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Nancy Doyle Palmer Headshot

Tiger Mothers, Mama Grizzlies and the Mommy Wars -- Let's Tame the Beasts!

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The intense mommy buzz created by Amy Chua's book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is causing a flare-up of my own parental PTSD -- our three girls are all in their 20s now and it's been years since I worried about a playgroup, science project, SAT or sleepover - but thanks to all the renewed attention on extreme parenting, I'm getting some flashbacks. Mama lions and tigers and bears -- oh no.

While I developed a pretty simple alarm bell ("step away from the crazy") long ago that goes off at the first "no media on schooldays" or "she can't, she has practice," I can't stop reading all the back and forth this book is churning up. Amy Chua is absolutely that mother who stands up at back-to-school night and complains her children aren't challenged enough, or calls ahead to make sure the movie is PG-13, and knows where everyone else's kid did or didn't get into college.

My own parenting roots: I'm an Irish/WASP baby boomer raised by two un-self-actualized types in the 50's, but I also attended private school in Washington and so did our children. So these kind of mommy wars are familiar ground. I once heard someone boast at a parent peer meeting that he had disconnected the electricity from his son's room and put the light switch outside his room so he could enforce lights out at 9 p.m. I've attended a "menstruation tea." And yes, I myself once considered legal action when my daughter didn't get the lead in the class musical.

My own parenting rules go like this:

1. Watching a little crappy television after school is a good thing.
2. You get the kid you get. It's not you. Do your best with what you have.
3. It's every parent's obligation to teach their children that no one likes an asshole.
4. Every child who enters our house is a welcome guest.
5. Terrible parents can have wonderful children. And vice versa.
6. On the truly rare occasion your child needs defending, do it. Carefully.
7. The quality of a seven-year-old's day is just as important as that of a 37-year-old. Childhood is not training for adulthood. It's childhood.
8. My children are the most extraordinary and important creatures on earth. They are beyond beautiful. I love them more than words can ever express. This is my private secret. It's also the private secret of every parent I meet.
9. Most parents are doing the very best job they can under often challenging circumstances. Be nice.

This last one is the hardest but most important to remember right now. Being a parent forced me to often interact with people I would not have dealt with otherwise. And this brought the single best moments of all -- people will surprise you.

That type-A nutcase who wants to take over the bake sale will also show up at your front door when your father died with a huge sliced ham, three cakes and a case of soft drinks. The odd, quiet volunteer you underestimated will put together the most amazing costumes for every single child in the pageant. And make one for herself and join in the actual performance, unasked. That insufferably self-important CEO dad will show up for the midnight clean-up shift after the 9th grade dance and be adorable about it. The neurotic, hand-wringing mom who worries about every new freedom has a huge heart and her eyes will fill with tears when she hears someone else's child is sick.

And trust me, at some point someone else's mother or father will step in for your kid when you're not there and be their biggest champion and friend. Astonishing surprises and turns.
So often the Amy Chuas end up being much funnier and more authentic than expected if you just give them a chance -- her own revelations and self-doubts seem to attest to this. It's so often just a matter of getting past your initial horror.

But... and yes, there is a but. There really are some toxic parents out there -- chronic and relentless score-keepers who see this whole messy childhood experience as one huge competitive game that their children, as mere extensions of themselves, must win.

Which brings up rule #10.

Crazy people don't get less crazy just because they have children. Sometimes they get worse.

It took me years to realize this but there were people I was dealing with on a regular basis who truly did not wish my or anybody else's children well. A shameful truth -- and one that unfortunately this fierce, take-no-prisoners Tiger Mother-Mama Grizzly language helps to validate.

That claws-out, teeth-baring feeling we all get when we hear another mom brag about her gifted children is a bad impulse and needs to be kept in check, not celebrated with books and blogs and battle language.

It makes me long for that village we all made fun of in the '80s.

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