The Battle Hymn of the Anti-Tiger Mother

by Deborah Copaken
Originally Published: 

I was minding my own business at the office the other morning when the nurse at my daughter’s school called to say she was ill. “You’ll have to come pick her up,” she said. Obviously this was not the first time I’ve received such a call from a school nurse, but it was the first time that the sick child in question was old enough to vote.

“Can’t,” I said. “I’m on deadline. Just tell her to take a taxi.” Our apartment is a six-minute cab ride from the school. The commute from my office is at least an hour by subway, if not longer.

“Sorry,” said the nurse. “School policy.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. She’s 18!” The kid’s been going back and forth to school by herself since she was 10. She’s old enough to die in a war. She babysat her 8-year-old brother by herself for four days while I was on a business trip to LA last summer, and she’s savvy enough to navigate the subways of New York after midnight. I could see no good reason for me to come pick up my adult child from the nurse’s office, and plenty of bad ones.

I argued. Lord how I argued. The Principal was called in to adjudicate. The way I remember the right way to spell Principal—as opposed to principle—is that the Principal is allegedly my pal. Except that day my child got sick when, standing on outdated principles, she wasn’t.

The subway was having massive delays because of an unnamed “incident,” so I wound up taking a $45.96 cab ride from Manhattan’s Flatiron District up to my daughter’s high school in the Bronx. As I watched the meter rise and rise, I thought to myself, with sudden clarity: I’ve had it.

I’ve fucking had it.

This country and its parents and schools are so misguided when it comes to educating and caring for our children, it’s hard to know where to begin. But let me try to make a tiny dent in the chassis.

How is it that a school that is allegedly so worried about my 18-year-old daughter’s health and well being that it requires her mommy to come pick her up when she’s sick is also the same school that thinks nothing of having piled on eight daily hours of homework over the past four years? If the kid gets four hours of sleep a night, she’s lucky. I am not exaggerating when I say that, since her freshman year, I’ve seen my daughter maybe 20 minutes a day, if that, at the nightly family dinners I insist on cooking not out of a sense of maternal martyrdom, but because otherwise I would never see my children. Meanwhile her school—allegedly one of the top public high schools in the country—has literally made her and her friends sick with stress and worry.

When she was accepted both at said school and in the art department of another public school that was the template for Fame, I tried to convince her to go to the latter. “How great,” I said, “to be able to do art every morning for two hours before starting your academics.”

Her response made me cry: “But the academics supposedly aren’t as good, so I’ll never get into a good college.”

“I don’t care where you go to college!” I said to my then 14-year-old. “I’d rather you have a less stressful adolescence. Plus I bet that’s not even true. Every teacher I met during the tour was fantastic. It’s all about the teachers. Plus less homework doesn’t mean worse academics. It’s just the mark of an enlightened school.”

But she’d already drunk the societal Kool-Aid.

Four years ago, just as my daughter was entering high school, a book about a tiger mother came out and had everyone I knew up in arms. For some, it was painful to read the extent to which a parent would go to make her daughter practice the piano. For others, it was a call to arms: We have been too soft on our American children, said friends and pundits alike. We need to be more like Asian parents.

My daughter’s school is filled with the children of first- and second-generation Asian immigrants, who make up 62 percent of its student body. Their parents have all worked hard, sacrificed, and paid for expensive tutors to prep their progeny for the standardized tests that helped catapult them into these specialized, stressful schools. They proudly buy the bumper stickers and water bottles and sweatshirts bearing the school’s name.

But to what end?

Criticism of the tiger mother was countered by the fact that her two daughters were accepted at Harvard and Yale. As if this fact alone proved that their mother’s methods were sound.

Here’s the thing: I went to Harvard, back when it was far easier to get into, and it was populated, even then, by some of the most stressed out overachievers whose hair I have ever had the pleasure of holding as they vomited into the toilet, and not only from stress and alcohol. Anorexia and bulimia were so prevalent, it was actually confusing to those of us with more typical body types: Wait, is that what we’re supposed to look like? I actually ended up starving myself for a few months during sophomore year, too. Seemingly by osmosis.

So many of my fellow students had been so meticulously groomed for this hallowed spot at this hallowed school that, once we were students, we had a hard time trying to sort out who we were outside our parents’ desires for us. That my family had wanted me to go to law school but I wound up in Afghanistan after graduation was not how the script was supposed to have gone, though I’m glad they eventually accepted that their child had grown into a different type of adult than the one they thought they’d been raising.

Moreover, having a degree from an Ivy League school can actually be a hindrance later in life. Yes, it might help you get that banking job, if that’s what you’re after, but for many other industries you risk being immediately branded overqualified or a snob. After a recent article of mine went viral, I was falsely accused in The New York Times of “copious use” of the word Harvard (I’d used it once) and of not knowing basic facts about the real world: “If Harvard does not teach its students that in some situations, a Harvard degree is not an advantage, then Harvard is doing its students a disservice. One might even think that Ms. Kopaken [sic] did not actually want a job at The Container Store, but rather, what she got: a rejection from The Container Store…”

To be clear, I actually wanted and needed that job at The Container Store, for reasons I made clear in the essay, before landing a job here at The Mid. I’m also painfully aware of the disadvantages my degree confers. Though I actually loved my four years at Harvard, with various caveats (the existence of all-male final clubs, the weather, and the aforementioned disadvantages), and I was grateful to have had the opportunity to be a student there, I also know I would have had just as good a time and learned just as much elsewhere.

I made a vow to myself early on that, if and when I ever had children, I would hand them the keys to their own destiny: not only their own college, but their own path to get there. It’s not the opposite of tiger motherhood, exactly, it’s just a different mode of thinking. I don’t have a special name for it or any hard and fast rules other than those born of my own private, particular, and individual notions of common sense.

My teenagers have never had a curfew. They were just expected to call or text me around midnight, give or take an hour, to tell me where they were. Wine was never a forbidden fruit. They could have a sip of it if they wanted with dinner on a weekend night with the family, starting in their early teens. When my daughter, then 16, asked to bring her boyfriend on vacation with us, I did not make them sneak around at night out of any antediluvian sense of propriety.

When my eldest was a young boy and lost interest in playing soccer—not that he ever really had any to begin with, I just thought he should give it a try—I let him quit and focus exclusively on the two things he loved: acting and music. When he didn’t practice guitar during certain weeks, it wasn’t me nagging him or making him feel ashamed. The shame was internalized, his own, when he had to face the teacher unprepared.

Today he is an excellent guitar player. I take no credit for this other than having paid his teacher and reminded him to get on the subway to go.

When his younger sister suffered through crippling stage fright at age 9 after performing “One Is the Loneliest Number” at a talent show, I let her quit music lessons altogether. “What’s the point in studying an instrument if I can never perform it in front of an audience?” she said. This made perfect sense to both of us.

When her father and I split a year and a half ago, and I started taking guitar lessons to ease the pain of the separation, she suddenly asked if she could join me. “I’m more advanced than you,” I said, “but sure. We can try.” Three months later, she’d set her own mind to the task of learning guitar so thoroughly, she’d left me in the dust.

Last week, her band played a gig at Webster Hall in Manhattan. This week, she will find out which colleges have accepted her, if any. She’s been stressed out about this, worried that she won’t get in anywhere.

Here’s what I told her: I don’t care where you get into college. You’ll get in somewhere or you won’t. You can always work for a year and apply again if you’re unhappy with your choices. You will learn stuff and meet great people and do fine wherever you land. I know this for certain because last week I saw a girl who once had crippling stage fright sing her heart out on a stage.

When she leaves this fall, wherever she winds up, I’ll still have her brother to raise. He’s 8. Wouldn’t it be great if, by the time he’s 18 and falls ill at school, we might finally be enlightened enough as a society to let our children find their own way home.

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