Another Look at “Tiger Moms”

mother cat with kitten
Ellen Padnos
Ellen Padnos

We learn a lot about parenting by being kids of our parents.  We look at what our parents do that made us feel good – we do that.  We remember what didn’t feel good, and we run to do the opposite.

When the Tiger Mom book was all over the news last year and every mom was talking about the pros and cons, I opted to skip the read.  Between the multiple reviews I had read, and the fact that I considered my own mother a “Tiger Mom,” I felt I had a pretty good handle on the whole thing.  I knew I wouldn’t stop my kids from going to the bathroom or shame them about the birthday card they made for me (that was NOT my Mom). I’d achieve this “Tiger Mom” thing by being just like my Mom: have high expectations, teach personal responsibility, and encourage hard work.  A recent experience with my Mom refined my understanding of this.

I’ve “picked up a pen” this past month for the first time since college. That’s almost 20 years.  I’ve enjoyed writing, but even more, I’ve enjoyed connecting with people through my writing.  The support has been motivating, fun and a real inspiration. For that, I’m so grateful.  The enthusiasm came from everywhere except New Jersey.  I’d call my Mom and the first thing I’d want to talk about was my writing, but she didn’t mention it.  About a half an hour into our conversations, I’d always say, “so, did you read my post on” I would hear, “Yes, but it’s a bit conversational,” or “yes, some good ideas, but you need to organize your thoughts better.” I was crest-fallen.  Wasn’t the fact that I was writing at all just wonderful?

One of the beauties of aging is the self-confidence to have tough conversations.  I called my Mom last week to apologize for something she did not even realize; I told her that I had been hurt that she wasn’t excited about my writing.

Her kind side felt terrible that she had hurt my feelings.  But her honest side said, “I know you can do better,” and her smart part said “let me help you!”  (Mom was that high school English teacher – the one you came back to visit a year or two into college to thank for preparing you by having such high standards.)

The message was simple: I AM CAPABLE OF MORE.  My Mom wasn’t a “tiger,” but she wasn’t going to be a passive household cat and curl up in my lap.  Good is OK, but it would be insincere of her to praise me when she knew that I could do better.

I felt very good after this conversation and sent her a piece that I was stuck on.  We reworked it and I sent her the second draft…

She left a message that hit me like a brick wall.  I started tearing up at my awakening as I heard this message:  “Hi El, It’s Mom – much, much better; you are getting closer.  Call me.”

I got it.

It’s OK that I had been sad for a while. When she says “it’s almost there” – it really is and it’s BETTER.  You want your first draft to be “ready to publish,” you want unconditional support, you want a cheerleader – but that’s what friends are for.  A Mom’s role is unique; she is there to honestly assess and encourage your potential. At first, maybe it hurts a little but ultimately nothing feels better than striving to be your absolute best.

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Ellen Padnos lives in Manhattan Beach, CA with her husband, Ben, her children Anthony (4), and Annie (1), and her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Lola. You can also follow her on Twitter (@ellenpadnos).


  1. “A Mom’s role is unique; she is there to honestly assess and encourage your potential. At first, maybe it hurts a little but ultimately nothing feels better than striving to be your absolute best.”

    I love the ending to this article [ahem, good structure!]. It’s hard sometimes to remember that even as adults our parents are not our friends, they are our parents. This can also be a hard thing to take–at what age do we stop trying to please our parents? Especially if they think we would be better suited for another profession in how we are “capable of more” (nurse over writer, for example). While their dreams and expectations of us as children are not always realized in how we live, perhaps we can surpass them in our relationships with our parents. I am a writer and my mother thinks of my writing as just a hobby and not a profession–no matter how many paycheck stubs I show her. She recently asked me if all the running around covering political events and writing them up for “pocket money” was really worth it. I’m not sure she is assessing my potential here as looking out for what SHE thinks is my financial security, but her misunderstanding is not something I care to address any longer. She doesn’t respect what I do for a living, but I do. When I told her that she hurt my feelings, she said that if what I am doing makes me happy I shouldn’t be bothered by it. And to get over it. Her opinion will not change, because she sees me as something other than I see myself. I hope that in my relationship with my son I encourage him to be the best like my mother did, but not dictate in what fields he will excel. I want to not only assess and encourage his potential, but not hold him back when he sees his true potential where I wasn’t looking.

  2. An excellent, insightful article, and I’m happy to hear that you’re writing again! I think that parents need to know when they are encouraging by pushing and being critical, and when real support and kind words are needed instead.

    There’s also a continuum of criticism. My mother was extremely critical of absolutely everything I did, and interestingly, when I had been writing for a few years, she started writing some short pieces herself. After that, every time we talked about writing, she talked very approvingly about her pieces and ignored my work altogether.

    Some parents just need to be #1, no matter what their children accomplish, and some parents only feel good about themselves when they’re controlling their children’s every move. Some mothers are truly tigers.

    Katherine Mayfield
    Author, The Box of Daughter

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