Looking for advice on how to raise a successful daughter? Recent bestsellers offer conflicting advice. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein trumpets Girl Power over pink princesses if you want a smart, independent woman. But Kay Hymowitz writes in Manning Up that you should poo-poo this New Girl Order -- at least if you want your daughter to be a wife and (working) mother someday. And then there's the now infamous Tiger Mother Amy Chua who painstakingly details how she "Chinese parents" her two daughters to be the best at everything they touch in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother; her girls tend to trounce everyone (girls and boys) while wearing princess-style dresses.
Chua recently spoke at Harvard (otherwise known as mecca for Tiger Moms), where she proclaimed, "I could not in a million years imagine my book to be perceived this way, as preaching Chinese parenting as superior... This is not a parenting book. It is a memoir." Indeed Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother covers Chua's childhood and family life, and describes how her relationship with members of her family changed while raising her over-achieving Chinese-Jewish-American children. These humanizing details are interspersed between the more horrifying anecdotes -- well known, thanks to the excerpt printed in The Wall Street Journal -- about denial of dinners and sleepovers, and threats to burn stuffed animals and give toys away.
As Chua was excoriated in the media, Orenstein's own parenting book-cum-memoir appeared. Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a spirited journey through the princess-industrial complex created by Disney and fed by American Girl, Club Libby Lu, other toy companies, child beauty pageants, and many more. Orenstein, a journalist who specializes in women's and girls' issues, details how this pink culture developed historically and how it impacts girls today at younger ages than ever before--including her own daughter, Daisy.
In many ways Chua and Orenstein's families and concerns are similar. They both have daughters. In fact, they both are raising Asian/Jewish daughters. They both find something wrong with current American parenting techniques, especially when it comes to raising their girls. But Peggy Orenstein is revered and Amy Chua is reviled, and when you read the books you can see why. As unyielding as Chua is (even when conceding defeat), Orenstein is questioning -- a crucial difference between the two books. Orenstein is also humorous. Chua claims she was trying to be a funny writer, but any self-deprecating humor just doesn't come across as genuine, especially when she repeatedly lists the accolades of her various family members. In the end, Orenstein is just more admirably ambivalent, honest, and likeable about mothering a young girl today.
Both books are prescriptive at heart. They suggest, "Do this like me, but not that, if you want to raise a successful daughter." The truth is that while Chua bemoans how difficult her parenting style is to implement, Orenstein's is far more difficult. Many are reluctant to admit it, but Chua's somewhat-draconian techniques seem to produce the kind of high-achieving kids many parents want. Orenstein's suggestions, on the other hand, are easier to bob your head to in agreement, but much harder to actually do. Try keeping a six-year-old girl away from an entire culture that promotes princesses and pink, which means no friends, television, stores... you get the idea.
Kay Hymowitz seems to applaud Cinderella's re-ascendance in the pantheon of princesses and pink. In Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys she argues that when women out-perform men in school and in jobs, this makes the men feel bad, resent women, and become bad life partners. Hymowitz claims problems started during the 1990s when girls "cast off Cinderella and Snow White in favor of the warrior girls Pocahontas and Mulan." The little warrior princesses were just not thinking enough about marriage growing up, as they focused on schoolwork and athletics -- hence why, now in their thirties, they are having a hard time finding a good man who is professionally successful and mature. (It's interesting that The Wall Street Journal again played a key role in generating controversy about a book by publishing an excerpt.)
Is it possible that it is Amy Chua who has gotten it right for girls, despite all the vitriol? She's reported that her eldest daughter, a high school senior, has been busy applying to the Ivies while also spending time with her boyfriend, who she presumably outperforms in school. Tiger Girls can be third wave feminists too.
Though Chua's Tiger Girls seem to have escaped the princess-industrial complex, and they may end up happily married to successful men by age 30, we should still worry about younger girls. What's particularly worrisome is what Orenstein pinpoints -- the princess-industrial complex is targeting ever younger girls, and a saturation campaign is being waged. If parents don't let a little bit of their Tiger selves come out early in their daughters' lives, shielding them from predominantly princess messages before they start school, then it's possible that Hymowitz's Cinderella model will reign supreme three decades from now.
My advice to parents? Make sure Cinderella doesn't feast on your daughter's future ambitions and goals... but remember that a few pink sparkles never hurt anyone.
Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D. is a sociologist and a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard studying girls and competitive afterschool activities. She is 30, married, and wears a lot of pink.
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