Saturday, March 26, 2011

When tiger moms go ape: why so much strife about the mystery of raising the kids?

Photo by Shawn Thompson

The controversy about tiger moms reminds me of what happens when human beings take the role of being a parent to an ape. There can be a lot of tension and strife.

A tiger mom like Amy Chua in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother argues for an aggressive, controlling mother to forge a successful, responsible and accomplished child.

That notion stings the sense of parenthood in the west, which has opted more for freedom, independence and self-esteem in raising children. I'll call that the rabbit mom because I can't think of a better name.

Some say the tiger mom produces angry, frustrated, anxious children.

Some say the rabbit mom produces irresponsible, passive, self-indulgent children who don't have sensible goals in life.

The clash is fierce between these points of view, tiger and rabbit. Both sides are sensitive to the idea that the kids will suffer the consequences. Plus, if one side is right, the other is wrong, and that is damaging to the sense of self of the parent. Tigers don't want to live like rabbits and rabbits don't want to live like tigers. Hence the heat of the controversy about tiger moms -- which are also found in the west, I might add. Just look who is yelling at her children the loudest from the sidelines at a game of hockey or soccer. That is no rabbit.

But what is also intriguing about this is the similarity in the clash of points of view when human beings are looking after orphan orangutans. I saw this when I was writing my book about orangutans, The Intimate Ape. I didn't write about the depth of this strife in the book because I wanted to keep the focus on orangutans.

But the IMAX film being released this April called Born To Be Wild, about orangutans and elephants, features the primatologist Birute Galdikas, who has been at the centre of the controversy for years in orangutan circles.

The issue with children, human or ape, is how much involvement the parent should have in the life of the child. How much should a parent try to shape and control the life of a child? Does too much contaminate the child? Does too little leave the child adrift?

Birute Galdikas in Borneo       Photo by Shawn Thompson
I don't want to take sides on the red ape version of the controversy. However, I can say from the time  I spent with Galdikas in Borneo that Galdikas believes in more involvement in the lives of young orangutans than others, who want the apes returned to the jungle quickly for more independence and less contact with human beings. Galdikas thinks human beings should be more involved in nurturing orphan orangutans, aware that they normally spend eight years with their mother learning how to be whole, well-functioning members of orangutan society.

When it comes to an issue like this of orangutans, the ape kids, the human emotions get hot and explosive. I can tell you that I have seen human beings on the verge of virtual combustion.

Tiger mom
When I look at the controversy that the tiger mom situation has fuelled, and the polarization that develops between east and west, male and female, husband and wife, parent and child, I see extremes, which are by nature polarized.

Each side chooses an extreme and tries to make its case by selecting examples of just the success or failure, the disaster or the miracle, of the extreme. We all know someone who is an example of the extreme. Grouping them together just proves that we know how to group things that are similar together.

Human beings may have some need to see extremes, to be in opposition, to create strife, whether it is politically or in relationships or in the treatment of apes. 

Human beings can create opposition and strife out of good intentions. That is one unexamined aspect of the tiger mom controversy.

Can we ever manage that side of ourselves to raise children, make a marriage work, settle the politics of a nation, and save a species like orangutans from extinction?

Where is the ability to negotiate with the tiger mom? 

Practically, as Aristotle would say, the mediation is in moderation. We can mix east and west, tiger and rabbit, parent and child, person and ape. It's a blending, not a polarization.

I have to add, as the father of two children, neither of whom turned out like Charlie Sheen, sometimes kids just turn out to be themselves whatever you do. I see the same thing happen as a teacher. You might amplify or dampen a trait or two, in a student, in a child, but how much do you ever radically alter the result in a human being?

Sometimes as a parent you are just along for the ride.

My kids are very different. One a tiger. One a rabbit. From two very different parents,  now divorced. So it's all both a mystery and a miracle to me, in this Chinese Year of the Rabbit. Sometimes you just buy the ticket and take the ride.

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