Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tiger Mother I am not

I'm a Chinese-American mom, but I'm no Tiger Mother.

I'm almost loathe to start this post as I don't think Amy Chua, and her book, could possibly have more press. I also fully disclose that I did not read this book, having only read (the scary) excerpts and multiple articles and blogs about the book. I did hear her on NPR with Diane Rehm when she defended the "tongue-in-cheek" nature of the book and how it represents an evolution of her own parenting. (Although, it seems that many people who have read her book in its entirety seem to have missed that subtlety.) My friend Joanne wonders whether her form of parenting represents child abuse.

I grew up the daughter of Chinese immigrants who, if anything, were on the permissive side. Sure, they valued good grades and hard work but honestly never pushed me. This might be, in part, due to the fact that I was doing well anyway, but I remember their mantras whenever I called home from college were two: 1) make sure you get enough rest; 2) don't study too hard. In high school, I did cause quite a bit of their concern when I declared I wanted to get a part-time job during the school year. Not out of necessity, I didn't need the money, but, what can I say? I wanted the experiences my friends had. I promised them that I would stop if my grades suffered. (And looking back, the experience of working minimum wage in discount retail was enlightening.) My parents' parenting style was the envy of my circle of friends: I had no curfew (although my dad would nonchalantly stay up, probably developing an ulcer, while waiting for me to return home on Saturday nights). I watched a lot of TV. They allowed me to give up piano lessons when I likened my times with my mid-life-crisising piano teacher to extreme torture.

I did have ABC (American Born Chinese) classmates that had proverbial Tiger Mothers. These women terrified me. Their children were polite, respectful, disciplined and high-achieving, but something was off. There was a hardness to these boys (they were often boys), and, often, a social awkwardness. I felt for them. And very glad I had a different upbringing.

On the flip side, the criticism that American parenting culture is too permissive is interesting to explore. Are we not pushing our children enough (not to TM extremes but isn't some pushing necessary)? I semi-struggled with this as I've watched my 5 year-old daughter beg for piano lessons...then totally lose interest a few months later. Same with dance class. When it got to be a monumental struggle to get her to even pay attention to her teachers or go to class, we've allowed her to stop. The feeling was that maybe she's not ready and when she finds something that she is truly passionate about, it wouldn't be such a Herculean effort to get her to practice. More physical activities, like swimming and gymnastics, have held her attention week after week. We are "following the child" as her Montessori teachers say. This makes a great deal of sense to me. I don't want her to do something for me, or for the sake of doing something. I want her to do something and work hard at it because she loves it and derives happiness in the process (That's possible, right?). But I sometimes wonder if I'm doing her justice by letting things go too easily.

One possible ill consequence of the TM method is raising children where conformity over individuality and creativity is selected. The Chinese have produced a nation of math and science heavyweights, but where are the visionaries? The Apples? The break-out ideas?

Chua, on NPR, wanted it to be known that her book was not a how-to-guide to parenting but a memoir. She clearly has struck a chord with mothers (and parents) everywhere. As much as she's been demonized in the media, I think this comes from a place of insecurity, that we all carry, about how we are doing as parents. Could we not be giving our children the best advantages in life?  Are we doing it wrong? At the heart of the "Mommy Wars, " afterall, is insecurity and wanting to believe that our parenting, one of our most precious tasks --to "successfully" raise a child -- is right.

I hope that her daughters grow up to be successful, as defined by their own beliefs and that this backlash towards her mother's memoir doesn't do any permanent damage. We are all mothers, doing what we think is right, in the best way we know how. After all.


  1. Such a thoughtful reflection and balance to what has been discussed so far on TM's, thanks for sharing your perspective.

    Most of us have a range within us, or I'll speak for myself, my permissive foster their growth but let them make their own mistakes and have fun every day style still comes up against my high achiever tendencies. I find the balance with helping them grow into what they are both enjoying and good at (drums and drawing), and that they should try their best at all they do, rather than this is what I think is the best and you have to meet that.

    I too heard her say it's not a how to but a memoir, and I'm very curious to read the memoirs AND how to guides (and how not to) by her children someday.

    Thanks KC.

  2. I do try to be led by their interests but I do think that a little encouragement to stick with things even when they are hard is good for my girls. We have made a deal that if they really want to do an activity, they have to commit for a year. That way the doldrums that happen in month three have lifted, they have accomplished something and then we can evaluate if they should continue. This is especially critical since I work full time and do not have the schedule flexibility to change activities every few months. I do not expect genius or prodigy with every activity and do lavish praise for achievement, but I do expect some effort. (Disclaimer: I have never threatened stuffed animals with harm) I think Amy Chua took the easy way out because nuanced parenting is more difficult than one size fits all.

  3. I love my Tiger Mother. She wasn't exactly like Chua, but she taught me to be self-disciplined. It was hard, but thanks to her, I am self-disciplined, a hard-worker, and creative. Thanks to her, I did well in school and never settled for less. And, she was very supportive and understanding when she needed to be. While she demanded a lot from me, she demanded a lot from herself. She never went out to parties, she worked hard, and she dedicated her life to me and my brother. She served as the example of what she wanted me to be. How could a mother not demand the best from her children? How could a mother not want her children to be BETTER than her?

    I'm not here to say that what my mother did was THE WAY, or the RIGHT WAY, or BETTER than other types of parenting. I am here to say that it what was she did with me and I love her for all her effort and dedication to us. In the end, if you can't appreciate your mother for everything she has been through to teach you all she can and to TRY to be the best mother she can be for you, then I'm sorry for you and your mother.

    After all, mothers are human, too. Even if a mother did wrong, and made big, serious mistakes in her life (ex. being alcoholic, cheating, etc), and if she apologized later , all you can do is forgive her. You only have one mother and she isn't eternal. Most mothers want the very best for their children. That's all.

  4. The Tiger Mother techniques my mom used worked with me because I happened to be good at science, piano, and violin. They didn't work on my sister, who is a freelance artist. The poor woman is 35 years old and my mother still tells her daily, "You're lazy. Why can't you get a real job? How come you're not married yet?"

  5. While I haven't read the book, I've been reading all the hoopla surrounding it, too. I really liked David Brooks' article about how not letting your kids socialize enough with other children makes them lose out on learning how to negotiate social relationships - some of the toughest roads to navigate as children, where some of the most valuable lessons are learned (TM as wimp by protecting kids from this), - maybe that is what you were sensing when you described the social awkwardness in the boys.

    My style of parenting is more like yours - try to find their strengths and channel them in that direction. At 5 and 6 this was tough, but I am finding it easier now that my daughter is 7/8 - she is a clear art/drama/dance girl and enjoys sticking with activities that allow that form of expression much better. We also had trouble with piano. Swimming only works for summer fun, so far. Maybe Jack will be my swimmer.

    We are all trying our hardest, aren't we? As my mom and dad say, just do what you think is best and if it isn't working, fix it. Hindsight is certainly 20/20, and we all make mistakes, no matter how hard we try.

  6. This is a very thoughtful commentary on a story that is possible more nuanced than the media has made out (and disclosure: I also have not read the book, nor do I have any intention of reading it), but is nonetheless deeply disturbing to me. It has been interesting to hear Amy Chua talking and talked about in the immediate wake of my seeing Black Swan. I'm not sure that going to the movies falls into her repertoire of meaningful pursuits, but if any mother ever needed to see any movie currently in a theater, it is Amy Chua and Black Swan. Her children may one day deliver their "perfect" performance while Ms. Chua looks on contentedly (or smugly?). Whether her girls will survive to bear and raise their own children using all the insight they have gained from growing up in Tiger Mom's cage is altogether a different question. And that's a tragedy.

  7. I love how everyone on here is so judgmental. You can be a psycho-b*tch mother like in Black Swan and not be half as punishing as Amy Chua.

    Also, read the book Chua wrote. It's a MEMOIR about how she LEARNS that some of her tactics don't work, so she uses other better ones.

    Obviously you all didn't pick up on her brilliant way to advertise her book.

    "My sweet girl" - mother in Black Swan...

  8. Actually Anon @5:31, I read the book and watched her interview and I do think she did learn as she went and I do not think the book is a how to. The one really good point she makes is about the tyranny of low expectations. She argues that if you expect success, your child will succeed but what happens if they do not? Would she be writing if her kids were not doing well? Of course not.

  9. You said this better than I could! We need to set goals for our kids and to respect the ones they set for themselves. If my parents hadn't pushed me through several tantrums, I would never have mastered the multiplication tables. And I wish I had been pressed a little bit more to stick with the piano, which I gave up quickly. But I also am grateful that the older I grew, the more I could follow my own inclinations. I used to be afraid I was only motivated by external pressure, but when I went to a medical school without grades, I found I had the ability to work hard when I didn't have to--a value that has sustained me throughout my professional life.

  10. @Anon @ 5:31pm: I'm not sure her approach to promoting her book was exactly genius. I'd venture to guess that for every mom who rushed on to to purchase it, there is at least one more who decided she wouldn't spend $20 on that book for...all the tea in China.

  11. I haven't read the book and won't, but just reading Joanne's review of it over there was enough for me. Yikes.

    I parent much like you, I take my kids' lead on most things, but we expect them to give their best effort in things like academics. Thus far, they do their best and make straight A's. Josh and I try to set a good example in our own studies, but when something is difficult (like o-chem), I discuss it with them and let them know that sometimes--GASP--even Mom pulls a C. LOL. The effort is the important thing. My son was horrified by my C, by the way.

  12. Because Amy Chua made sure her kids worked hard on any task they had there was no chance they would not be successful. Hard work and perseverance produce miricles. Sadly both of these are more intrinsic to non-western cultures, who are taking over the world in economics now. Surprise? Cruelty of her methods is not necessary, but her vision is shared by all ethnic proefessional parents. I notice that kids of indian, asian doctors always turn out ot be doctors. While american doctors I've met produce hair dressers and surfers. I sense a lot of insecurity in most above comments. Local parents prefer to follow child, and have her do "what she loves" since its easire and more comforting mentally. OK, she hates math, finbe but she is "creative". Who loves math at first encounter (by the way I did,as it was tought superbly in my country)? You do not get to love any subject untill you work hard at it and feel confident. My kid is "loving" math now, because we made sure he learned it first. American kids are not expected to study half as hard as their global peers. But all parents/media/educators are terrified if they do not follow the lead of american child....

  13. I do plan on reading Amy Chua's book. I would be particularly interested to see how her parenting methods changed in response to her rebeliious younger daughter. I can certainly identify with many elements of her approach in my own upbringing, but my mom was nowhere as exteme as Amy Chua. I would recommend for anyone interested to read the "open letter" the older daughter wrote to her mom. She is not warped and scarred for life. She appears to be plenty sensible.

  14. Interesting to read the range of comments above - thanks to all.

    Just came across this:

  15. KC - thank you for brilliant and timely post.

    1) last week Times magazine has an a) article sharing ...Amy Chua methods are SUPPORTED by psychology research b)Article from american farther who loves chinese parenting methods for his daughter, born and living in China with chinese mother

    2) I find your last link hilarious - you must take it personally being an "inferior Montessouri parent"! (I was one too, but luckily steered toward traditional approach. Montessori is good when you follow the child on a level of bulding blocks play and art/drama/etc. Kids who stay in Montessouri through middle school though have significant problems assimilating academic demands of regular school)

    3) I wish we could hear Fizzy's voice here - who admitted she was being pushed by her mother a lot. And ... as we all know turned into a brilliant writer, smart and humorous, making light of all gruesome staff we all have gone through. Fizzy does not strike me as "damaged" victim of tyrany parenting - Fizzy sorry for using you.. but this is very positive and compliments you... By the way I am always on your side in all your posts. Keep wirting, do not give up if those comments are pouring in.

    4) I refer you to a link for ethnic math school in Boston just to read children's letters about their experiences in this demanding learning center - some admit they resented going at first, and now enjoy so much, spend every summer in their math camps, and finally amount to scholarships in Ivy Leage schools. This tutoring school produced 8 out of 20 national perfect scorers on SAT math tests (800/800). And all letters say students are enthusiastic about their experience.

    So if you expose child to challenging task, try to keep them at it enough for them to get a feel for success

    5) I am totally with Gizabeth and KC on trying out extra-curricular activities, as these are meant for fun, relaxation, but paradoxically are turned into competative business by american mothers. Why? Why go on out of town soccer trips, when your kid hates academics? Is this where focus and money should be?

    6) I can understand why your friend Joanne wrote what she wrote about amy chua. I would be surprised if writer has a "successful" kid.

    7) The real strength of Amy Chua's story is that she admits a lot of regrets, mistakes, and states she changed. You cannot judge her too harsh. She was raised by harsh parents. Research reveals we behave a lot like our own parents with our children (subconsciuosly ). But she rose above her cruel childhood, and changed. And her daughters open letter is a testimony to the balance they all achieved as a family.

    8) Finally, be proud of your ethnic background, without completely separating yourself from it. I sense high work ethic in you. And I sense your "permissive" parents gave you no curfew because they trusted you entirely, told you to rest in college, because they worried you were overdoing it.Ask yourself did these high standards come at least in part from your parents as vehicles of asian culture in your life?

  16. I really love all the comments. I guess we all want our methods to be judged the best but really proof is in the pudding. The open letter from her older daughter showed the "sense and sensibility" of her daughter which was not warped by the harshness she described.

    I think that sticking with a task is important. See Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers about 10,000 hours of practice. Now talent/success definitely has a part to play. My older daughter loves piano, so does not need any reminding to practice. My younger one loves dance, so same. The reverse is not the case. However, both are sticking to both activities for the time being because they provide different lifelong skills they may use in a different setting.


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