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Tiger Mom Is a Scaredy Cat

This storyline is no longer about a Chinese-American mother and her parenting style. This narrative has exposed a raw nerve about the current zeitgeist of parenting and how best to raise our children in 21st-century America.
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I know what you're thinking: "Hasn't this horse been beaten enough. Three blog posts on the same subject. This guy is seriously obsessed." Obsessed, I'm not sure, but definitely fascinated. And I guess that it has taken me three tries (no promises that this will be my last post on the subject) to distill Amy Chua's story down to its essence.

But let's get real here. This storyline is no longer about a seemingly crazed Chinese-American mother and her over-the-top parenting style. This narrative has exposed a raw nerve about the current zeitgeist of parenting and how best to raise our children in 21st-century America.

As readers of my two previous posts know (here and here), I have criticized and admired Ms. Chua's parenting style, respectively. But as the controversy continues to mesmerize and roil the cyber miasma, I have come to another conclusion that I believe is worth tossing into the cauldron (apologies for mixing my metaphors). My conclusion is that our collective reaction is really about fear for our children during a period of profound instability, and that, for all of her apparent certitude and bravado, the Tiger Mom is actually a scaredy cat.

Ms. Chua, as many parents are these days, lives in fear for her children's lives or, more accurately, their futures. I know I'm playing armchair shrink here, but it fits, just as it fits for all of the Velcro, helicopter, stage and Little League parents who are cut from the same cloth. Sure, Ms. Chua's cloth might be thicker and larger than most, but her parenting style is more a matter of degree than kind when compared to other parents of her ilk. We all want to protect our "cubs" from the jungle outside our doors. And the fear is very visceral and very primitive; it's about our children's survival.

I don't mean our children's survival in the sense that their physical lives are in immediate danger, but survival in a world living with global geopolitical instability and the constant threat of terrorism. Survival in a country that seems to be on the decline and with serious economic woes, where more people are fighting for a seemingly shrinking piece of the pie. Survival in a generation where good doesn't seem to be good enough (in previous generations, pretty good assured people of at least a middle-class existence). Survival in an out-of-control popular culture where anonymity and failure are akin to death. Survival in a time when parents feel overwhelmed and frequently helpless in the face of this perfect storm of fear.

There are other more personal fears that Ms. Chua exemplifies in the most intense way, but many parents in America feel to varying degrees as well. Ms. Chua seems terrified of her children failing and being, OMG!, ordinary. She appears fearful that if her children aren't the very best, then others will judge her to be a bad parent and a bad person. In our current narcissistic culture of parenting, where children are seen by their parents as projections of themselves, anything less than exceptional is a terrible blow to parents' egos.

These fears, given their intensity and breadth, manifest themselves in children in stiflingly protective, overly controlled, and, paradoxically, ultimately potentially counterproductive reactions. Ms. Chua asserts total control over every nook and cranny of her daughters' lives. With this extreme control, she can, in her eyes, protect them from all of the perceived dangers. They are in a safe little box that she guards like a, well, tiger. As long as she is ever-vigilant, Ms. Chua can maintain the illusion that she can ward off those threats to her daughters' survival and, in doing so, allay her fears.

Of course, she, like any parent, can't protect her brood forever. They will have to, at some point, venture out of that box and confront the big, cruel and dangerous world out there. The question is that, in her well-intentioned, though misguided, efforts to protect her daughters when they are young, is she unwittingly putting them in greater danger when they leave the safety of home? Is she, in her overprotection, preventing them from developing the tools necessary to protect themselves and survive in the "wilds" on their own? Will they, in their mother-controlled bubble, learn the essential skills necessary to survive, for example, intrinsic motivation, decision making, emotional mastery, resilience, stress management, reasonable risk taking, relationship skills, the list goes on?

So, yes, all parents (regardless of their race or ethnicity) must recognize the dangers that exist in the crazy world in which we now live. And, yes, they must take appropriate precautions to protect their children from the greatest dangers. At the same time, though, for the true good of their children, parents must step back just enough from their fears to be able to place the real and perceived dangers in the broader context of life. They must consider what their children really need to be prepared to face those dangers on their own. And parents need to then provide their children with that essential balance of protection, skills and exposure to those risks that will enable them to confront that jungle on their own with competence and confidence.

What's ironic (or just plain sad) about this entire discussion is that, if Ms. Chua hadn't chosen to be a Tiger Mom, given her daughters' gene pool, cultural heritages (how's that for stereotyping?), role modeling, and over-all environment, the chances of either of them experiencing academic or professional failure are slim to none (and slim just left town).