Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tiger Mom or Stage Mom?

The recent hullabaloo over Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal article generated at least one response identifying a similar obsession in American moms. Chua, who acknowledges that her behavior is not unique to the Chinese, coerced her daughters, often punishing and shaming them in numerous and, to many Americans, shocking ways, to insure that the daughters would be the top in their classes and play the “right” musical instruments. The American version emphasizes child beauty pageants, various sports competitions, and after-school SAT courses to game the test and insure acceptance to the “right” colleges. In a previous post, I touched on the achievement-by-proxy motivation of the stage-mother syndrome. Both kinds of parental behavior go by the old-fashioned name of authoritarianism.

The “stage mother” concept illustrates the possible consequences of such an overbearing parent and the Broadway musical Gypsy eloquently dramatizes what can happen. In the musical Rose, the mom, drags her two daughters, June and Louise, from city to city to perform in vaudeville shows. Disliking the pressures of the business, June elopes. Later, as vaudeville begins to wane, Louise stumbles onto a talent for striptease, taking the name and becoming the famous Gypsy Rose Lee. The mom is devastated and in real life—the musical is based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee—becomes estranged from her two daughters for many years.

The psychological consequence of authoritarianism is either rebellion or submission. Rarely is there anything in between. In Gypsy, June and Louise reflect the former reaction to the coercion of their mother. Submission means going along, losing one’s independence and individuality, seldom being able to pursue one’s own interests because of the demands of the activity and parent. Burnout in sports is well known, usually occurring in high school after years of pressured practices, perhaps year round, that began at the age of six. Parents of these pressured kids assume that nothing is wrong, because the child seemingly goes along with all of the practices and tournaments. The parent may even claim that his or her child is having “so much fun.” An outside observer, however, may be compelled to raise an eyebrow and ask, “Is she?” Objectivity may be lost even on well-meaning parents in today’s pressure-cooker life.

There are, of course, exceptions to this overbearing parental control. My brother is a professional musician who began playing the piano at age five, gave a solo recital at age eleven, and practiced something like six hours a day in high school, at one point getting two hours of practice in before school in the morning. I don’t recall a single time in which he was forced by our parents to practice. So did his talent and drive come from our parents? No, we were a blue-collar family and our parents’ musical talent amounted to singing hymns as members of the church congregation. My brother’s motivation was all internally generated. (This is not to say that our parents were not authoritarian. They were, but in other areas of our lives.)

In addition to the strident obedience to authority that the tiger-mom, stage-mom syndrome exhibits, the values pursued are insipidly conventional. Why only piano or violin, as Amy Chua insisted? There are great tuba players in the world and they perform the great tuba concertos. Would it be so terrible if your child played the tuba? Or the banjo? Or did not want to learn a musical instrument at all? The answer is that it would be terrible . . . to the parents’ pseudo-self-esteem. And that is what this hubbub is all about.

The “right” musical instrument, the “right” sport, and the “right” college are right only if the child, not the parent, given family finances, chooses them. The parent may be consultant, cheerleader, and chauffeur, but not dictator over what the child should pursue. Independence and individuality require making one’s own choices and pursuing one’s own chosen values, sometimes in the face of opposition or expressed doubts of others. Success, accomplishment, and self-esteem all result from having done it “my way.”

Playing the “right” musical instrument, the “right” sport, or getting into the “right” college  are doing it the Jones’ way. Keeping up with the Joneses and fearing what the Joneses might think are what the tiger-mom, stage-mom parent is most concerned about. This is a prescription for dependence.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

There are Stage Fathers as well as Stage Mothers - parents who try to force their children to fulfill their own frustrated ambitions. Both types of parents usually end up with the same result: hatred for the parent, and estrangement. Judy Garland's life was ruined by a domineering stage mother, Ethel Gumm, and serial killer Kemper was driven to homicidal madness by an abusive, bipolar mother.
Many fathers try to force their sons to do what they cannot do for themselves. The result is almost always hatred.