Joan's Blog

"Watch Me Pull A Rabbit Out Of My Hat"
FEBRUARY 24, 2011 1:07PM

My Tiger Mom

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Amy Chua, also known as "Tiger Mom" spoke at my local bookstore last week.  I had been thinking about her lately and was tempted to go. 

I realized I wasn't all that interested. I grew up with my own version of "Tiger Mom."  My Tiger Mom.

I was the only kid in the neighborhood who did not attend public school. When the yellow school bus picked up all my friends at 7:45 every morning, I was in my father's station wagon on the way to private school. When my mother picked me up at 3:30, I hopped in the front seat and unwrapped my celery sticks and peanut butter crackers. My mother had everything neatly wrapped in aluminun foil. These were the days before water bottles and juice boxes, so I inevitably arrived at my piano teacher's home with a dry mouth. Eat the celery last so you won't be thirsty.

Mr. M was a concert pianist. He only took a few students a year.  It was the sixties and he shared a large home on a hill with his partner and two Afghan dogs. They barked at me every week for years.  I have no idea why he continued to teach me. I showed little promise and even less interest.

On Mondays and Wednesdays I changed into my leotard and tights in the back seat of my mother's car. I took ballet lessons downtown with the most prestigious company in my city. Although my mother pushed and pushed, she could not will my legs to balance perfectly on my toes shoes. And she could not will Miss B. to cast me as Clara in the Nutcracker. Ever.

On the days I was not actually at a lesson, there was still a snack in the car. In my tiger mother's mind, there was no time to waste. She insisted I sit down at the piano within seconds of walking through the front door. I'd set the timer for one hour exactly and begin. Why are you stopping? I'd hear her call from the kitchen. I would quickly begin "Fur Elise" again for the fifth time. Go on to something else. She gave instructions from all over the house.

I started pushing the timer ahead little by little. My mother noticed the hour was going more quickly than usual and the timer stayed in the kitchen with her. My rebellion started in small ways.

After piano practice I went to my room for homework.  I could hear my neighbor Robbie knock on the door to see if I could come out to play. The door always shut with Robbie on the other side of it.

The expectation was that I would finish my homework before dinner. If there was any homework left over I would finish right after dinner but that cut into reading time. Reading time was from after dinner to bedtime.

Like Tiger Mom, my mom did not believe in playing outdoors after school, or attending sleepovers on weekends. She did not allow me to watch TV.

I turned it on the minute she left the house. She'd return and promptly place her hand on top of the TV to see if it had been turned on. If it was warm, I was in trouble. More little rebellions.

I was expected to excel. This was my mother's purpose for me. My reason for being.  If I was not going to be a prima ballerina, then I was going to be a concert pianist. I was going to attend an Ivy league college. This was my mother's plan for me.

As I debated whether I would listen to Ms. Chua speak at the local bookstore I thought about what it meant to be a loving mother. My own experience as a mother looked nothing like hers. I'd had fifteen years of living with my Tiger Mom. They were years filled with our collective angst.

Pushing me to be something I was never meant to be and never wanted to be frustrated us both. 

As I hit adolescence, our relationship turned into nothing but an ugly power struggle. There was no semblance of a loving mother-daughter relationship.

It ended when I climbed out my bedroom window one night and didn't return until morning. I was fifteen. My mother kicked me out of her house.

The more I thought about Amy Chua reading from her book which she calls "a cautionary tale," I realized I had nothing to learn from her.

I had grown up with my own version of Tiger Mom. 

I have to believe there is some sort of misguided love behind all the tiger moms and their need to push their children toward perfection. 

I still have to believe. 



My last pair of toes shoes~ 

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I got here before Ann and Cranky.
Oh, Joan, I had a tiger mom too. I bet a lot of us did. -R-
Joanie, I think we are related, somehow. You mother and mine could have been identical twins. You deftly captured the effect their no-nonsense approach to raising "young ladies" without saying a word about it. Another grand slam!

working (and hiring) barely surviving artists I know why Mr. M kept teaching you. Wonderfully written piece. Those in support of Tiger Moms might say the hours of reading served you well. They did, but there are better ways...
"Ugly power struggle" ....well said.
That was my first thought for the children of Tiger Mom....any Tiger Mom.
As a child of Slashing Criticism and Control Mom, I can relate, and I feel for you.
I put this spin on my experience: What a blessing for my children that I know what this type of parenting is, and I won't be that parent. So far, so good.
Is it our whole generation??
There were just rules for me to follow - The phone was not to be used because Dad is a doctor, home by 5 p.m., get a C and tutoring would take the place of fun stuff. I am not sure how tiger-ish that was but it did us well.

Admittedly, I have been more tiger-ish than my Mom, and my daughter and I struggle with it. This was helpful, Joan. Thanks.
What trail did you forge for yourself through the jungle of life after climbing out that window, you rebellious Rapunzel?
I'm not going to use that term, because it's just the buzz phrase of the time. However, Joan, you know that I was raised by a very strict and authoritarian mother too. After much reflection in life, I realised that as much pain and heartache I suffered, I learned from her a lot of good things about life - including how not to be with my own daughter. I hope you had a chance to make your peace with yours as I did with mine. Mother-daughter relationships are some of the most enigmatic love relationships, entreched in incredible complexities.

I'd love to hear Amy Chua, if she ever comes to Montreal.
I did not have a Tiger mom. I became an overachiever because it is hardwired in my genes.
I enjoyed reading, as I do everything you write. It amazes me how common this story is, and yet people continue to re-enact it.

"I have to believe there is some sort of misguided love behind all the tiger moms and their need to push their children toward perfection. " -- me, too...
You have inspired me as usual. I think I'm going to write about this from another perspective. It makes me sad to think of you chained to your desk when Robbie wanted to go out and play. Kids today are also missing out on that. We all need a lot of play to refresh our souls. Great post, Joanie, if it did make me sad.
In that way, I had a Tiger Mom, too...if I remove the truly abusive side of her...she was a pushy perfectionist...difficult...but I hope, like you...that there is love under that...wonderful post, Joan...xox
I got here after Larry and before Ann.

Tiger Moms sound like they want to live vicariously through their children, trying to make them become what they probably wish they had been themselves. But as any attentive parent knows, trying to pound a square peg into a round hole is nearly always disastrous.
My seat of the pants, run the streets playing kick the can childhood looks better every year.. sorry Joanie, this sounds absolutely dreary.
Very interesting. I've worked with moms who run their kids' lives like your mom did with you. It's always so disheartening for me to see. But I do think there's love there somewhere, in the hope that the child will have more opportunities than the mother. What these women tend not to see is, part of childhood is having fun and learning on your own. I'm glad you didn't grow up to be a Tiger Mom - and you definitely don't have to feed into the hype.
The dial was tuned to 'Ugly Power Struggle' at my childhood home as well. As you point out, I raised my daughter differently and as a result, we never went through those tension filled 'years' that people expect and I think that sometimes, they create. A Tiger Mom could be a good thing if it was along the lines of protecting and teaching, so I can see your temptation to go and see her speak, however, I had more of the type you described and I never felt protected and fought anything being rammed down my throat. Another good post, Joanie.
My mom was an anteater, and my dad was a sea urchin.
Every time I read about your relationship with your mother, I am impressed anew with the fine human being that you are. The tone of direct factual report really underlines both where you are in your life, and how you see that aspect of your past. Admirable, Joan . . .
I feel so sorry for little Joanie. You seem to have grown so well, in spite of it. I had just the opposite. No one paid attention & that was fine by me.
I wonder what your mother's ultimate agenda was too. Whatever it was, you most certainly belong to yourself.
Nicely done, Joan. I like that your relationship with your own daughter is different from what you grew up with.
So, you got me...and you never went back? R
Oh Joan, this was so sad. I just keep seeing your delicate little girl body straining to plie against your desire. I will read it again. It makes me feel better to find you in there rebelling because I know that is what brought you here today, writing with such grace and talent, sharing your strength and heart. :)
How exciting to see how the next generation of mothers and daughters will be, knowing that so many of us had such a miserable time ourselves and that we will be making extra efforts to do better now that it's our turn.
I cannot remember one time that my mother ever smiled at me or played with me or was happy with me. She was an angry tyrant and I hated her. Now she tries to act like my childhood was so sweet, she tries to come across now as such a loving, concerned mother. I can only assume this is so she can have access to her granddaughters, which I begrudgingly grant her only because she kept me from my grandmother and I hated her for that too.
At some point you stop trying to punish them and hate them and you just try to let it go so it doesn't consume you anymore. And oh glorious triumph in getting two daughters of my own to get it right. Every time my temper starts to boil or my patience wears thin, I think of my mother's angry face, and I close my eyes and breathe and put on a smile. That's what I want them to remember.
You've told us how your mother did the unthinkable--closed her heart and disowned you. Knowing that outcome and now reading about those peanut butter crackers and celery sticks make me sad--it seems like a a loving thing to do, a way for a rigid person to express love.

It's hard for me to know though Joanie because I had the opposite of a tiger mom...let's see, I had a sloth mom. I BEGGED for piano lessons. Dance lessons. Guitar lessons....and snacks.

I admire how you found the balance--a way to lovingly parent, different than your mom but not too much in the opposite direction either. I struggle to find that balance, and I appreciate you writing this and making me think about it.

And like Surazeus, I am so, so curious what happened next when you were 15.
So my sisters and I weren't the only kids who pushed the timer ahead during piano practice! (We were even more brazen--Mom used the built-in timer over the oven, and we used to run into the kitchen and change it when we thought she wasn't looking.) You turned out well despite it all--even if "well" isn't the same thing your mother had in mind!
My ex was a tiger dad and the kids suffered from it.
Loved this Joan
rated with hugs
Joanie, The best thing to come out of this is that you did not turn out to be a Tiger Mom yourself. Look how your daughter has bloomed!
You've pretty much written the definitive anti-Tiger Mom story, Joan. And after reading some of the comments here, it sounds like you're not the only one who didn't have an idyllic, carefree childhood. I don't understand why some parents simply cannot love their children for who they are instead of what they accomplish. I'm sorry for what you had to endure as a kid but when you're able to write about it like this, I have to think it might open some eyes and change some minds about what it means to be a parent.
Joan, it makes me sad that fun was not a large part of the childhood experience.
well done, joanie. i think the paragraphs with the details of the piano and ballet lessons, snacks in the car, the routines, and especially the way they embroider the 'little rebellions' and the games you and she played (hand on the TV, moving the timer) are written extremely well. the ending bothers me, but not because of any flaw in the writing - just that i'm not as forgiving as you are; somehow i just can't take that brave step.
I grieve for the girl you were never allowed to be, Joanie. So glad it didn't break your spirit. Your mother should have been proud of the woman you became, if she could have see past her own ego.
Grrr. So sorry, Joan, about your tiger mom. I read the book and have distilled it to this: She doesn't trust her kids. It's authoritarianism run amok. I think there are some truths in there, such as that it's always more fun to do things we're good at, and getting good requires practice. Also, that overpraise implies an anxiety and its own sort of lack of trust. But there's no excuse for the kind of overemphasis on achievement and control freakishness that Amy Chua and your mom practiced. It's the very definition of conditional love..
Drink your celery!

I suppose many a virtuoso pianist, and or, ballerina, etc. were raised like this. It just seems so wrong Joan. I raised Eli using the opposite example school of thought. Whatever I do, do the opposite!
I had not heard of this phrase before. You explain it very well. I think many moms have a bit of Svengali in their systems. Tiger Mom + docile child = mom who's living far too vicariously through her child.
When I read this I think of the sweet Twibbons photo you sometimes post and feel that sweetness stretched against countless steely "shoulds". It makes me wince with sadness. Your writing makes me see and feel the emptiness and even hear a metronome ticking with endless "perfectly spaced" timing. Nothing irregular moments or motions...ever. Rebellion? Oh yeah- a cry of hope and strength in action! The sweetest part of reading your tiger mom story is knowing what you did with all those lessons as you chose what (and how) you would teach your child. Part of a happy ending here is to be had in smiling at the kind of mother you became. Your daughter's reflections will tell another kind of story. I'll love to read that too. R
Very nicely written!! It was interesting to see the Tiger from your perspective! Rated
My mom was only half a Tiger Mom and that was bad enough. I am so glad you went on to have a happy loving family.
Yours is a good cautionary tale for me. Lately, I've been sipping the Tiger milk myself. I was fairly balanced before, but once my daughter came home with high marks on an IQ test I started getting a little over zealous. I just want her to be competitive with the Asian, super-brains of the future economy. Perhaps I should let her have that after-school snack before piano practice :)

As always, a great read!
Dear Joanie, Thoughtful, well-written post.Although your mother's ways were misguided she put forth a lot of effort. Maybe she wanted to live vicariously through you. I wished you played with Robbie and I wish you were allowed to discover a love of music inherently rather than it being forced on you. One thing I know for sure, you've come out the other side of it, a helluva good mother.

Now ... I want to read the post about what you did when you snuck out the window. ;
I feel like an under-achieving mom!
Now, seriously, a beautifully composed piece, as you have us used to, dear.
Children are meant to be loved, and patiently nudged if needs be, but not pushed. Pushing is always meant to send away.
Hugs your way, my dearest.
I just lost all the comments I just finished writing.
I don't have it in me to write them over again, so let me just say thank you everyone for reading and for leaving such great comments.
Oh, and Don't forget to "drink your celery!" (Loved that, Trig)
I hope you make up for this every day of your life by having fun and enjoying every minute.
That's an excuse I've heard often from my students, Joanie. You're grounded over the weekend and must write 100 times :

I shall always save my work as I write. :o)
My parents had the same expectations of me, they wanted an arm candy child. Unfortunately they never once took any action, or made me study and I started running wild at 13. I walked out one day when I was 15 and flew to another state to marry a man, I called them 2 weeks later and they said okay. I'm just grateful I loved to read or I'd be illiterate today.

I think the demand for perfection to fulfill the parent is the problem. My biggest mistake with my kids was letting my parents be in their lives so much. Children are not supposed to live the dream of the parents, parents are there to help the child find and live their own dreams. Kids are treasure on loan to us, not property to show. I finally remembered my childhood dream when I was small, I wanted to dance ballet, tee hee.

The scars no one can see hurt just as much as the ones that show. I'm sorry she tossed you out, I'm glad things went well for you anyway. You are a lovely You.
Why do parents do this?? It just seems like a recipe for disaster. My mother hated school and thought we needed to go out and play while it was still light out. After dinner was homework time and no TV anywhere in the house for 2 hours. My two older brothers were slackers, one barely made it out of high school, the other dropped out and got his GED. Both joined the Navy

My older sister was a high achiever and I was the valedictorian of my high school class (my parents were proud but borderline disinterested in this achievement).

So, we all grew up in the same house with more or less the same parenting (no two children are ever treated exactly alike, if nothing else based on whether you are older or younger, boy or girl).

My father was a high achiever with alcoholic parents and the first to attend college- but back then, fathers were busy working and he did not really get involved in schoolwork.

I had a pretty laid-back attitude towards my own daughter's upbringing and she was high-achieving in some areas, a total slacker in others but, at 22, seems to be turning out fine.

Enjoy your children! You have a lifetime (literally) to spend with them, don't make them hate you by being a micro-managing dictator when they are too young to fight back. There is just so much more to life...
In sixth grade my daughter wanted to spend the night before her flute contest at a friends' house and assured me she'd be at the contest in time. She was late. When I met up with her I just said - quietly, "You have to decide what's important to you." She worked out a new time with the organizers herself. Her friends were horrified at what a tough mom I was.

I don't know what that means.

My kids' music practice was their own responsibility as were grades and homework. I never told them to practice but often asked them to put their damn instruments down and do something else. They kicked ass all around and still have to play. The girls were both accepted at second tier universities in music performance (e.g. Northwestern not New England Conservatory) and both decided they'd rather have lives, went to schools that didn't accept them in performance and majored in English and Psych. They both still have to play and do, one in a very nice community orchestra and the other for herself and with her husband and a couple of young students. That's what I wanted for them, to know and love music.

My own mother ignored me mostly. Best thing she did for me.
@Fusun, really! OS ate my comments!
I never did make peace with my mother. Or rather, she never made peace with me. I have written about it in a couple of posts~ after my marriage she never spoke to me again and died several years later without ever meeting her beautiful granddaughter.
Joanie this is so sad. Maybe a tiger mom or dad will read this and recognize themselves and let up on their daughter or son. I feel forf that little girl who wanted to go out to play and couldn't watch tv or go to sleepovers filled with giggling girls. I didn't know that little girl then, but I have grown to know you through your writing and I admire you. Thank you for posting this.
During the whole Tiger Mom furor I kept thinking about my background, which is Jewish Mom. There is (or can be) a lot of crossover in the expectations of excellence, the pushing to take lessons and be The Best...let's just say it was known to happen in mt mom's family. My mother was not a Tiger, though; the emphasis was on social conscience and service rather than self-perfection. As always, I think your mom absolutely loved you, but was just a prisoner of demons of her own that wouldn't let her relax and just love you for who you were. Honestly, she sounds terrified.

Whatever her issue was, it did not prevent you from being a wonderful mother or letting yourself go enough to write expressively and beautifully. You made me think, and i wil be checking the top of the TV from now on.
I loved your story. I think people from all ethnicities can relate to having overbearing parents.
Best Wishes,
Joan, I appreciated this well written post. I had a fraction of your experience, mine was more passive aggressive behavior. You were taught by the look or the tone and you tip toed in many ways around the real expectations. She had four kids to run it all through. She got a bit desperate when it came to me her last. That was the authentic struggle for her because she was running out of molding clay.

In the end I set boundaries, learned some psychology, got some outside help. I coped and the other kids created their dramas, etc. In the end I learned some hard lessons and she, well, she learned for the first in her life to say she was sorry for something. In the end it was all good, but it was not a pleasant place to be, not a thing idyllic about it. She had at the core of her issues a lot of fear which later revealed itself and I have written about, the fact she was sexually abused as a child. Her life was often a series of miscommunication and stubborn intent. I was stronger and when she recognized it fully, she became almost different, calmer, but she was much older than she had been with my siblings and things were over all different.

I learned everything "not" to do with my children. I did not force anything. I gently guided and if they did not want to go that way, it was okay with me. I always taught them to make their own decisions. Why? I always emphasized the responsibility was theirs for the outcome. In this end, this served all of us well. I do not consider the job ever done, but they are functioning responsible young adults who in times past would be completely independent. Now being in college, they are still attached, but have the capability of running their own ships......

My daughter called me yesterday about something. In the end she said, "Well, I see you want me to make my own decision. Thank you for your thoughts though, love you." Yup.
I grew up with my own version of this motherly tyranny. After the kind of neglect my mother grew up with, she overcompensated in a big way. When I was in high school, it reached the point where it was difficult to tolerate any of it. I escaped the house as soon as I had the opportunity in college and never lived there again.

Yours sounds rough. I'm glad you survived in spite of it.
I did not have a Tiger Mom. At least, she was not a Tiger Mom to me. She was a Tiger Mom to my sister, which came with its own set of problems for her, I guess. But for me, she never had much expectations. Mostly, I had the sense that I had to make sure that I never excelled or achieved more than she had. I was not supposed to do more or know more than she did. With my own children, I try to be some pale version of a Tiger Mom. I see that they have a lot of potential, and I want them to be successful. I push them because I know that if I didn't they would settle for the path of least resistance and do very little. I want to instill in them high standards and a solid work ethic. It's all about balance, I guess.
Amy Chua was interviewed by Emily Rooney on NPR recently, and spoke about how selective the media was about her points and practices. She seemed like a loving mom, and one her kids adored. An interesting bit was where Emily talked about her tiger dad, Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes fame, who not surprisingly, ran a tight ship. Apparently, Emily never heard him swear–can this be true?!

There are tight ships I guess, and ships controlled by wounded totalitarians. Following your posts about your mom, she seems more one of those. It always strikes me as tragic that she really did get the results she sought: a smart beautiful loving exemplary person, and that she was unable to see this.
I believe that, too. We love so imperfectly.
Terrific piece. r.
That kind of ambition is about the mother, not the daughter. A great post, Joanie.
There are so many parents who have a need to try to make their children into something they wished they had become. I don't think it's all bad to push your children and I bet your mom's actions did some good but wouldn't it be great if all parents realized that their children need gentle guides and not drill sargents? I think the important thing is that you were able to come through everything and be the person you want to be.
I read this the other day and finally have time to comment. I'm so glad you wrote about the reality of having a "Tiger Mom". As parents, we so often delude ourselves with seeing our children as little sponges with no will or distinct personality or individual thought processes. And the reality is that we end up losing connection with our children, or end up with children leaving the home as soon as possible, developing eating disorders, addictions, etc. My heart hurts for you that your mother was so attached to her stories to the point where she lost you. I'm grateful for you good sense and ability to dissect your way through this. You are a wonderful woman and a spectacular writer. Thank you for this important and helpful piece.
Oh how I hated those piano lessons I supposedly wanted so badly!! Like Felicia Lee, the time was on the oven in the kitchen and I would quickly and quietly run in and set it forward. Luckily, I wound up with a cast on my arm in seventh grade and never went back to lessons. Believe me I paid! It was her desire to come a nurse that was shoving me toward nursing school always. Of everything we fought about, that was the straw that broke the camel's back and our relationship forever.

She wasn't really a tiger mom, but someone who had alcoholic parents that neglected and abused their children. As an adult, I have to look at the total picture and realize she had no parental role models to learn from or react against.

This is a wonderful piece! I don't think I would have gone to the reading either.
Awww, Joan. You make me sooooo thankful I had a Kitten Mom. She signed me up for ballet and art and baton twirling and tap -- anything I expressed a desire to learn. Then, without any evidence of ability, she ooohhhed and ahhhheed over my "natural talent" at all of it.

A few years ago my son took me to task for not pushing him harder at tennis because he could have been really good. (He is naturally athletic and can participate without embarrassment in any sport, but he lacks the killer competitive instinct necessary to be "really good" at a sport.) I told him if that was his biggest complaint about my parenting, I could live with it, then thanked God he'd apparently forgotten all the REAL mistakes I still beat myself up for.
So much here I relate to. My mom and I are working on it; we are actually getting along OK now. I will always wish that I had not hated the timed piano practice so much that I quit; I loved playing. I miss it.
I'm late to the party, but really enjoyed this. How many of us spend our adulthood overcoming our childhood? What was once considered by many to be S.O.P. in child rearing, whippins' with a belt, riding in the back of an open pick-up, would now be grounds for arrest! Not that I'm defending it, but somehow we've survived and learned from these experiences--learned to be better parents and if we're lucky, forgiving children. I'm so glad I was able to make peace with my mother before she died. I highly recommend it.
Hi Jean Ellen. Yes, I am sure making peace with your mother gave you a tremendous sense of relief and closure. I would have loved to have gotten that gift before my mother died, too.