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Elephant Mothers

March 2011
Elephant Mothers

Dear PMG:

I moved into a friendly neighborhood a few years ago and was fortunate to find three other families with young children. While the four fathers have become casual friends leading their separate and busy professional lives, the four mothers have become quite close. Indeed, we think of each other in a sisterly way, celebrating birthdays together, getting together for chai, and going for long walks where we talk about most everything.

The one recurring conversational topic has been our children. A few weeks ago, I e-mailed to the others an essay from the Wall Street Journal, titled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” The article suggests that Chinese parents’ focus on accomplishment is what is required in our competitive world. Amy Chua, the author of a memoir from which the essay was excerpted, has a more nuanced view than the essay would indicate; but she does diminish the touchy-feely approach of American parents who value self-esteem over achievement.

At first our response was, “Hey, what about Indian mothers? We’re quite good, too.” Then we saw that “Chinese mother” was an archetype characterizing anyone who persistently pushes his or her child to be the best they can be; so we joked that a couple of our Indian husbands are actually Chinese mothers. Now it seems that everyone is taking sides about the merits and demerits of goal- driven parenting.

What would Gandhiji make of all this?

Dear Friend,

"A mother would never by choice sleep in a wet bed but she would gladly do so in order to spare the dry bed for her child." (M. K. Gandhi)

The apostle of peace may have been troubled by the title of Amy Chua’s memoir: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. When did raising children become a battle?

And then there’s the metaphor from the animal kingdom: Tiger Mother. Perhaps this is a play on the media’s usual reference to the Chinese economy as a tiger economy. Not having read the book, I cannot make an honest assessment of Ms. Chua’s intention. But the Journal ’s excerpt does suggest that like tiger economies that promote rapid economic growth and improved standards of living, Tiger Mothers use all kinds of measures (some quite harsh) to push their children’s academic growth with the long-term hope of high-performing lives.

Maybe it’s helpful to think of your and your friends’ mothering style as that of “Elephant Mothers.” Elephants in the wild have a highly evolved social structure. While the fathers tend to be less involved in childrearing, the mothers work together to nurture their children. If translated to your neighborhood, Elephant Mothering would have all four of you feeling responsible and accountable for each other’s children. To be sure, all of you would want your children to be prepared for the challenges and opportunities of our flat (and, at times, wild) world. But if you are Elephant Mothers in the Gandhian sense, you would lovingly make sure that your children’s basic needs (food, shelter, and health) are met before badgering them to be Nobel Prize winners in Peace, Medicine, or Literature (or perhaps in all three!).

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