The Herd of the Elephant Mothers

[ 1 ] February 1, 2012 |

For families with kids in transition from one phase of school to the next, midwinter is application and registration time. As families get down to the brass tacks of the school choice process, I am riveted by the conversations you’re having about what’s next educationally for your kids. Yes, I am listening to you three at the corner table at Seven Stars, huddled over coffee and obsessing about which kindergarten will be the best fit for your four year olds, wondering about the unknowns of public schools, the price tag of private schools, the lottery-driven gamble of charter schools, or the possibility of moving to a new town “for the schools.” I am shamelessly eavesdropping, and sometimes I will ask to join in, because I am fascinated with parents’ motivations about their educational choices that they make for and with their children.

While our rationales for school choice vary widely, the desire to find alignment between our own values and those to which a school is committed is our preeminent guide. We want to know that our kids attend schools that want for our kids what we want for our kids and–as the kids themselves build more sophisticated visions of the future–what they want for themselves.

As arguments about choices and charters dominate our Facebook and face-to-face conversations (well, mine, at any rate), it’s essential to acknowledge that not all families have access to the same sort of choices. Obviously, the wealthy have more options than the poor, including though not limited to choice of town and neighborhood. While I won’t be spilling much ink this month exploring the implications of and possible ways to address this inequity, I would be remiss if I didn’t note it.

No matter where we are economically and otherwise, the hopes and dreams we have for our kids (and those that the kids have for themselves) depend in large part on the skills, habits of mind, content, attitudes, and ways of relating to others that they learn both at school and at home. So we seek schools that value what we value in order to achieve a measure of understanding, continuity, and support network for young people that extends from home to school and back again.

I was thinking about this need for a good fit when I recently read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. If you aren’t familiar with the book, you have likely heard the phrase “tiger mother” as a description of a parent who demands sky high achievement from their kids, who expects perfection and beyond in pursuits that the parents choose, who requires obedience and is willing and even eager to limit many of the common (in our culture) joys of childhood for the sake of the attainment of such perfection.

I will admit that when my kids bring home grades that don’t match the levels of achievement of which I know they’re capable, my own inner tiger mother has been known to emerge for a growl. However–and this is why it may be instructive to read Tiger Mother itself rather than read about it–Chua is willing to ride her myopic quest for perfection to crazytown. She bullies, harangues, and verbally abuses her daughters, with mixed results: one acquiesces, one rebels. Though there’s no way I endorse or would suggest emulating her methods, I feel muted admiration for Chua’s willingness to put her experience of extreme parenting out there and for her ability to describe how her understanding shifted when her seemingly irresistible force meet the apparently immovable object of her daughter’s will.

I had expected the relationship with her daughters’ schools to be a substantial aspect of Chua’s story, but alas, no. The most significant discussion of school is when Chua describes herself pacing the hallway waiting for the start of gym, recess, or lunch (irrelevant, in her view) so she can whisk her daughter away for yet more violin practice. Chua also grumbles about time-consuming community building events such as parent association potlucks as ridiculous, distracting nuisances. She makes it clear that school is for mastering math, science, and literacy–not for the arts, not for athletics, and certainly not for socially oriented community building. When school doesn’t conform to Chua’s values, it too is pushed aside.

At that point, I knew that my occasional grade-related roars do not qualify me to be a tiger mother. I would not be able to stand the hyperfocused life that she describes. I understand how endless hours of practicing and sky-high expectations can push kids to reach their potential. I admire that Chua has equipped her kids with resilience and ability to confront obstacles. However, I couldn’t stand the resulting loss of community, which I value so much for our family.

I’m really more of an elephant mother. Elephants learn socially and mother their young collectively. Experienced elephant mothers model parenting behavior for younger elephant mothers. Young adult female elephants serve as “allmothers” (my new favorite word) as they practice their skills by looking after all of the younger offspring. This seems like a much more resonant metaphor than the tiger mother, frantically focused on her own offspring to the exclusion of other people’s children as well as nearly everything else in life.

While I have high academic expectations for my kids, I also expect them to thrive amidst diversity and respect differences. I expect them to identify the assets of their communities and be a part of solving challenges. In order for this to happen, you need to be an elephant mother (or father) and appreciate not only being part of the diverse, multicultural, multilingual herd but also taking on some real responsibility for the welfare of all kids, not just your own.

Jill Davidson’s article was originally published in February 2012’s East Side Monthly.

Category: education + schools, parenting


Jill Davidson

about the author ()

Jill Davidson lives in Providence with her husband Kevin Eberman and sons Elias (age 11), Leo (age 8), and Henry (age 5). She is a past president of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization and is an active parent leader in the Providence Public Schools. She writes about education in Providence and beyond at http://providenceschools.blogspot.com. Professionally, Jill is an independent education consultant and writer and Managing Director of the Coalition of Essential Schools. Some days, there’s not too much time left for more, but when there is, Jill loves to multitask with combinations of cooking, shopping locally, gardening, exercising, reading, hanging out with friends and family, and exploring Rhode Island.

Comments (1)

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  1. Kirsten Murphy says:

    I was reading this piece yesterday as my husband and I awaited a letter confirming our son’s placement at public school. If you had told me only a year ago that our son would be placed in a lottery to attend the public school only one block away, and that his chances of making it into the school would be negligible due to is poor wait list number, I would have been astounded. Today we learned that although we live a block away from Vartan Gregorian Elementary, the District will allocate funds to bus our son to another school. Sadly, in a system that is so terribly lacking in funds, the reality is that the Providence School System will bus my son to a school in another community while also busing children from that community to Vartan Gregorian rather than look at the map to see that unnecessary transportation funds could be saved, and children could attend the schools that they can see from their own homes, with their neighbors, and enjoy the very sense of community my husband and I knew growing up.

    My husband, son and I moved to the Fox Point neighborhood two years ago to become part of a community. We are products of the public school system and have taken every opportunity to do what we can to be a part of the school and the neighborhood. Our goal was to ensure that our son had a sense of pride in his community that stemmed from his participation – socially, academically, and physically. Sending him to another neighborhood to attend a private school was not attractive to us (even if we had the means, which we do not), as it would not have served to foster the sense of community we were seeking to instill in our son.

    As a family, we have participated in work days at the school, planted flowers on the sidewalk in our neighborhood, introduced ourselves to neighbors, etc in order to help nurture our son’s growing sense of community. Now we are being told that our son will be sent to another community while his neighbors, with whom he plays, attend the school so close to our home. The very school he has had his first two years of pre-k, and has grown to love.

    It is disheartening to point out that in the short time since this article was written, we should add “the lottery-driven gamble of in-neighborhood public schools” to the list of concerns. Like many parents, we put a great deal of thought and research into what options were available to our son for his education. Every ounce of research said that if you want to ensure your child to go to a particular public school, you need to live in the neighborhood. We did just this, made sacrifices to follow the rules and did everything we could to ensure our son a spot in our neighborhood public school. Today we have learned that not even that can be guaranteed – and our son could have been placed just about anywhere depending on the numbers. That this year is the first year this is an issue only intensifies the blow.

    We spent the morning speaking with the powers that be, to better understand how this is possible. In the end, we have been encouraged to work towards affecting changes in policy, a daunting prospect given our brief experience with the Providence Public School System. The system is broken, and I cannot imagine what this means for the City of Providence when parents who cannot afford private education have to rely on a luck-based lottery system to send their children to the public school in their neighborhood in which they live. What incentive is there for tax-paying parents to stay with no guarantees that the system won’t ship their children to a lower performing school in a neighborhood clear across the city?

    While our family will do whatever we can to make the best of it, I am left wondering how we can build our children’s sense of community if we are going to ship them out of it every day to attend school?  In spite of careful planning, my husband and I now see our son in precisely the situation we were confident we had taken every measure to avoid. That is a difficult pill to swallow and it will take some time to find a better path.

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