'Good Mother' vs. Tiger Mother: A Response to Caitlin Flanagan

A filmmaker cited in a recent Atlantic column takes issue with the author's message

Caitlin Flanagan, like so many people writing about Amy Chua's new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, not only seems to perpetuate the myth that entrance into the Ivy League is the singular key to a good job and a good life, but also posits in The Atlantic that such admission would be imminently more achievable if American mothers were less obsequious in encouraging their children's passions and more Chua-esque in facing the hard reality that children "can't have a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education."

Flanagan claims that the "good mothers"--those more concerned with their children's health, happiness, and well-being than the Machiavellian Chua wannabes--"love ... to organize viewings of a documentary called Race to Nowhere," a film that I produced and co-directed. Race to Nowhere explores the flaws of America's lopsided, numbers-driven education system and highlights the physical, emotional, and mental toll our culture's misplaced value system is taking on our children.

While the film acknowledges that this is a complex issue for which there are no simple solutions, the majority of pediatricians, clinicians, psychologists, and authors I interviewed generally agreed that such measures as those Flanagan dismisses in her piece--limiting the number of Advanced Placement courses a child takes, prioritizing extracurriculars, protecting sleep--and generally providing a child with the developmentally appropriate latitude to be a child could, in fact, help to counter the widespread depression, anxiety, self-mutilation, and suicidal tendencies that mental-health professionals are increasingly treating in middle- and high-school students. Flanagan, in contrast, apparently sees these tactics as lowering the bar, collectively calling them "the Rutgers Solution" (which one can only deduce to mean a willingness to settle for presumed mediocrity in exchange for fewer ulcers).

To this, I respectfully offer "the Rutgers response," not as a means of defending this particular institution, as I have no affiliation with or investment in it (though I am, as noted below, newly impressed by some of its merits), but as a symbol for the thousands of competitive American colleges and universities that Flanagan apparently discounts simply because they are not ranked among the elite eight.

For 13 consecutive years, Rutgers has been ranked No. 1 in the nation for diversity by the same publication that ranks the Ivies (U.S. News & World Report: America's Best Colleges). One might surmise that spending four years learning to peacefully coexist and productively collaborate with other students from different backgrounds--socioeconomic, ethnic, geographic, religious--might prepare a young college graduate with the life skills to succeed in the global economy. And in January 2009, SmartMoney magazine ranked Rutgers No. 6 in the nation for the value it delivered to its graduates (based on college costs versus median salaries three years and 15 years after graduation). For those families not in the top income quartile--which is, according to former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, where a whopping 74 percent of the undergraduates that populate America's most prestigious colleges comfortably reside--Rutgers offers a pretty good deal.

But the point isn't really that Rutgers is a good, solid school, a perfectly respectable choice in the pantheon of four-year colleges and, if not covered in ivy, competitive by many standards (it doesn't, in fact, as a colleague of Flanagan's recently asserted, take "most applicants"; it offers admission to 59 percent of applications received, and it requires a median SAT score of 591 and 612 in verbal and math, respectively). The point is that writers like Flanagan are complicit in perpetuating an insidious "winner-take-all" mentality, convincing the whole of our students that Yale and its ilk are the Holy Grail. After they've been rejected--and even Flanagan admits that the majority will be rejected--they will not only be gravely disappointed, they may also be stressed to the point of serious illness, be it physical or mental; dependent on caffeine or even Adderall (to keep up) and tranquilizers (to come down); and potentially convinced that they are "failures for life" because, as more than one student told me during the making of the film, they think, "If I don't get into the school of my dreams ... I'm like ... totally screwed."

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Vicki Abeles is a filmmaker, lawyer, and mother of three. She is the co-director and producer of the documentary Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture.

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