The Tiger Nanny: The Missing Link in the Parenting Debate

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With all the fuss over the harshness of Amy Chua’s unrelenting “tiger mother” parenting style — the discussion, which was sparked by a Wall Street Journal excerpt of Chua’s new memoir about motherhood, made its way onto the cover of TIME this week — few have commented on one simple fact. This tiger mother had help.

Chua says that she often spent three hours a day ensuring that her children completed their violin or piano practice, and hours more supervising their homework or otherwise snuffing their desire for a normal social life (no sleepovers, no playdates, no school plays, no sports and certainly no computer games or TV). Since Chua also has a day job as a professor at Yale Law School — hardly a part-time gig — and since she fails to indicate that she’s been taking speed to stay awake 24/7 to keep up with her duties, something doesn’t add up. That missing piece is her Mandarin-speaking nanny.

(More on The Roar of the Tiger Mom)

That’s right, the full-time growling Tiger Mom didn’t raise her daughters herself, or even in a simple partnership with her husband. She isn’t a stay-at-home mom, she isn’t a middle-class working mom, she is a rich woman. And although she insists that her recently published book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin Press, Jan. 2011), is not meant to be taken as parenting advice, its message is widely being read as suggesting that the “Chinese” mothering style is superior to the more lenient “Western” way. In any case, the truth is that for mothers who don’t have her resources, following her lead would be impossible.

Amy Chua wants it both ways. She argues that tough, intensive mothering is essential to children’s success. But she seems unaware of how dependent her career as a mother has been on the work of others. Without the nanny, my bet is that she wouldn’t have had the energy for many of the parent-child battles she waged — like forcing her reluctant 7-year-old daughter Lulu to practice piano for hours, “right through dinner into the night,” with no breaks for water or the bathroom, until at last she learned to play the piece.

(More on The Scoop on Raising Baby, from Two Mom Docs)

What’s sad to me about our debate over the Tiger Mom is that we really do need a national debate on child care. Every family with children has to improvise its own solution to the question of work vs. family: in the overwhelming majority of two-parent families, both parents work. And in one-parent families, of course, that percentage is even higher.

Over and over and over, we debate the intricacies of the best way to raise our children without ever addressing the fact that much of the early-life care they receive is given by paid help, whether in day care or by a nanny. And it’s not like women are suddenly going to quit the workforce; that horse left the barn decades ago.

(More on Why Spoiled Babies Grow Up to Be Smarter, Kinder Kids)

Yet we remain in denial. The economic and emotional stress on working parents that results is overwhelming, but rather than concede that we have a big social problem on our hands or look for national solutions, we spend our time debating whether moms are doing their jobs right and seeking answers (or blame) in individual parenting styles.

Research shows repeatedly that low-quality day care can harm children, particularly infants, over the long term, leading to academic and cognitive deficits in adolescence and greater risk-taking and impulsivity. But as a country, we are still ignoring the issue: we don’t require companies to provide paid parental leave, for instance, and we do little else to support quality early child care. Instead, we endlessly debate the Tiger Mom.