The Real Tiger Mom: Egypt's Amal Sharaf

To say that Chinese "Tiger Mom" and Egyptian "Revolution Mom" are both doing right by their children is a bit like comparing Mommy Dearest to Mother Teresa.
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In the middle of Cairo's Tahir Square, 36 year-old single mother Amal Sharaf brings her daughter to her tiny office where she and about ten others work tirelessly to overthrow Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "I think we can do it," Sharaf meekly tells NBC's Richard Engel.

Armed with six cell phones, she places hundreds of calls a day encouraging Egyptians nationwide to come to the capital city. Her daughter has been seen sitting by her mother's side in a pink scarf and plaid sneakers playing games on a microcomputer as history unfolds around her.

Here in the US, mothers from coast to coast have been engaging in a civil war of a different kind. Amy Chua's new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was the shot heard round the water cooler last week. In case you are one of the few who have not been swept into passionate conversations about whether or not Chua is doing a better job raising children than you are, the book showcases Chua forcing her daughters to spend up to six hours a day practicing violin and piano despite their pleas to stop. She taunts them, insults their intelligence, and figuratively keeps them chained to their instruments while one literally gnaws on piano keys.

These dramatically different stories highlight a deep cultural divide that goes well beyond individual parenting styles. To say that Chinese "Tiger Mom" and - let's call her Egyptian "Revolution Mom" - are both doing right by their children is a bit like comparing Mommy Dearest to Mother Teresa. They are both mothers (of sorts) but with very different agendas and tactics.

With her daughter at her side, Revolution Mom is leading by example, contributing her time and energy to the greater good of society. Sharaf puts herself in harm's way to fight for freedom for the next generation. As a founder of Egypt's April 6 Movement last year, Sharaf called for the repeal of a decades-old emergency law that limits personal rights. At least 90 people were detained that day for protesting. She was beaten by a police officer with a baton. Her adversaries have threatened to continue to attack her. Just days ago, she sobbed as she told a reporter about a man purporting to be a Mubarak supporter who insisted she stop her activism or her daughter would be kidnapped.

The polarizing, goal-obsessed Tiger Mom has the bona fides to simply lead by example. Yet she chooses instead to walk loudly and carry a large stick. As an accomplished Yale Law professor who has fought hard to climb the indomitable Ivy League wall, she is not satisfied until she berates and badgers her children to achieve what she sees as perfection.

The Chua girls live in an upper-middle class world with all the trappings including two poofy white Samoyeds. But they are kept apart from their peers. They are prohibited to go on sleepovers. They can't bring home anything but an 'A' on report cards and cannot go on vacation unless they promise to practice each day for at least two hours - even if they just got off a transcontinental flight. And under no circumstances are they to ever play computer games while hanging out with mom at her office.

Chua seems to derive great pleasure from the pain she has inflicted on her girls. We see her beam with pride as they play for her colleagues or at Carnegie Hall. She gloats about their precocious performances to other parents who have the unfortunate experience of running into her on the street. Yet not once in the entire 256 pages of the book do we hear her utter words about the greater good of society. We don't hear her say that their beautiful music will make the world a better place and provide comfort and pleasure to those who hear it. The pushing and the pulling of the Chua girls is motivated by one reason: to make them - and their mother - look good.

Many of us are guilty of pushing our children to succeed beyond the point they feel comfortable. After reading Chua's page-turning book, I couldn't stop my competitive juices from making my 10 year-old son practice an extra half hour of violin that day or insisting that he shovel the sidewalk with me for 90 minutes. (I let him go in when he started asking neighbors if they were abolitionists and could help free him.)

Yet while my children and I watch wall-to-wall tv coverage of women and men banded together to push Egypt over the precipice of change, I've been struck by how small Chua and her philosophy seem. My heart is grateful to have women like Sharaf showing her child - and mine - that no matter who you are, you can make a difference for a cause larger than yourself.

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