Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In Praise of Mowgli Mom

All this talk about "Tiger mothers" has gotten me thinking. What kind of a mother am I? What kind of a mother was my mother?

"Tiger Mothers" is a moniker that goes all the way back to a week or so, as Yale law professor Amy Chua has gained publicity for her book about Chinese culture, and how Chinese mothers demand the best from their kids - straight As, musical proficiency, no time wasted, no TV, no sleepovers. Granted, she sees how she rode her kids too hard, but the book is still getting lots of chatter.

Should we be doing that too? Am I too lenient?

No, you cannot have a boyfriend till you are 21. Now go practice your violin.

You don't even need to be Chinese to second guess yourself. That's upper-income America for you, no matter what your culture. I see this every day, but was particularly schooled in it when I sent Son of Snarkshelf to Camp Smartypants for a few weeks last summer (pipe down! It was to study filmmaking, though the other classes full of Tiger Cubs were "elementary debate skills" and "math test prep").

I was just saying to a friend this morning that I subscribe more along the line of Wendy Mogel's parenting. Mogel is the author of "Blessings of a B Minus," which says you have to give your child to tools to succeed, but step off. They need to see for themselves the consequences of not studying or coming in last or even second. THAT's where kids get the drive to succeed, not by banning fun. WaPo editorial writer Ruth Marcus agrees. She wrote on this very topic today too.

I have given up the fantasy that my child will be a concert pianist, a Pulitzer Prize winner or an Olympic athlete. I have also given up the dream that your kid will be too. You can spend your days plotting practices with the precision of a NASA control room expert, pay thousands for coaches and tutors and ban video games all you want. It may pay off. It may not.

In the end, it comes down to your kid: they are going to do what they want, the motivation comes from them, not from you. Those college students with the eating disorders and the suicide threats? Maybe they would have been better prepared for life if they had been allowed to be less than perfect once in a while.

Which brings me to my own mother's parenting style. My mom was a strictly hands-off kind of parent, even when the school called and said my brother - we'll call him Spike - was in the principal's office for the 13th time.

Dads of the day worked and traveled for work and went to football games with their buddies. They did not go to parent-teacher conferences or chaperon field trips or make the school supply run after the first day of the term. Never.

So it was up to the moms. And my mother was ... a Mowgli mom (I just made that term up. Do you like it?). I use the name Mowgli because he was the little human boy in "The Jungle Book"
who, in lieu of parents, was raised by a bear and a panther.

Mowgli in his natural habitat.
Snarkshelf in her natural habitat. See the resemblance?

So there weren't really jungle animals in our house. But there weren't exactly parents all the time either.

My mom, the Jewish Betty Draper (same great figure; same bad attitude and pack of cigarettes), did what she had to do - drive to the damn dance lessons, make the grilled cheese sandwiches - till Spike and I were in high school. Then Spike (17 months older than me) got a driver's license and a car. Mom got a job, and it was nothing but jungle animals - OK, the wrestling team - at our house.

I could forge my mom's signature easily and wrote notes to cut - even drop - classes. Spike and I probably had a 4.0 gpa combined. Want dinner? Cook it yourself. Clean clothes? You know where the washing machine is. This is the method of the Mowgli mom.

At one point, we had a summer cottage 10 hours away in upstate New York. My parents would leave us home alone for a couple of weeks at a time. They set us up with a MasterCard, a freezer full of frozen steaks and macaroni and cheese, and the sage advice to call a plumber if anything overflows. And to use birth control.

These days, the neighbors would call social services; Thirty years ago, they just told you to keep the firecrackers in the yard to a minimum after midnight.

Things overflowed. Firecrackers went off. Pets were lost and then found. The wrestlers showed up, and they could usually be counted on to give me a ride somewhere.

And you know what? I have street smarts because of it. The street was a winding road of split levels and contemporaries on acre lots, but still. I can problem solve and know real danger from hyperbole. Spike and I both turned out OK. Even better than OK.

I could have been supervised in Tiger fashion, but I don't believe ANYONE was doing that in the 1980s. And I don't know if anything would have turned out differently. My parents could have stuck around and banished all the boys from the house and made me be home by 10 and accept only As. I am still not sure I would have been headed to Harvard or the Olympics or Julliard.

So on the parenting scale you've got Tiger Moms on one side and Mowgli Moms the other.

The rest of us should find a place in the middle, somewhere East of Yale and organic salmon but West of macaroni and cheese and the wrestling team.

Dear Kids - Wish you were here. Don't burn the house down, and get into college when you get a chance, OK? Love, Mom and Dad


  1. Love this post. Just heard Amy Chua and husband interviewed on NPR and got me and many parents I know thinking about parenting styles. Love your take on the issues! And the photos are great!

  2. Loved this post. Is it creepy to say your family is hot? My parents were definitely somewhere between the Tigers and the Mowglis but probably a little too close to the Tiger side. I still feel the need to rebel against their wishes because I feel like I don't have room to be myself but then feel guilty I didn't just do want they wanted to make them happy. But I guess if you turn out "okay" then you really turned out "more than okay" without the non-okay people out there, so how much can I criticize them? My worst fear about being a parent someday is that I'll screw my kids up. It's a tough job and every good parent is a saint for doing it. Cheers, T.

  3. The children of the tiger moms are necessary, of course. Seriously, who's going to work for those of us who grew up as Mowglis and now have the street smarts and drive to get ahead. Amy Chua's kids are going to peak somewhere around, oh, age 19, unless she decides to move into their dorm with them and continue the torture for another four years. The first time they're on their own, for real, and failure, or even just moderate success, rears its ugly head those kids are going to crack and shatter like a Ming vase dropped on a tile floor.

  4. I was definitely a Mowgli child...latchkey and in charge of getting my sister ready for school at 10 and mixing drinks for adults at the weekly parties. But it all worked out okay. Love the pic of the parents vay-cay.