Tots to Teens

Jewish Mothers, Tiger Mothers merit praise, rebuke

Marilyn Heins, M.D.

Which mother is the better (or worse) parent? Good parenting is not a contest but let’s examine the stereotypes of Tiger Mother vs. Jewish Mother.

Amy Chua’s book “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is on my shelf but my parenting files were curiously empty of any references to the Jewish mother.

Wikipedia defines the Jewish mother stereotype: “… a woman intensely loving but controlling … attempting to engender guilt in her children via the endless suffering she professes to have experienced on their behalf.” More adjectives follow: nagging, overprotective, manipulative, controlling, smoth­ering and overbearing. Oy vey!

Although the noted anthropologist Margaret Mead never used the term, she did research on the shtetl that was financed by the American Jewish Committee. The popular press quickly picked up on her descriptions of mothering and began using the term “Jewish Mother.” People either laugh or cringe, or maybe both, when confronted with a stand-up comedian’s jokes about the Jewish mother or characters from Molly Goldberg to Ida Morgenstern on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

More recently, from another continent and another culture, a new stereotype arrived on the media scene. When Amy Chua’s book was published early in 2011 it instantly generated enormous noise on TV and in the blogosphere.

It was not news to those of us in the parenting education game that Asian parents, reflecting their culture, are dedicated to training their children to succeed. Asian mothers, like coaches, demand unflagging hard work and top performance because a child’s failure to excel reflects badly on the entire family, especially the mother.

Reviewers of Chua’s book note that she forbids TV, demands long hours of piano practice, does not allow play dates or sleepovers. But what has outraged some critics is what they see as cruelty: not allowing her child to eat or go to the bathroom until a piece of music is learned to perfection.

Most American mothers run a more democratic parenting establishment and are less authoritarian, probably reflecting the American emphasis on individual freedom. But, sadly, I find that many mothers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, worship the idol of self-esteem. Scared they will do something to interfere with their child’s self-esteem, they do not demand excellence or criticize performance.

My take on the “Tiger Mother” book is that Chua is not the maternal monster some have made her out to be, although this image definitely drove up book sales. Chua devoted incredible amounts of time to her children while working at a busy job, writing the book, and dealing with very sick relatives.

Chua never commits the unforgivable parental sin of indifference. Above all children must know their parents care. Care enough to expect the best in school and behavior. It is sad that U.S. adolescents report parents give them fewer rules than the kids think are reasonable.

If a stereotypic Tiger Mom and Jewish Mom asked Dr. Heins, “How’s my parenting?” I would have to be honest and tell each of them what I think.

Tiger Mom, there is never a place for cruelty in parenting, neither physical (spanking) nor emotional (threats, put-downs, screaming or yelling, sarcasm, nagging, all of which are “verbal spanking”). Your two daughters were very different. One responded to your tiger-momism, one fought back. All parents need to figure out each child’s temperament and personality and how to best work with that child in each developmental stage.

Jewish Mom, lose the guilt trips and smothering, cut down on the overprotection. If you don’t allow your children to learn how to be careful on their own you give the negative message that you don’t believe in them.

From a parenting education perspective there are desirable aspects of both stereotypes that I support. My advice to ALL mothers:

• Love your children fiercely.

• Be fanatically interested in their education and how they spend their time.

•Voice your high expectations frequently.

• Spend time every day with each child giving him or her your undivided (minus cell phone) attention.

• Don’t be a Parent Wimp. Be an in-charge parent with the guts to say no.

• Above all parent so that when your kids look back they will say, “My mom CARED about me and my future … even if it drove me crazy sometimes.”

Dr. Marilyn Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent and the founder of ParentKidsRight. com. E-mail her at [email protected] for a private answer to your parenting questions.