Debunking the Flanagan Delusion: Tiger Moms vs. Eagle Moms

March 18, 2011

I have a confession to make: I’m Asian and I didn’t go to an elite Ivy League college … and my parents never pushed me to.

I know, I know. I’m still trying to sort out why they didn’t beat me and otherwise bring me to heel as Asian parents are supposed to do. It’s hard to believe, especially given all this hoopla about Amy Chua and Tiger Moms. You’d think that all Asian women do is yell at their kids because they come from this crazy culture of borderline-abusive child-rearing, and that this is all justified because a seat at an Ivy League school means more than happiness or sanity.

Cue the eye roll.

Having missed the memo on outdated racial stereotypes, social critic Caitlin Flanagan keeps the fear alive in her recent article in The Atlantic, where she discusses the paranoia that Western white ‘good mothers’ have about all these gosh darn upstart Asian robots taking Junior’s place at Yale and how it’s all because of these insane Asian women parceling out switchings like cough lozenges.

Flanagan calls upon her experience working as a teacher and college counselor at an elite prep school to justify her opinions -- street cred, if you will. “I’ve seen what [Chua’s] talking about and know firsthand the kind of collateral damage Tiger Motherhood produces,” she reveals in conspiratorial tones. “Many Asian kids admitted to me -- in confidence, because privacy to the point of secrecy is one of the hallmarks of this kind of family system -- that they experienced some of the harsh treatment Chua describes imposing on her daughters.”

She goes on: “The Asian mothers at our school rarely spoke about their methods or their goals, in part, it seems to me, because they knew how many of us disapproved of them. We called them ‘those mothers,’ and we rolled our eyes and fretted endlessly about their kids. We were always working to subvert their goals by encouraging their children to look at colleges that were off the official list of exclusive schools and to take risks, blow off some steam, and not take things so seriously. In short, I realize, some of us were deeply ignorant of the philosophy that motivated these mothers.”

Now watch out; what she’s just done is really sneaky. If you found yourself nodding along to the paragraphs above, feeling high and mighty on your anti-Chua stance, then you may be a white liberal mom (apparently, according to both Chua and Flanagan, only women are in charge of parenting) -- and you’ll find pie in your face in a minute, because Flanagan is not your friend. If you’re an Asian mom, though, and feeling defensive -- hang on; she’s going to vindicate you by the end of this essay, and you’ll feel more self-satisfied in your secret parenting methods. But Flanagan is still not your friend.

Turns out, Flanagan has a critique of white racism: That white liberals, whom she condescendingly calls “good mothers,” want to believe that Chua’s methods are destructive of children because they are invested in believing that these Asians are wrong and invasive and ultimately undeserving. But she argues that this is hypocritical because, ultimately, they and the Asian Tiger Moms are not so different. “Good mothers” (let’s call them “Eagle Moms” to clear away some of Flanagan’s misdirection) have the same end goal as Tiger Moms: for their kids to go to an elite university. They have the same values. The only difference is the approach.

Tiger Moms, many of them immigrants who don’t have the time or language fluency to fight teachers and curricula, bank on using the ‘meritocratic’ system to get their ragged cubs through. Eagle Moms, on the other hand, try to change the system by complaining about teachers and curricula so their precious little eaglets won’t have so far to fall from the nest. But in the end, it’s all the same. In both cases, the children are under an extreme amount of pressure to produce the stellar, prize-winning college application. It’s all about that acceptance letter.

Point taken.

But Flanagan’s agenda in pointing out this hypocrisy is to undermine her liberal enemies, by fueling their xenophobic fears. She revels in the proposition that Eagle Moms are “getting spanked” by Tiger Moms in terms of child-rearing prowess, and the situation is only going to get worse. She taunts that she “would wager that the majority of the Asian American kids who apply to elite colleges are not marked for any kind of preferential treatment, and are therefore disproportionately represented in the group of applicants who are going to be judged purely on academic merit. Their ability to dominate in this category means that the Asian threat, as perceived by cheesed-off white professional-class parents, is in fact higher than their worst suspicions.”

Let’s all pause and take a moment to laugh at how ludicrous that sounds.

Ah, if only her suppositions were even remotely true, on any sort of level! In reality, the unofficial quota at elite schools, such as Harvard, has traditionally held their Asian American population between 15 and 20 percent, and has been so for decades. This means the competition within the Asian American group extremely tight, but doesn’t say much on competition between races. The danger here is not some sort of ‘Asian threat’ -- a laughable, out-dated term that smacks of Yellow Peril-esque propaganda -- but that Flanagan would use such a pointless, divisive assertion to serve no other purpose but to perpetuate stereotype and incite unnecessary panic between racial groups.

Ultimately, however, she’s no different than her liberal nemeses, or her Asian mom pawns. Flanagan, too, celebrates the end goal of admission into an elite college as a worthy cause: as the gold, and perhaps, even only, standard of mothering success. (She likens anything else to ending up at Rutgers -- or, in her other words, Nowhere.)

What she tries to pass off as an insightful perspective on child-rearing thus reveals more about Flanagan’s own narrow world view than any sort of active rift between the Asian and white communities. Just as not all white moms push their kids to breaking point, neither do all Asian moms. By propping the absolutes of “good things” in life as either a low-stress childhood or an Ivy League education, Flanagan does a huge disservice to the countless number of hard-working people who do find a balance between fun and education and are still able achieve success without a mental breakdown or a fancy degree. After all, what is more American than an underdog? Isn’t that what the American spirit is all about?

Given the alternately anti- and pro-Tiger Mom message strewn through her article, an Asian American could be forgiven for thinking that she was actually coming to the defense of the Asian American college family.

But she’s not. She’s really not interested. Flanagan’s true reader and target here is not the Asian American community, but white feminist enemies who have oh-so-unfairly criticized her in the past. Consider us cannon fodder in Flanagan’s quest to humiliate the Eagle mothers.

And if she has stoked the flames of anti-Asian hostility higher in riling up her nemeses? We’ll just have to deal; that’s not her problem.


Further reading:

Even "Positive" Stereotypes are Wrong

Going to College: Realities and Opportunities for Asian Americans




Thanks so much for writing this! I loved this sentence: "By propping the absolutes of “good things” in life as either a low-stress childhood or an Ivy League education, Flanagan does a huge disservice to the countless number of hard-working people who do find a balance between fun and education and are still able achieve success without a mental breakdown or a fancy degree." I look forward to seeing Flanagan's response here in the comments section!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
"At best—at the very best—it can only offer us choices between two good things, and as we grasp at one, we lose the other forever. " Talk about ending on a good note...that was the most ridiculous line in her article. I am curious, though: taking race out of the equation, what do you think about the role of parenting style and the effect it has on a child's prospects for success? I haven't read Tiger Mother (and probably won't), but the notion of compelling academic achievement above all else versus anything less would at least seem to me to make academic success later in life more certain. It would, of course, be foolish to assume there exists a "one-size-fits-all" educational model for children and, as you point out, academic success need not be *the* priority for all parents raising children. However, assuming the goal is to ensure your child succeed academically, what do you think about the effectiveness of such a system that prioritizes academic success?