Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Join the elephant mother herd.

February 2012's East Side Monthly is out; the content isn't yet online but if you stumble upon it at a coffeeshop, you can read my latest column, "Tiger Moms vs. Elephant Moms," which I had originally titled "The Herd of the Elephant Mothers." I am not terribly thrilled with either title but did enjoy writing this quite a bit, and here it is, in case your travels don't take you to East Side coffeeshops for the above mentioned stumbling-upon:

The Herd of the Elephant Mothers 

Image from here.
For families with kids in transition from one phase of school to the next, midwinter is application and registration time. As families get down to the brass tacks of the school choice process, I am riveted by the conversations you’re having about what’s next educationally for your kids. Yes, I am listening to you three at the corner table at Seven Stars, huddled over coffee and obsessing about which kindergarten will be the best fit for your four year olds, wondering about the unknowns of public schools, the price tag of private schools, the lottery-driven gamble of charter schools, or the possibility of moving to a new town “for the schools.” I am shamelessly eavesdropping, and sometimes I will ask to join in, because I am fascinated with parents’ motivations about their educational choices that they make for and with their children.

While our rationales for school choice vary widely, the desire to find alignment between our own values and those to which a school is committed is our preeminent guide. We want to know that our kids attend schools that want for our kids what we want for our kids and--as the kids themselves build more sophisticated visions of the future--what they want for themselves.

As arguments about choices and charters dominate our Facebook and face-to-face conversations (well, mine, at any rate), it’s essential to acknowledge that not all families have access to the same sort of choices. Obviously, the wealthy have more options than the poor, including though not limited to choice of town and neighborhood. While I won’t be spilling much ink this month exploring the implications of and possible ways to address this inequity, I would be remiss if I didn’t note it.

No matter where we are economically and otherwise, the hopes and dreams we have for our kids (and those that the kids have for themselves) depend in large part on the skills, habits of mind, content, attitudes, and ways of relating to others that they learn both at school and at home. So we seek schools that value what we value in order to achieve a measure of understanding, continuity, and support network for young people that extends from home to school and back again.

I was thinking about this need for a good fit when I recently read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. If you aren’t familiar with the book, you have likely heard the phrase “tiger mother” as a description of a parent who demands sky high achievement from their kids, who expects perfection and beyond in pursuits that the parents choose, who requires obedience and is willing and even eager to limit many of the common (in our culture) joys of childhood for the sake of the attainment of such perfection.

I will admit that when my kids bring home grades that don’t match the levels of achievement of which I know they’re capable, my own inner tiger mother has been known to emerge for a growl. However--and this is why it may be instructive to read Tiger Mother itself rather than read about it--Chua is willing to ride her myopic quest for perfection to crazytown. She bullies, harangues, and verbally abuses her daughters, with mixed results: one acquiesces, one rebels. Though there’s no way I endorse or would suggest emulating her methods, I feel muted admiration for Chua’s willingness to put her experience of extreme parenting out there and for her ability to describe how her understanding shifted when her seemingly irresistible force meet the apparently immovable object of her daughter’s will.

I had expected the relationship with her daughters' schools to be a substantial aspect of Chua’s story, but alas, no. The most significant discussion of school is when Chua describes herself pacing the hallway waiting for the start of gym, recess, or lunch (irrelevant, in her view) so she can whisk her daughter away for yet more violin practice. Chua also grumbles about time-consuming community building events such as parent association potlucks as ridiculous, distracting nuisances. She makes it clear that school is for mastering math, science, and literacy--not for the arts, not for athletics, and certainly not for socially oriented community building. When school doesn’t conform to Chua’s values, it too is pushed aside.

At that point, I knew that my occasional grade-related roars do not qualify me to be a tiger mother. I would not be able to stand the hyperfocused life that she describes. I understand how endless hours of practicing and sky-high expectations can push kids to reach their potential. I admire that Chua has equipped her kids with resilience and ability to confront obstacles. However, I couldn’t stand the resulting loss of community, which I value so much for our family.

I’m really more of an elephant mother. Elephants learn socially and mother their young collectively. Experienced elephant mothers model parenting behavior for younger elephant mothers. Young adult female elephants serve as “allmothers” (my new favorite word) as they practice their skills by looking after all of the younger offspring. This seems like a much more resonant metaphor than the tiger mother, frantically focused on her own offspring to the exclusion of other people’s children as well as nearly everything else in life.

While I have high academic expectations for my kids, I also expect them to thrive amidst diversity and respect differences. I expect them to identify the assets of their communities and be a part of solving challenges. In order for this to happen, you need to be an elephant mother (or father) and appreciate not only being part of the diverse, multicultural, multilingual herd but also taking on some real responsibility for the welfare of all kids, not just your own.

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