My Mother is Not a Tiger and I Am Too

My mother is American French-Irish and most definitely not a Chinese Tiger Mother, as Amy Chua describes herself.   My mother played the piano beautifully (though not as well as Chua’s kids) for fun and relaxation every spare minute she could find in a day.  Even though this was her first love, my mother did not force me to practice or even to stay with it.  Far from a tiger, she was more like Golden Retriever Mother.

She would chase down any person or opportunity she thought was good for us and come back beaming, dropping it at our feet eagerly, her face just begging us to pick it up.  How could we say no? 
Beaming Golden Retriever

As excited as she was to get us involved in new activities, though, she always let us quit-- and the five of us racked up quite a quitting record: piano, sewing, dance, paper routes, soccer, a month of kindergarten, and even college.  And as my husband once noted, “she thinks everything her kids do is wonderful” (other than wrapping presents, which I wasn’t allowed to attempt).

Sadly, as my daughters moved up in school, I became worried that if I wasn’t more of a “Tiger Mother,” they would spend their lives in front of the tv.  I wondered if my mother had been too lax with us and if she could have forced me to be more disciplined (that was before I realized, mid-life, that I had ADD; now I have an excuse for my lack of discipline).   

All I ever really wanted to be was what David Elkind calls a “Milk and Cookies Mom,” and during the early years, it was easy to relax, play, and notice how remarkable my kids were.  But as they moved through middle school and high school, I got scared.  If there is one thing I could do over (there are about a million), it would be this: don’t parent from a place of fear.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know that then and as school pressures increased, so did my feeling that I was somehow failing my kids: they weren’t as motivated as they needed to be-- if they were going to get into a “decent” college and get a “good job.” 

We had tried to raise them as self-starters, but when, as teens, they weren’t performing at the highest levels, my doubts bubbled up and I would swing between a few days of hounding them and a few months of allowing them to self-direct.   Unlike Chua’s husband, who begged her not to scream at her kids, my husband begged me to be pushier because he felt he would have done better in life if his parents had pushed him.  (Done better than marrying me?  Really?)

Instinctively, I believed that self-motivation was the way to go – only now I wanted them to self-motivate for what I wanted them to do.  To be fair, it’s not as if they were doing nothing.  They both got their homework done every night, even when it took four, five or seven hours.  It’s just that the results (grades) weren’t always there – and after all, they did spend time watching tv and texting with friends.  I thought I should try to pack a bit more into their days and nights. What saved us, and for this I'm truly grateful, is that I also had doubts about the relentless pace (since I couldn’t keep up with it).  It turns out that my instincts were right, but at the time, I had no validation.

Later, when I formally studied motivation, I was delighted to discover that the highest form of motivation is intrinsic.  It turns out that the type of motivation Chua practiced with her girls is one of the lowest forms of motivation: external (and grades are also external motivation).  So now I’ve purged the doubts and the tiger from my playbook and it’s time to admit: “Mom, you were right.”  In my next life, I’ll be pure golden. Really. 

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