Beware of the ‘tiger mother’

In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua argues that traditional Chinese mothers are better at raising children who excel than Westernized mothers, who are softies.  In the Wall Street Journal, Chua, a Yale law professor, brags:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

Chua rejected her daughters’ handmade birthday cards because they weren’t good enough. Her description of how she forced her younger daughter to keep practicing a difficult piano piece with no water or bathroom breaks sounds like child abuse by American standards.

Chua, the daughter of immigrants, claims her version of Chinese parenting stems from faith in her children’s abilities. There’s no need to fear failure because success is just a matter of working harder.

The Journal links to reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle, EW and Washington Post.  All the reviewers seem to be fascinated and appalled by Chua’s parenting.

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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    It works when it works. No doubt a lot of kids come closer to their potential because of this, but the goal is to be the best and not many get there. Then what?
    On another blog, somebody made a point about the “working together” thing that our kids learn in sports, school clubs, and theater. In a good school, or even in a mediocre one, the kids in a club with a goal do a lot of stretching. And, of course, they learn to work together.

  2. What struck me reading the original article is that America does have it’s own version of Chua’s “Chinese Mothers”. We just call them by a different name, and they have a different set of desired outcomes (using the same techniques as Chua). We call them “Football Dads” (or Basketball if you’re from Indiana instead of Texas) and “Stage Moms”.

  3. Belinda Gomez says:

    In San Marino, CA she’d be a slacker mom. I think the WSJ except was far more provocative than the interviews.

  4. Commentariatte says:

    “child abuse by American standards”

    What the @$#!? Regardless of their ethnic background, this woman and her daughter were living in the United States.

    I am disgusted by the suggestion that a Chinese woman in the US is somehow less subject to US (and state/local) laws regarding child abuse or that her Chinese-American daughter is somehow less deserving of Child Protection Services than an Irish-American or African-American or Jewish-American one.

    It sounds like the school system, CFS, and the neighbors failed in their responsibility to intervene. Whether this was due to a false assumption that abuse doesn’t happen in “professional” households, or sue to the kind of misguided PC’ism implied by the comment above, or simply due to a system that’s overwhelmed by families in crisis — hopefully lessons will be learned.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Sharon R. I agree. If you were to make that case to Chua, would she get it, or give you an uncomprehending stare?

  6. While I’m not a fan of her calling her kids “garbage” I did take to heart her philosophy that she assumes her children are strong. She is right, in my opinion, that us suburbanites tend to expect our children to have some sort of mental or physical excuse for not excelling. I had a fellow parent get rather upset because I said my daughter’s crappy handwriting was due to laziness – she insisted it was because my daughter has a handwriting disability. After months of requiring rewriting and practice at home my daughter now has very nice print and lovely cursive. Either a miracle occurred or hardwork payed off. Another big point that I think Chua makes is that American parents often shy away from making kids suffer through the hardest part of learning something new.

  7. According to those who
    ve read the book, the journal piece may not be representative of the book. Apparently, after becoming a child prodigy who performed with the local symphony at 12, her oldest daughter became extremely rebellious as a teen, slashing of her hair, giving up the piano and devoting herself to tennis, all to her mother’s anger. The book apparently is about her attempts to figure out where she (the mother) went wrong and her attempts to balance her “tiger mother” instincts with a more Western apporach.

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Nothing in what I read even remotely comes *close* to any reasonable definition of child abuse.

  9. Thunderchief68 says:

    I probably wouldn’t have gone quite as far as Amy Chu did in prohibiting certain activities of my kids but she is dead on the money when she observes, “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up.”

    It is my observation that parents are far too willing to accept mediocrity. In my classroom it’s easy to tell which students have their parent looking over their shoulder and expecting excellence. Far too many parents have no expectations what so ever.

  10. So if a person is called “garbage” by their mother, in an attempt at motivation, how will that person behave if he or she is ever in a management positions? Isn’t it likely that (s)he will speak to employees in similarly verbally-abusive tones?

    There aren’t too many workplaces where that’s going to succeed these days, at least not for long.

  11. Soapbox0916 says:

    @Geena I think I completely agree with you, but it all depends on just how bad your daughter’s handwriting truly was. Pushing so that handwriting can be read is one thing, but so-called perfection is another matter.

    This reminds me that I no longer almost never write cursive except for my signature, I usually print or type. The problem I had is that in order to get an A in handwriting in grade school it had to be absolutely textbook including the slant to the right. The slant to the right was the issue because I am left handed. The only way for a left-hander to get the proper slant is to write in the completely unnatural wrist position of bending the wrist over to the point it hurts and would ache through the day . No one should have to write this way. I remember thinking why shouldn’t left-handers be able to write in a normal hand position like right-handers. Who cares about the slant if it readable. I eventually got to the point where I wrote one way for handwriting class and then went back to a normal hand/wrist position for everything else. Outside of handwriting class, I had beautiful cursive otherwise except that I compromised and wrote straight up and down instead of the right slant. Still I hate cursive to this day.

    However I do like that she believes that her daughter is capable of learning something. I started out naturally strong in math and was smart enough that most stuff came in easy to me in school. When I started to get into algebra and “higher math” in 8th grade, I unfortunately convinced myself that because I was a girl and it was not coming easy to me like the rest of my subjects that I just must be no good at higher math. This turned out to be complete BS and in college I eventually corrected this, but I took me a while to realize that I needed to really work at math to be good at math. This is why I tend to think the gender differences between girls and boys in math is way overblown, girls may not be as attracted to math as boys, and girls and boys are different, but this notion that girls are just not as good as boys at math is pure BS. We excuse girls when it comes to math and it hurts us all.

    My main issue is that it seems that she did not let her kids have a say in what activities they spent hours on, what if the kid was meant to be a master drummer or gymnast for example instead. However the lesson I learn from this is Chua was way too extreme to the point of abuse, we could do a lot better in not letting people give up way too soon and that enjoyment often comes after mastery.

    I prefer the idea of balance.

  12. Soapbox said, “The only way for a left-hander to get the proper slant is to write in the completely unnatural wrist position of bending the wrist over to the point it hurts and would ache through the day .”

    That is untrue, and it is disgraceful that elementary teachers don’t know (and haven’t been taught) what to tell left-handed children. Just have them slant the top of the paper to the right instead of the left — parallel with the forearm.

    Given that printed italics slant right, it’s probably better for handwriting to slant that way, but changing the paper slant is easier on everybody.

  13. that nothing is fun until you’re good at it

    This isn’t true, and thus the entire logic from that point on is equally false. Lots of things are fun to do even if you aren’t excellent at it.

  14. J. D. Salinger says:

    There aren’t too many workplaces where that’s going to succeed these days, at least not for long.

    Oh there are still plenty of workplaces and opportunities for abusive people.

  15. I once had a class of angry Asian males who must have had mothers like the Superior Chinese Mother. At first I didn’t know why there was so much anger and hostility, but it was exploding from the pages of their essays. Finally I asked, and the floodgates opened. Their parents controlled everything in their lives. These were engineering students, and they hated engineering. One young man wanted to major in art, another in something else, and so on. What they did to release their anger is another story, but suffice it to say it wasn’t pretty. Some years ago I dated a Taiwanese woman similar to Superior Chinese Mother but not nearly as extreme. She demanded that her son major in engineering although his first love was film. When he graduated, he tossed the engineering diploma at his mom and said, “Here. This is for you.” He is not presently working as an engineer.

  16. CarolineSF says:

    A San Francisco woman responds on

    “I can tell you that the notion of the “superior Chinese mother” that my mom carried with her also died with my sister on October 28, 2004. If you were to ask my mom today if this style of parenting worked for her, she’ll point to a few boxes of report cards, trophies, piano books, photo albums and Harvard degrees and gladly trade it all to have my sister back.”

    Christine Lu, Co-Founder & CEO, Affinity China…