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The Battle Hymn of the Jewish Mother

The Battle Hymn of the Jewish Mother

How dare she. How dare a mother deny her children playdates, television and even bathroom breaks until they had mastered their musical instruments. What kind of mom-ster does this?

These were the battle cries covered in the New York Times, on the Today Show and NPR , and on most other major news outlets in response to the new book, "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," written by Yale professor Amy Chua, who chronicles her insistence on bringing up her children in the traditional Chinese manner in which she herself was raised. Psychologists (both legitimate and self-appointed) predicted that Chua’s daughters would grow up rebellious, resentful and/or emotionally stunted. Parents condemned her methods as cruel and unusual punishment for the simple crime of being her Chinese-American-Jewish children.

I, too, am shocked at her methods. I, too, pity those girls. And I, too, see myself in that fierce and ferociously controlling Tiger Mother. And whether you are a parent or not, I’ll bet you have some inner Tiger Mother that impacts how well you work and play with others.

At first blush, the (stereo)typical Jewish mother is the polar opposite of the Tiger Mother. We blanket our children with love, warmth and affection to reinforce our bonds and encourage positive self-esteem. The Tiger Mother withholds affection as a character-building exercise. We give our children countless choices of clothing, friends and playthings to help them understand their own preferences, build a personal style, and find pleasure in their own daily grind. The Tiger Mother chooses the inputs that she believes will yield the most valuable outputs down the road for her children. Heck, I let my daughter Sophie quit piano lessons even though my own quitting after nine years of lessons still roils within me as a deep regret. The Tiger Mother? I get shivers down my spine to even think about what would happen in that house in the face of such a request.

So, in what universe are she and I the same beast? In our universal need for control. While our methodologies may (must!) differ, our desires don’t: We want people to do exactly what we want them to do when we want them to do it.

Sound familiar? Whether you’re a parent, a partner, a friend, a manager, a customer — or all of the above — you may recognize your own tiger tendencies as you micromanage your way through life. Sure, you may be more likely to get the task outcome you envisioned – but at what cost to your relationships?

"The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" got its notoriety the same week that my twins turned 10. Something about their reaching "double-digits" launched my introspection about how much control I wielded and how much I was willing to relinquish. Oh, yes…I recall what instigated my self-reflection: It was Jacob and Sophie reminded me every single day for a month that they were turning 10 and that more independence was expected. Demanded. Required.

My kids asking for more control over their lives was like Yankees asking the Red Sox if they could finally bury the hatchet — – it wasn’t going to happen quickly, or without pain, or perhaps ever at all. Their very request made me want to hold them fast to my bosom and wail "my babies are growing up!" (preferably in front of their friends so that they’d remember who was boss.) In fact, when Jacob asked me what I thought he would really do if I left him home alone for 15 minutes, I answered honestly, "I think you’d eat all the peanut butter out of the jar with a teaspoon." The color drained from his sweet face, and when it returned he managed to choke out, "How did you know?" I rewarded his honesty with mine: "Because, honey, that’s exactly what I would do."

It was becoming as clear as an empty jar of Skippy: my unwillingness to hand over control was an issue of confidence. I was deeply confident in what I could do in the absence of limits, rules and supervision – and peanut butter was just the beginning. But I was also confident that I wouldn’t do anything dangerous, scandalous or immoral. Or that would make me nauseous.

How did I gain the confidence that I could trust myself in the face of countless, tempting choices? By practicing self-control, failing, trying again, and succeeding. This self-confidence and self-control is critical to my ability to run my own business. Every single day, I have the choice to do my work or go to the movies or spend a day at the museum or go back to sleep or…or. The fact that I control my schedule is one of the aspects that I love most about my job. But it is the fact that I consistently and confidently manage myself and my choices is what makes me, frankly, so good at being my own boss. Being an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone, but my self-confidence makes it the right career for me. And as the child of two entrepreneurs, I had the gift of my parents’ confidence in me all along the way.

I realize that this is where the Tiger Mother and this Jewish mother officially end their meeting of the minds. With every decision she makes on their behalf, the Tiger Mother overtly and covertly communicates to her children her complete lack of confidence in their ability to choose wisely, trust themselves, and to recover from setbacks. This mother realizes that in order for my children to learn how to self-manage, develop resilience and flexibility, and cultivate faith in themselves, I need to dial down the control and turn up the trust. Even though it will be hard. Even though they and I will make mistakes, recover, and err again. Even at the risk of a few empty jars of extra-super-chunky.

After all, the gift of confidence is really the only birthday present I could give them that will last them for the rest of their lives.

Who in your life deserves more confidence from you? In what relationships at work or at home could you dial down the control and turn up the trust? Who do you wish had more confidence in you? How can you silence your inner (our outer) Tiger Mother?

Deborah Grayson Riegel is a certified coach, speaker and trainer who helps individuals, teams and organizations achieve personal and professional success through her high-energy workshops, presentations and one-on-one coaching. Visit her online at or

Read more "Success Without the Tsuris" here

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