Confessions of a Tiger Dad

In case you’ve been in solitary confinement on another planet in a distant galaxy far, far away, Yale law professor and author Amy Chua recently threw a full container of kerosene onto the Mommy Wars fire with her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, portions of which were excerpted in The Wall Street Journal.

The WSJ article drew the most comments ever for a single story in that publication (as of this writing, 7577 and counting). News flash: People have very strong opinions on parenting! If you want a firestorm of controversy, all you have to do is advocate strongly a particular style or method and then stand back and watch everything blow up like all the props in a Steven Segal movie.

As a Chinese-American, Ms. Chua adopted the child-raising methods of her immigrant parents, who, like many in similar circumstances, insisted that their children perform and achieve at an ultrahigh level in academics, the arts and, to a lesser extent perhaps, athletics. The underlying thought is probably something along the lines of we’re strangers from a distant country and in order to make it in this new land of opportunity you, my children, have got to do it cleaner and better than the next guy–who is a native and most likely Caucasian and therefore has certain advantages.

But Ms. Chua insists that the book is not a “how-to” manual but instead a memoir. Yes, she says, responsibility, hard work and your child’s very best efforts produce independent, high-achieving adults. But she also relates how she was “humbled” when she realized that she would have to compromise and adjust her style to children with different temperaments and gifts living among their Western peers whose parents may not share the same philosophy of child-rearing (her oldest daughter, “an easy child,”  is now eighteen and has played the piano at Carnegie Hall while the younger insisted on giving up the violin and taking up tennis at age 13 after screaming at her Mom, “I hate you!”).

Needless to say, this discussion has once again set my nostalgic neurons to humming (this happens a lot as you get nearer to 50, so get used to it Fusioneers).

My parents were the antithesis to “Tiger Mom.” More like pussycats, really. Low-involvement, laissez-faire as the day is long. Of course, with me they really didn’t have to push too hard, and they probably figured that out early on. I was that kid in first grade who argued with his teacher over a “B+” in handwriting. That same year, I raised my hand during the middle of one of those “let’s pigeon-hole and classify ’em early” standardized tests and objected to how a question was worded. There were three baseball players pictured in a row and the question was “Which one is the right fielder?” It was supposed to be a simple matter of discerning right from left, but I pointed out to the teacher that without a picture of the field and their relationship to it, the question didn’t make any sense. For all I knew, they could be three utility infielders standing around during batting practice chewing tobacco.

I remember Mrs. Witcher cocking her head, then shaking it and walking away. She retired shortly after that.

When I was younger, I didn’t have any neighbors to play or hang out with. So, I was that kid who ran laps around his house in 4th grade, shot endless jumpers under the glow of a dust-to-dawn light, and hit a tennis ball against the wall for hours on end. I also would dress up in a football uniform, complete with helmet and shoulder pads, throw a pass to myself, catch it, juke the big Elm tree in the back yard, and, to be fair and more realistic, occasionally run into it to simulate a tackle. I would dress up in a baseball uniform, toss the ball to myself, hit a “home run” and then trot around the bases that I had made from rocks.

Independent? Um, yeah. And an endless font of entertainment for the Franklin County farmers who shook their heads in concern and bemusement as they crept slooowly by our house in their pickup trucks full of hay.

The one area that they (really, Mom) pushed me in was piano. My older sister was a piano-virtuoso wannabe (she eventually got her Masters degree in performance) who was constantly playing in recitals and competitions. My Mom thought that would be a good idea for me too, and at first I didn’t object. I did okay, practiced my chords and baby compositions, got all gussied up like Liberace in my early 70s coat of many colors and bell bottoms and did my thing. I was so excited when I received my first mini-bust of Frederick Chopin that I shouted, “Hey look, I got ‘Choppin’!'”

Alas, a classical musician I was not destined to be. I wanted to play pieces like Elton John and that new guy, Billy Joel. I didn’t have the wisdom or maturity to understand that if I played the game and stuck to the fundamentals, I would eventually be able to choose what I would play. Instead, I stopped practicing in protest and my teacher eventually told my Mom to stop pushing and give it up. She did, without too many fireworks.

And today, one of the few regrets that I have is that I can’t sit down and play an instrument for pleasure. I would give up my baseball card collection, including my 1969 Topps Johnny Bench, to be able to play the piano and entertain a small group of friends at a party.

As far as my and Eyegal’s parenting style, it hasn’t exactly been “Tiger Parents” but neither were we “pussycats.” When the boys were young, we insisted that they try a lot of different activities, even if they were hesitant. We put them all in band, signed them up for baseball every year, and urged them to take up a sport that would involve running and aerobic activity (hence, soccer). Instead of video games being the default position, they were a reward for doing what we asked them to do.

We figured that when they were old enough, they would let us know if they wanted to continue or quit. And they did (sometimes in no uncertain terms). But the one thing we wouldn’t tolerate is not trying something new out of fear. If they ever uttered a peep of protest, we would point to their Asian friends, some of whom were grounded for making a single “B,” and say, “Hey, count your blessings. It could be worse!”

At times, we probably pushed too hard and hovered too much and at other times we laid off before we should have. We made our share of mistakes. I’m sure our friends and family disagreed with us at times and thought we were crazy, but for the most part, they kept their mouths shut (thank you for that, by the way). I’m quite certain that our boys thought we were a little nuts and probably still do, but I have a message for them: Get over it and DO NOT USE US AS AN EXCUSE FOR FAILURE!! Oh, and don’t even think about “boomeranging” back here because we plans for each of your rooms.

I saw Steven Colbert interview Amy Chua the other night. He gave her the classic “Colbert Treatment” and she took it all in stride and with a great sense of humor. She didn’t seem like a monster to me (and apparently her oldest daughter, at least, agrees). Instead, she seems a little perplexed at all the hubbub and doesn’t seem to understand why so many don’t appreciate her dry, ironic, self-deprecating sense of humor.

Dear Tiger Mom: I feel your pain.

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  1. David U

    VERY interesting post, my brother!  Thanks!

  2. Mike the Eyeguy

    Glad you enjoyed it, DU.

    I heard Bear Bryant used to have his players run full tilt into Elm trees too, and we all know how well that turned out. RTR.

  3. rebecca

    I am not sure I even know what a “tiger parent” is.  Regardless, the philosophy I’ve let guide me is that I am not raising CHILDREN – I am raising adults.  I’ve thought long and hard about what kind of adults I’d like to unleash on the world, and I’ve tried to lead them in that direction.   The hardest part of being a parent is letting your children be WHO THEY ARE, not who you want them to be, or think they could or should be.  I am extremely proud of my children — not because they’re perfect, but because they can THINK critically.  While I may personally disagree with what they think – they own their own views on things, and that’s what important.  It has been an amazing journey getting to know who they are as individuals and as adults – it is a gift I treasure every day of my life.  I want them both to have incredibly fabulous lives, and I hope they’ll let me be part of them.   When I tell them I am incredibly lucky to be their mother, I mean it.  

  4. Mike the Eyeguy

    Well said, Rebecca. The sound of someone who has passed through the teenage years with her kids and lived to tell the tale.

    I am all for this independent and critical thinking business. I just wish they would think more the way I do about deadlines and speed limits.

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