Quite a few people have strong opinions of Amy Chua, the “Tiger Mother,” without having read her book. She refers to herself as a “Chinese mother” and describes raising two extremely talented, successful daughters. Here’s my opinion: Give her a break. The book is a memoir, not a how-to; it’s hard to argue with the success her children have enjoyed; and if you simply can’t stomach her tough-love methods, note that she has altered her approach since the book was written.
Let’s face facts – Amy Chua’s kids are smarter and more talented than ours, and not because they were born that way. A recent Wall Street Journal article (no, not Chua’s book except), discusses genius children, and those rare perfect specimens who can play concert piano almost before they walk. “Fewer than 1% of children in the world are considered profoundly gifted, and even fewer are regarded as prodigies—defined as children under 10 who perform better than most highly skilled adults.” The rest of us can be extraordinary too – but only with countless hours of practice and dedication, hours that few are willing to put in – which is why most of us are average.
Amy Chua was willing to dedicate many hours to her daughters, even while building her own career as a (publishing) Yale law professor and lecturing around the world (this included calling ahead to arrange loaner pianos so her eldest could practice during family trips abroad). As a result, one performed at Carnegie Hall at age , and the other earned a coveted spot with a Julliard violin teacher. Some might think she has in some way done a disservice to her kids by pressuring them and forcing them to perform at such a high level, but she also helped them win accolades and experience being the best at something. Also, she did not cop-out the way some working parents do and convince herself that quality time is more important than quantity – she put in the hours at the expense of sleep and recreation, did so while juggling a successful career, and personally helped her daughters achieve at an intensely high level.
Let’s talk about culture, as so many bloggers and reviewers have (I am choosing not to link to anyone here). Chua refers to herself as a Chinese mother, which have led some to accuse her of overgeneralizing and others to criticize or defend her based on their personal experiences. People have also expressed outrage that Chua refuses to acknowledge her Jewish husband and the fact that she is not personally Chinese, but Chinese-American – they have obviously not read the book, where she does both (repeatedly). Even in her Wall Street Journal excerpt, Chua admits to “using the term ‘Chinese mother’ loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I’m also using the term “Western parents” loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.”
What about Chua’s professed cultural belief that children should never get anything less than a “A” or that they must be the absolute best in anything they do? How does that differ from the accolades we give kids who play injured, and the parents who allow them to do this? Talk about some screwed up values (Western ones) – we love athletes, and some of our favorite heroes are the ones who get back out there and win the game despite suffering a major injury. I recently watched the The Karate Kid remake (spoiler alert) – to me it is negligent parenting to have let that kid finish the competition when he could barely walk. Some parents subject their children to cortisone shots and repetitive stress injuries – when those kids go on to win Olympic glory, we don’t scream about child abuse, but let their parents force them to play the violin for several hours a day and we are outraged.
One passage that resonated with me focuses on the fact that, in the interest of building self esteem, we allow our children to quit instead of encouraging (forcing?) them to work really hard and earn the benefits that come from success:
“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. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun.”
Western parents give so much (false) praise that our kids have no idea when they actually did a pretty poor (or great) job at a task. Many of us provide a steady stream of stickers and Skittles for just going to the bathroom successfully! Speaking of bathrooms, we are so caught up in encouraging self esteem over skills and intellect that far too many developmentally normal children are entering kindergarten not fully potty trained, and even our pediatricians are telling us that it’s okay to wait until the kid is ready (Huggies and Pampers have a very high stake in us not becoming “Chinese parents,” that’s for sure). If we do try to teach our three-year-olds to read, spell, or add and subtract, someone is bound to suggest that we wait until our kids are emotionally ready, whatever that means. Western culture is all about being average, unless your kid can dunk or hit a ball really far.
Lest I sound like a blind defender of Amy Chua and her high pressure parenting ways, there are a few things which appalled me about her approach. The name calling and belittling (also excerpted in the WSJ piece) are, to me, unnecessary and bordering on abuse. They also teach kids that it’s an appropriate way to communicate with and refer to others. In Chua’s case, her youngest daughter dished it right back to her, which I could barely stomach, but I understood – kids learn by example, and she was only quoting her mom. Also, while she eventually realized that one size does not fit all in parenting, I am almost surprised that someone with her staggering level of ambition and accomplishment failed to notice early on that her formulaic approach was risky at best. There is also the uncomfortable fact that the girls’ father largely stayed out of things during those crucial parenting years, even though he didn’t always agree with his wife’s tactics (Chua and her husband had agreed that their children would be raised in the Jewish faith but in the “Chinese” way).
Finally, it is disingenuous not to acknowledge that Chua’s daughters are children of privilege (however hard someone had to work to achieve that privilege) – not just any parent can spend tens of thousands of dollars on musical instruments and private tutors. Some parents stagger into bed after working hard at physically demanding jobs with barely enough time to check homework let alone make detailed notes for their kid’s violin practice. Chua spent a great deal of money showing off (for example, she paid to have her daughter’s entire class attend the Carnegie Hall performance, as well as host a lavish party to commemorate the occasion). Not much humility or teaching the joy of service in this story – none, actually – talk about embracing Western values!
In all, I think we can learn a few things from the “tiger mother,” but we should neither laud her as the best parent ever nor verbally flog her as an abusive tyrant. It might be uncomfortable to think about our willing encouragement of average instead of embracing the effort necessary to be great. Our children are far less fragile than we assume they are (unless, of course, they are athletes). We can and should expect our children to do their best, and we should not teach them to avoid hard work. We should push them a little without worrying that we are going to ruin their lives (or at least put them in therapy). And, judging from the countless negative comments posted everywhere in reference to Chua and her memoir, we should pay more attention to the way we express ourselves – our children are listening.
Scroll down for other posts about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother:
Part 1: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua
Part 2: Try the Extra Credit
Part 3: Keeping Things Fun
Part 4: Out of Control
Part 5: Do The Work