“Tiger Mother” or “Panda Mom,” they both face extinction.

I wrote this a few years ago as the Tiger Mother phenomenon was raging.  It still reflects my thoughts on parenting:

As an American woman living in Hong Kong, so far away from family and friends, I rely on Facebook not only as a way to keep in touch, but as a pulse point for news.  You would have thought that a revolution had started when I turned on my computer to find no fewer that a dozen friends had posted links to a Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” by Amy Chua.   While Ms. Chua makes a very strong case for the Tiger Mother that I must admit did explain some play date behavior and made the hairs on my neck bristle at the “everybody gets a trophy” liberal parenting camp, the pressure cooker approach she espouses is bound to blow.

A wise friend in Hong Kong coined a delicious term for the alternative parental camp: Panda Mom.  As she so eloquently put it in her Facebook post, A Panda Mom “is convinced that her cub is absolutely the most adorable thing on the planet, is very proud of her cub’s vegetable consumption, favors her cub spending lots of time outside climbing trees and firmly believes that what her cub needs most is more sleep.”  I would add that, as pandas are known to leave their young unattended for long stretches of time, a Panda Mom has prepared her child to be a capable individual who does not require micromanaging at every moment.  Panda cubs are able to structure their own free time and to make reasonable, rational decisions for themselves.

The Yin to the Yang of parenting models is tempting, but the real problem is that the whole system is out of balance.  Offering an alternative to the scenario presented by Chua only serves to draw a line in the sand of our already polarized world of rhetoric and mud slinging.  And, in fact, while superficially it seems that Panda and Tiger Mothers are at opposite ends of the spectrum, reminiscent of the “mommy wars” between working and non-working mothers, their motivation is more similar than you might think.  What all those faced with the responsibility of raising children today share is the plague of fear-based parenting.  Fear-based parenting is debilitating, and most of us are falling into that camp.  Blame 24 hour cable news, the leveled playing field for college admissions, the over-diagnosis of illnesses and disabilities, corn syrup, hormones in the milk, the Air Pollution Index, or any of the myriad threats the big bad world poses, but the result is parents who view the nurturing years as a complex battle strategy of defense and attack, and we’re arming ourselves to the teeth.  It’s exhausting and, I fear ultimately not helpful to our kids.

The truth is, future success is undeterminable.  Opponents to the Tiger Mother model recount myriad examples of burn out and tragic suicides by young Asian adolescents who achieve to a high level and then find themselves one of many bright students in a more competitive pool and can’t stand not to be at the top.  Certainly the “good enough” Panda approach to parenting can be criticized for creating generations of children who don’t understand healthy competition and may lag their peers in conventional test results.  Still, neither of these critiques gets to the essential issue, which is that there is a generally accepted understanding that education is important, but there is no proven formula for future success and happiness, so why make adolescence so unpleasant?

Furthermore, if you stop and think about it, how would you really define success for your children?  For example, do you want your daughter to go to (insert Ivy League school here), get a PhD or and MBA, work in a high-powered job for a decade and then find herself wanting to start a family and joining the ranks of conflicted, over-educated, over-qualified but non-working mothers who love their children, but sort of miss making a considerable contribution to the world outside of their own homes?  A recent Harvard Business Review survey found that 37% of highly qualified women were “off-ramping” (voluntarily leaving their job for extended time periods) and that “three quarters [of the women surveyed] were on nonlinear career trajectories to the detriment of their earning potential and career advancement.” (HBR Magazine, June 2010).  From personal experience, I have spent countless hours over coffee with some of the brightest women in the world lamenting this very dilemma.

It seems to me that when we all drop out of the work force to raise our kids, our only measure of success becomes their performance, which puts a lot of the wrong kind of pressure on everyone.    As I said in a piece I wrote for GOOP last year, “Parents want the best for their kids, but sometimes, without even realizing they’re doing it, they conflate their own insecurities, disappointments and dreams with those of their children causing everyone to feel like they don’t measure up.”  Who has failed if your child doesn’t get into the right school, and who is to say that if they do get in and complete it successfully that that is a surefire determinant for their continued future success?  And, if they are ultimately successful, do you then deserve the credit for a job well done?

My intuition tells me that all we can do is enjoy our kids and listen to them, try to make the best decisions we can for them while we have the luxury of being the decision-makers, but more importantly, try to plant the seeds for them to make good decisions for themselves in the future.  I do not think that the alternative to the Tiger Mother is negligent; it just comes down to a question of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation.  If you need external praise and measures to feel like you’ve done a good job parenting, then that does seem to be a pretty efficient way to achieve them.  But, if you believe that children are capable of independent intellectual thought and ideas and that your job as a parent (and the job of the teacher) is to give them the tools to help them draw out and further develop those theories, then respectful, intuitive parenting might just give you the space to actually enjoy raising your kids a little more, and might just create better little human beings in the process.

Ms. Chua has a provocative angle, a sexy title and an awesome publicist. She has struck a chord that plays into our fear-based parenting and has forced Panda Moms to lose more sleep over the flattening planet and changing rules of the game.  But the truth of the matter is that both species are in danger of becoming extinct.  If we don’t start working together to nurture the next generation of thinkers who must be both academically prepared AND independently motivated, there will be no future for which to prepare.

2 thoughts on ““Tiger Mother” or “Panda Mom,” they both face extinction.

  1. It’s interesting to read your thoughts. I live in mainland China and am from the UK. I teach in a university here. Chinese friends have told me about their children’s education in the school system, and it’s pretty brutal. In middle school they are up before 6 every day, at school before breakfast, home by 8pm, and then have 3-5 hours homework. There is enormous pressure on kids to get into a good high school, because then they will have more chance of going to a good university. I wonder how much of the pressure that comes from parents originates in the social norms of the society people live in?..

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