Ever since I opened the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 8, I've been perplexed by the entire concept of the "Tiger Mother." And these past few weeks as I've observed the response, both negative and positive, to Amy Chua's book, I've wondered what it is exactly that tiger mothering does for her daughters that so intrigues us.
Having just conducted a study with a diverse pool of American mothers (300 mothers across the country, with daughters between the ages of three and 35) and as a mother to two daughters and one son, I know that mothering today is much more nuanced than Ms. Chua's experience. Not only that, but most mothers worry that they lack boundaries and can't set limits, especially with daughters. No wonder Ms. Chua's strict rules and harsh style are so incendiary.
If we contrast the "tiger mother" to the "acrobat mother" -- the latter being the group of mothers with whom I spoke, there appears to be an ironic twist. Daughters of both tiger mothers and acrobat mothers might not be ready for the world beyond the home. However, this occurs in two specific ways. Even as she coddles her daughter, uses a "soft" hands-on approach, and gives mixed messages, the acrobat mother is keenly aware of ambition and independence as her daughter's ticket. Meanwhile, the "tiger mother" rants and raves at her daughter, not allowing a bathroom break in her daughter's journey to greatness.
Acrobat daughters might not come in first place; the mother's efforts could be thwarted despite how she bends and folds to her daughter's needs. Yet this mother is aware of the many challenges that our daughters face today, including food and weight issues, the emphasis on beauty (starting at the age of five), label purchasing, being popular (no need for Ms. Chua to worry about that, it appears there isn't much time for her daughters to socialize or face the peer pressure and female rivalry that daughters of acrobat moms meet head on). So, despite Ms. Chua's impressive confidence in her system, one wonders how her daughters will manage in a culture where Gossip Girls, Mean Girls, text messaging and Internet savvy have significance?
The majority of American mothers are not only unable to raise their daughters in the way that Ms. Chua describes her tactics -- cajoling, threatening, dismissive -- but the process is antithetical to a core belief system. Mothers say they're desperate to find an answer, and certainly want to have high-achieving children. That's where Ms. Chua's results get our attention. Yet Ms. Chua's daughters are only 15 and 18, and still under their mother's wing. At what price are they proficient, since these daughters have not only been denied the American process of growing up -- sleepovers, playdates, TV time, selecting their own after-school activities? But we know little of the daughters' coping skills beyond their mother's strict and narrow universe. With a tiger mother, one salient question is how will the daughters go out into a world? Can this mother foster self-sufficiency if she chooses her daughters' forms of expression? Is the tiger daughter, coming from an alternate universe, bound for the same pitfalls and rewards as the acrobat daughter when it comes to navigating a path in the real world?
I know from Ms. Chua's excerpt in the WSJ that the tiger mother disdains a daughter's individuality. The acrobat mother keenly recognizes each daughter's distinct qualities, but also wants her daughter to be involved in what other daughters do and for life to go forward in a familiar trajectory. For example, these mothers focus on creativity, sports, academics, followed by an acceptance at a fine university, a career that is gratifying emotionally and financially, an engagement to a like-minded, similarly educated man by the age of 30 or so -- their own family one day.
In order to get our daughters there, acrobat mothers often say "yes" when they mean "no," give false praise (although most prefer to build their daughters' self-esteem by lauding them for what they do well), stay in a marriage to provide a stable family life, work two shifts as a single mother, and somewhat indulge daughters materially, all in the hope of producing a happy, self-reliant adult daughter who has options.
Frequently these past few weeks we have read of Ms. Chua's rejection of a homemade birthday card that wasn't up to snuff, and that she called her daughter "garbage." I just wonder, based on my research, how this contributes to a daughter becoming a secure, productive adult woman? Is the tiger mother too hell-bent on her success as a mother to consider what resonates for the daughter?
Of course we all want our daughters to be outstanding, and we live in a capitalistic society where male supremacy remains. That's why at the outset of the breaking news on the "tiger mother," I thought that maybe there is something to this technique for daughters. After all, few of the mothers with whom I spoke for my study had the level of assurance that Ms. Chua has. Rather they questioned their motivations, caved in to their daughter's demands. Some felt powerless -- as if they'd handed the power to their daughters in the midst of one of their acrobatic feats. The acrobat mother gets tired, worn, discouraged.
In fact, 80 percent of the women in my book thought could do better with their daughters, 60 percent were trying to shield their daughters, 70 percent say they make excuses for their daughters and worried about teaching the right values. At times they admitted, to varying degrees, to an easy-going, cushy style, but held fast to how intensely involved with they are with their daughters -- at every stage of their lives.
What is meaningful about acrobat mothers is that they reflect the world we truly live in. That means honoring our daughters' desires and choices, respecting them enough to hear what they have to say, being keenly conscious of what matters to them as much as what matters to us. Sure, there's some narcissism in some mother's voices, there's some defeatism, false starts, regret, fear and that nagging thought -- are we creating our own monsters? But at least we aren't monster mothers, and it's not sensational.
The collective voice of mothers today is about how to best prepare our daughters for life, based on our nature looped into the nurture of society at large. The mothers with whom I spoke are not interested in denying their daughters or torturing them for effect. And when they backpedal, it's in their own homes, or with close friends, usually with other mothers, who feel as genuinely concerned and occasionally at a loss. This is what goes on in small towns, rural areas, cities and suburbs alike. The emotions attached to mothering daughters cut across class, ethnicity, age, education and economic status.