Jewish Mother Redux
By Symi Rom-Rymer
We’ve had the bad mother, the free-range mother, and now, thanks to Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother. From punishing late-night math sessions to grueling practice sessions to complaints over poorly-made birthday cards, Chua suggests that her methods of pushing her children to succeed are what American children need—and are lacking. A Chinese mother herself—literally and figuratively—Chua writes in the Wall Street Journal that as opposed to Western mothers, “Chinese parents understand that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.” She does let some mothers of other cultures off the hook including Korean, Jamaican, and Irish—although not Jewish—whom she concedes may meet ‘Chinese mother’ standards.
Stereotypically, Jewish mothers have also been categorized as pushy and aggressive with their children, holding them to extremely high standards. In her WSJ piece, Chua tells the story of the Chinese child who returns home with an A- only to have the parent ask why it wasn’t an A. Growing up, I too heard—although never personally experienced—the same story. Only it was a Jewish child bringing home an inferior grade to his Jewish mother. Ironically, Chua’s husband, Jed Rubenfeld, a Yale Law professor and successful mystery writer, is Jewish and their kids are being ‘raised Jewish.’ But despite his own achievements, Chua has cast him as the soft Westerner.
At what point along the way has the Jewish mother become more American—or Western? In a piece about breaking down the Jewish mother stereotype, Dr. Paula Hyman points out that some of the intense mothering patterns that have worked their way into the Jewish mother persona were based on survival instincts needed in the small towns and shetels of Eastern Europe. They were even needed in the new world to push children to succeed in an atmosphere where anti-Semitism was still prevalent. But as Jews became more assimilated and reached the American middle class, the over-bearing mothering instincts became unnecessary and a source of derision.
Like immigrant Jewish mothers before them, Chinese mothers, too, must feel anxious about their children’s success in a country that may or may not accept them. They, too, must feel that they have to push them in order to have the life that Americans of other ethnicities take for granted. Which may speak to why Chinese immigrants—really immigrants of many different backgrounds—pressure their children to be the best.
To back up her parenting style, Chua points to a study that compares American middle-class mothers and Chinese immigrant mothers. According to Chua, the study shows that 70% of Western mothers think that learning should be fun while 0% of Chinese immigrant mothers do. But that is like comparing apples and oranges. Western mothers have different concerns and see their children through a different lens. They are likely to feel more comfortable in their identity as Americans and as a part of American society and not torn between two worlds as immigrant parents do. Nor are they as fearful that American society will reject their children and block their potential success.
Today, Jewish parents are encouraged to release their children, to give them space to discover who they are and yes, even make learning fun, all in the name of Judaism. According to Sharon Duke Estroff, a Jewish educator and parenting columnist, “the Mishnah states that Torah should be studied lishmah, or for its own sake. We shouldn’t learn Torah with ulterior motives. By the same token, we should not present the act of learning to our children as a means to an end. Instead, we must help them recognize and embrace the inherent magic, excitement and privilege of discovering the world around them.”
Chua is unapologetic for her parenting style and sees Chinese immigrant parenting values as key to producing successful children. But she misses that while she and her husband had different upbringings, both have achieved similar levels of high success in their careers. In response to all of the controversy over Chua’s article, both of her children have defended her parenting style. But perhaps one day, they will grow up and see that they do need not be a ‘Tiger mother’ to be a successful parent or have successful offspring. It will be enough to model healthy, high-achieving behaviors for their children to be successful. Just like both their grandparents.