On Chinese and Jewish Mothers, and Helicopter Parenting



Five years ago, Ayelet Waldman dared to write an article in The New York Times saying that she loved her husband (the writer Michael Chabon) more than her children. For this, she was labeled a "bad mother," received rafts of hate mail and even death threats. The response was so vociferous and voluminous that she wrote a book about her family life titled Bad Mother.

Now, Waldman has joined the tidal wave of reactions to the latest salvo in what has become known as "The Mommy Wars." Amy Chua, an erudite Yale law professor, who also happens to be Chinese, has written a memoir titled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, describing the method of child-rearing she espouses and employed — together with her Jewish law-professor husband — in raising her own two daughters.

Among other strictures, Chua did not allow her daughters to attend a sleepover, have a playdate, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities or accept any grade lower than an A.

Excerpts from Chua's book have been published in The Wall Street Journal and the Times. Responses include that of Times columnist David Brooks, who called Chua a wimp. While he admires her backbone, he feels that by depriving her children of social interactions that teach critical skills, she is weakening them.

Waldman, whose response is in The Wall Street Journal, identifies her approach in the following way: "Here are some of the things that my four young children of a Jewish mother were always allowed to do:" quit the piano and the violin; sleep over at their friends' houses; play on the computer and surf the Internet; participate in any extracurricular activity they wanted.

Clearly defining and refining parenting roles and norms touch sensitive nerves among Americans. As a student of the Jewish family, I'm interested in the Jewish angle to this brouhaha. One of the persistent characteristics of family life of Jewish immigrants who arrived in America during the "great migration" of 1880-1920 was a zealous devotion to educational achievement.

Young men who might have quit school to become earners were urged to stay through high school, college and even graduate school. In a 1967 essay in Midstream titled "In Defense of the Jewish Mother," Zena Smith Blau wrote of the benefits of the overprotective, guilt-inducing, enveloping love of the Jewish mother, who prompted success in Jewish men in one generation.

Though different from the Chinese model, the Jewish mother emphasized overt demonstration of affection, excessive boasting about their children and, of course, guilt — for which they were often reviled later by their high-achieving sons. This model resulted in the fastest rise in educational attainment, occupational prestige and income of any U.S. immigrant group.

Professor Chua is one of many Chinese Americans in academe who are married to Jews. In Judith Warner's piece in The New York Times Magazine, she notes that Chua is terrified of losing ground in the battle for her children's achievement, noting that "simply by marrying a Jew, and not a Chinese man, she worries that she is 'letting down 4,000 years of civilization.' "

Wait a minute: Marrying a Jew used to be a way to demonstrate and even upgrade one's commitment to academic advancement. One of the attractions was becoming part of the close-knit family and clan that espoused the values of discipline and success. Now the Jewish spouse is typified as overly permissive.

We are living in an era of lowered expectations. Our children and grandchildren do not expect to out-achieve us in education, occupational prestige or income. One way of coping with such a reality is to focus on the quality of relationships with family and friends to bring meaning to life (certainly, not a bad thing in and of itself) and perhaps, too often, to worry more about children's relationships, as opposed to their academic work.

We often hear about "helicopter parents," whose children are overprotected and watched intrusively through their teens to shield them from harm. Chua's brand of parent watches over the activities and structure of the learning experience to keep her children from any outside influences that would detract from their achievement orientation. Both reflect extremes.

Still, these stereotypes contain grains of truth. Chua has done us a service by shining a spotlight on the critical role of the family in inculcating lifelong values that are, in turn, reflected in the character of the society as a whole. The point is not that we accept her views, but that we elevate the discourse about our values as Jewish Americans, and as parents and grandparents.

Rela Mintz Geffen is a sociologist of religion, serving as an adjunct fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.


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