(Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
About six months ago, I read the controversial book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother just to find out how the author Amy Chua could possibly justify a Hitleresque approach to parenting. Based on what I’d read about the book, I assumed this would be the perspective of someone with a rigid idea of success, a lot like the Tam-Brahm maamis (Tamil Brahmin ladies) whose sole purpose in life is to get their sons into a good engineering college, preferably the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). (Mint on Sunday had made this comparison as well. You can read it here.)
Having grown up in Chennai and having studied in a school where getting into IIT was more sacrosanct than attaining nirvana, I’m no stranger to the Tiger Mother school of thought. My own mother expected me to be self-motivated and an academic achiever like her, sing Thyagaraja keerthanas like a junior M S Subbulakshmi, dance like a young Padma Subramaniam, and someday win the Nobel Prize. (I kid you not!) Unfortunately, she was no Tiger Mother; she was just a plain old cat, and I was a hapless kitten surrounded by a brood of big cats—Tiger Mothers, Leonine teachers, and Cheetah cubs. It’s a wonder I even got out alive from the jungle we call the Indian education system.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself agreeing with Amy Chua’s premise: that she pushed her daughters to excel for their own good, that the more they worked hard on something, the better they got, thereby becoming more self-confident. Having battled self-confidence issues all my life, Chua’s earnest rationale resonated with me. Several of my female peers battle self-confidence issues as well, and I wonder if this has anything to do with the way girls are raised in India. (That’s certainly a discussion for another day.)
Another big surprise—this book is more about artistic excellence than academic achievement. As someone who has learnt Indian classical dance and music, I know the importance of “sadhana” or practice in perfecting one’s art. And I understood Chua’s need to push her daughters to practise their instruments. She reasons, in her scathing style, that if it were left to children to pursue their passion, all they’d want to do is Facebook for ten hours and eat junk food.
Some of my assumptions, however, did turn out to be true. She is definitely harsh on her kids. Though she claims this book is a self-parody, it hardly reads like one. It appears she’s utterly convinced about her parenting style as opposed to what she calls the permissive Western style of parenting. Yet, she conveniently overlooks the fact that her husband is a product of that vilified parenting model. He went to an Ivy League school and even got into Julliard (although he didn’t stick it out there), and from her account, I don’t think Chua’s mother-in-law was a Tiger Mother.
Eventually, she concedes that her style of parenting may not always work. It did with her eldest daughter, but it didn’t with her youngest. But you’ll have to read the book to find out how her approach wins in the end, after all.
While I agree with certain aspects of her parenting style, it appears that being a Tiger Mother is centered on being successful. Chua’s idea of success is about being better than everyone else and not just being better than what you were earlier. That’s my biggest gripe with her approach.
There are so many ideas of success out there. To me, a successful person is someone who can deal with terrible lows and still have the capacity for joy. Success is using your skills to be of value to others and not just yourself. Can a Tiger Mother facilitate this kind of success in her children?
I think I’m more comfortable with the “Elephant Mother” parenting style. This approach gained currency through an article published in The Atlantic by author Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar. She talks about an approach to parenting that involves nurturing and encouraging children especially in their early years. I was instinctively drawn to this approach. I know it’s a tough world out there. That’s why I want to be the nurturing influence in my daughter’s life. Far from making her soft, I think it will make her secure.
Such an approach isn’t permissive either. Parents can still set boundaries and launch their kids on the path to success without being a feline nag. An example that comes to my mind is Karolj Seles, the father of former Tennis champion Monica Seles. (I was always a Monica fan!) Stories about how he would draw Tom and Jerry figures on tennis balls to get Monica interested in the game are well-known. There’s an elephant parent.
Closer home, an excellent example is my own mother-in-law, a Tam-Brahm maami who deserves a place in the elephant parent hall of fame. My husband tells me that she has never yelled at him. Instead, she’d gently yet firmly get him to do what needed to be done. Considering she had to raise him alone for the better part of her life, I think she did an excellent job. He did well in school and sports, went on to have a successful career, and eventually, a fulfilling personal life. The key outcome here isn’t just achievement but wholesome development, which can only stem from a sense of security. If you don’t get that security at home—from a loving, nurturing parent—you’re going to have a harder time finding that validation from the outside world.