When I was a young teenager, my mother told me that she thought my eyebrows were my best feature. I wasn’t very old, but even I knew that the poets were never going to write odes to a woman’s eyebrows. Still, in the years since I have made observation of others’ eyebrows and have come to no satisfactory conclusion regarding the exceptionality of my own. I know that when my friends have gone through phases of tweezing, clipping, waxing, etc., I haven’t done a thing to mine, for fear of losing something special they might perhaps add to my face as per my mother’s extremely weird compliment.
Ever since then, whenever I receive one of those compliments that isn’t really a compliment, I pause for a moment and think about eyebrows. One such moment occurred some weeks back when I was reading a short magazine article . It was a brief interview given by Sophia Chua-Rubenfield, a Harvard student who is marginally famous for being the daughter of the Tiger Mom.
She keeps a blog called “New Tiger in Town” where she attempts to balance what people assume about her (based on her mother’s memoir) with who she really is. Chua-Rubenfield and the interviewer were discussing her mother’s new book: an equally controversial accompaniment to the first in which she discusses why some minority groups in the US outperform others.
The author writes, “According to her parents’ book, Jews and the Chinese are two American minorities that are enjoying ‘disproportionate success’—others include Mormons and Igbo Nigerians—because they exhibit three traits: insecurity, impulse control and a superiority complex.”
Wow. Just wow.
There is so much to process there, just as there was when I spent years coming to terms with eyebrows-as-my-best feature. First of all, it is gratifying as an LDS person to be promoted in the past generation or so from outlying-cult to minority-cultural-group. There has been increased understanding in recent years that Latter-day Saints, collectively, are easier to fathom in the context of being culturally separate and not merely being a religion.
But let’s get past that great leap forward to the three traits that Tiger Mom refers to as “The Triple Package” (also the book’s title). The Tiger Cub succinctly describes them, “You need to have this chip on your shoulder to get ahead, but you also need to have no doubt that you can do it.”
In recent weeks I’ve asked myself many, many times if this describes me, my culture, or the way I am parenting, though I would not call myself a Tiger Mom. I share my perspective below, demonstrating both how I agree with Ms. Chua, but how these same cultural traits can actually be detrimental if not tempered with gospel principles.
Insecurity: There are times in my life when I have felt driven to succeed because I didn’t want to see myself as not being good enough, and I especially didn’t want others to see me as not good enough. I have felt, from time to time, an intense desire to compete, not just with myself but with others, too. The broader question is, “To what do I attribute my insecurity?” Is it an inherent personality thing or is this a systemic cultural problem? We emphasize a standard of continually striving for perfection even as we remind ourselves how often we fall short. Does our focus need to shift from self-reliance to grace, or at least should we present a paradigm that better balances these two important principles?
Impulse Control: The same magazine, some years ago, told of a study in which children who were able to delay the gratification of eating a treat (a marshmallow) later experienced much more life success than those who were not able to wait . The study was cited in a 2010 talk by President Uchtdorf who used it as a springboard for talking about patience . Many of our uniquely understood commandments are aimed at sacrificing immediate gratification for something down the road—a prohibition on sexual relationships before marriage, taboo substances that provide temporary highs, tithing that engenders frugality, etc. What Chua calls “impulse control” we might just as easily see as subjecting the flesh to the spirit. As I have gone back to work this year, I have had to be very careful that my true long term goals have stayed foremost in my mind: as much as I desire to be very successful in my work, my greater desire is to have a happy family. Sometimes the work must be put away so that my children and husband might be the priority instead. Our most important work isn’t always work. Perhaps we need to get better at controlling the impulse to be perpetually busy.
Superiority Complex: This might be the one that is truly culturally ingrained. When a child is raised with the twin narratives of being the offspring of deity and a member of the “only true” Church, it can be easy to mistake this knowledge as exclusive privilege rather than as a lifetime of commitment and service. How can we better balance a true understanding of our nature while fostering humility at the same time?
Though success is both individually defined and individually striven for, I think that Chua is right in pointing out that our cultural context powerfully shapes who we become. Does her “triple package” analysis resonate in any way with you? And whether it does or not, what cultural attributes do we have as LDS people that either encourage or even inhibit self-actualization, particularly for women?