Tiger Mom Versus Mama Grizzly

Interestingly, in all the reaction to Amy Chua's Wall Street Journal article on Chinese mothering ("Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior"), I have yet to see any systematic allusions to one of the highest-profile icons of motherhood in America: Sarah Palin.

The circumstances of Palin's personal life have resonated powerfully with a large segment of the public. Another segment of the public has been at pains to mock Palin and her lifestyle. For both demographics, Palin is a quintessentially American type, and this characteristic is inseparable from her role as a mother. Bringing Palin and her brand of motherhood into the Tiger Mom discussion puts it into a broader perspective. The narrower focus on whether children should be channeled, pressured, and denied recreation is unquestionably worthwhile, but it doesn't fully illuminate the cultural context in which our choices about that are made. For Westerners, the maternal type is as much as about the mother as it is about the performance of the children.

The Western counterpart of the Tiger Mom—the American counterpart in particular—can arguably be identified as the Mama Grizzly. Palin is one instance of the type: a mother of five, she runs a family business with her husband, but raising her children is Job One. She doesn't expect her children to be perfect; she teaches them principles for honest and honorable life, and accepts that the day will come when she must trust them to act on those principles. She does encourage the children to try new things, master the skills that mean survival in the environment they will live in, and find what they love in life and what they want most to do.

When Palin thought things could be done better in the community where her children were growing up, she went out and did them. That's pure Mama Grizzly. When she concluded that the American life she wanted for her children needed defending, she took on the mantle of political leadership. For the Mama Grizzly, motherhood is a social role with inherent moral and political responsibilities. It is, of course, about shaping the children and giving them discipline and good character, but the mother is also a vital participant in the moral project that is society at large.

Westerners are uniquely disposed to see society as an ongoing improvement project. This perspective is not indigenous to other peoples, especially not in the abstract, ideological form for which the West has made its name. Our penchant for civilizational improvement—part design and engineering project, part lubrication and maintenance effort, part dream and aspiration—makes sense to us in a way that practicing the piano for hours a day, just because it's a tough form of discipline, does not. That kind of endeavor doesn't feel practical to us because it doesn't advance a narrative of progress. Our idea of practicality derives from the relentless eschatological timeline running in the Western mind.

In this culture, a mother's business is to broker the moral project of society for her children. And, as with all brokerage, it's a two-sided challenge: the archetypal Mama Grizzly is as determined to shape society for her children as she is to shape her children for society.

Who's to say that this is the "right" or "wrong" way to be? My opinion has evolved over the years; I believe that each culture can get out of balance, but each has essential strengths that the others lack. There is much to admire and learn from in Chinese and other Asian cultures. The definitive features of Western culture—society as a moral project, women as integral moral participants—are echoes of the Law of Moses and the tenets of Christianity. But in other things—honoring parents, respecting the elderly, avoiding debt, resisting sloth—the Asian cultures often reflect God's prescription for the blessed life better than ours.

Alexis de Tocqueville had this to say of America's Mama Grizzlies in the 1830s:

If anyone asks me what I think the chief cause of the extraordinary prosperity and growing power of this nation, I should answer that it is due to the superiority of their women.

De Tocqueville also remarked with admiration on the American penchant for community self-help, a realm in which women tend to excel and gain prominence. It's no surprise that the mothers of the West see themselves as key participants in the transcendent moral project of society. Women were certainly defined in this manner by the Judaic law. Roman myth and custom honored nobility in women, especially mothers, as a social good. And generations of Western women have felt empowered by what author Dorothy Sayers expressed in this well-known passage about women and the legacy of Jesus: