Amy Chua’s excerpt from “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” printed last week in the Wall Street Journal, has mothers everywhere up in arms, and perhaps no one more so than Jewish mothers, who thought they had a lock on producing over achievers motivated by gigantic filial guilt trips.
Chua—whose husband Jed Rubenfeld is Jewish—writes with tongue-in-cheek pride of how she does not let her daughters, now 14 and 17 and still talking to her, go on sleepovers, be in school plays, or bring home anything less than As. She forces them to practice violin and piano for four hours a day, even while on vacation. Anything less than perfection merits brutal motherly insults and hysterical fits (from the mother).
Wendy Sachs, writing on the Huffington Post, notes that there’s a difference between the Chinese mother’s hair-pulling and shrieking and the Jewish mother’s passive-aggressive guilt.
Chua says that Chinese moms don’t mince words when it comes to their children’s appearance either. They can say, “Hey fatty—lose some weight.”
The Jewish mom would more likely kvell over her daughter than insult her, no matter how fat she had become.
“You are too gorgeous, but maybe you want me to get you a gym membership,” a Jewish mom would say.
The f-word would never enter the conversation. While Chua describes Chinese moms in almost pathological terms, the Jewish-mom style is decidedly more passive aggressive.
“Why don’t we go study for your spelling test now?” I say to my son.
“Can you please get your math review sheets? Let’s make sure you get 100 percent on your quiz!” I say in my best bubbly, you-can-do-it voice.
We frame demands in pleasant questions. Really what we mean is, “Go study now, and I want you to get straight As and a National Merit Scholarship that gets you into Harvard.” We just message it differently.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, “Bad Mother” author Ayelet Waldman contrasts her own ambivalent Jewish, Western parenting style to Chua’s. She talks about how her daughter collapsed in tears when Waldman pointed out that the five solid As on her daughter’s report card did not erase the two non-A’s.
The difference between Ms. Chua and me, I suppose—between proud Chinese mothers and ambivalent Western ones—is that I felt guilty about having berated my daughter for failing to deliver the report card I expected. I was ashamed at my reaction. But here is another difference, one I’ll admit despite being ashamed of it, too: I did not then go out and get hundreds of practice tests and work through them with my daughter far into the night, doing whatever it took to get her the A. I fobbed that task off on a tutor, something I can afford to do because my children reside in the same privileged world as Ms. Chua’s.
Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks calls Chua a wimp, saying she is letting her daughters off easy when it comes to training for real life skills:
Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.