to have noticed that in this game of -- at least academic -- life, Asian youth appear to be winning.
So today, it is our anxieties about our children's chances in life's economic lottery that seem to be kicking off the latest mommy debate. In the past, it was other issues that twisted us into knots.
In the 1940s, the worry was how to shove all those women occupying the war jobs they had taken on -- and came to love -- out of the workforce. The answer? Convince them that they could never be mommies -- or were bad mommies if they kept working.
A 1947 bestseller "Modern Woman: The Lost Sex" came up with an intriguing notion: "Male-emulating careerists have such anxiety about pregnancy that their glands secrete chemicals that destroy fertility." Baby-killing chemicals -- now there's an idea to make a woman's blood run cold! But have no fear, women. Return to a "normal" role in society would soothe ovaries that spew defective eggs.
In the 1950s, when we worried about the Soviet threat and the coming triumph of Communism, it was all mom's fault. Bestselling author Philip Wylie claimed that women had so emasculated their sons that they broke under torture in Korea. He created the term "momism" and decried the American worship of mom:
Satan, we are told, finds work for idle hands to do. There is no mistaking the accuracy of this proverb. Millions of men have heaped up riches and made a conquest of idleness so as to discover what it is that Satan puts them up to. Not one has failed to find out. But never before has a great nation of brave and dreaming men absent-mindedly created a huge class of idle, middle-aged women.
In the 1970s, when women flooded back into the workforce in huge numbers, we had the bad working mommy who was no longer nobly making airplanes for the war effort but working for her own selfish reasons. Right-wing activists campaigned across the nation to stop man- hating, careerist feminists from passing an Equal Rights amendment.
All the while, mothers soldiered on, some of them awful Mommie Dearests or pushy helicopter moms, but most doing a pretty good job. Yes, maybe some kids today are too pampered and allowed to play videogames when they should be doing their calculus homework, or maybe some chew the edges of the piano in frustration, as Chua's daughter did when she had to practice for endless hours. Most of us moms fall someplace in between, doing the best we can.
We should take solace from Ellen Galinsky's 2000 book "Ask the Children," based on a major study of working parents. Children (third through 12th grades) thought their parents were very successful in managing work and family life; 74 percent said their mothers were very successful, and 69 percent said their fathers were.
But parenting is a tough job, especially in these difficult economic times. No one can insure that a child will get a wonderful job, find fame and success and never stumble. We can only look at our children as individuals and encourage them to develop their talents and follow their passions. Even a perfect SAT score is not the brass ring. Maybe the kid who gets into Harvard will find herself (or himself) out of a job as the high tech jobs sail off to India, while the girl who spends hours with the drama club while neglecting calculus will grow up to be the next Tina Fey.
In any event, isn't it about time we gave mom a break?