What I learned from the Tiger Mom

amy chua speaking at vroman's in pasadena

The fact that my friend Jane and I were only the second and third people to arrive at Vroman’s this evening for Amy Chua’s discussion of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” is a tip-off that we understand the intensity that Chua brings to life. True to form, we sat in the front row (look for us on The Today Show tomorrow morning) and eagerly listened to Chua explain why she was inspired to write her book.

Chua made it clear from the beginning that the excerpt that the Wall Street Journal published in Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior doesn’t give a full picture of what the book is about. It shows how strict and demanding Chua has been with her two daughters, and that she restricted them from activities such as sleepovers, video games, and participating in school plays when they were younger. In fact, Chua says she decided to write the book when it became clear that this parenting style was backfiring on her youngest daughter, Lulu. When Lulu turned 13, she rebelled, and told her mother that the ultra-demanding parenting was making her hate her mother. Chua said this inspired her so much that it only took about two months to write the book. She was adamant that the book is a memoir, not a parenting manual.

Even so, this memoir includes many descriptions of Chua’s parenting beliefs and techniques, most of which are heavily influenced by her own upbringing by two Chinese immigrant parents. She has expected her children to get perfect grades and to play their instruments flawlessly, and has said that she considers frequent sleepovers and play dates to be overrated. She has also verbally berated her daughters at times. These beliefs are considered controversial because many people don’t want their children to feel like failures when they’re not perfect, and they value the social skills gained at sleepovers and play dates. They also don’t want to hurt their child’s self-esteem by calling them names.

Chua understands that, but explains that we actually affirm children when we expect more from them. By doing so, we’re telling them that we believe that if they work hard, they’ll achieve more, and will learn the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. She has put her time where her demands are, and has helped her daughters by creating practice tests and by teaching them proper piano techniques. She does not consider herself a helicopter mom, since she doesn’t do the work for her girls. Now that her daughters are older, she doesn’t need to be involved as much, since they’ve internalized the value of hard work. As for social skills, she still considers playing video games for five hours straight at a friend’s house to be wasted time, but she does allow her girls to get together with friends. Most of all, Chua insists that everything she does is more than balanced by the love she expresses for her daughters.

Are these Chinese, Asian or immigrant values, or are these actually American values? Or better yet, are they the values of all parents who want the best for their kids? At the core, they’re my values. I’ve tried hard to teach my children that working harder is more likely to lead to success, and that some activities simply aren’t productive. I’ve also tried to make it clear how deeply I love my children.

Even so, despite my aforementioned intensity, I am not a Tiger Mom. I let my daughter quit ballet when she got scared when she heard tap dancing, and I let both kids quit piano when they repeatedly came to the car crying after lessons. (I later found out it was because their Chinese piano teacher was slapping their hands when they messed up. Maybe if they were acculturated to accept that, or if I’d sat in on the lessons, things would have turned out differently.) I never considered threatening to give away my kids’ toys if they didn’t play a piece perfectly, and I certainly didn’t expect perfect grades.

If I could turn back time, I would be tempted to adopt some of Chua’s techniques. I want to do what I can to encourage my kids to work to their full potential. I wonder whether my kids’ grades would be higher if I made it clear that I expected A’s, and I wonder how the piano playing would have turned out if I’d taken the time to sit in on lessons. But that’s bluster: I probably still wouldn’t demand all A’s, and I’d want to get my own work done instead of sitting in on a kid’s piano lesson. It’s probably better that I did what I did, because not only have my kids turned out fine, but my son has made it clear that if I was a Tiger Mom, he wouldn’t speak to me. Is it because he wasn’t brought up that way, or is it because he is who he is? I think Chua would understand, because she confided that her own father never looked back once he left the parents that constantly berated him.

Lost in all of this discussion is an even more important point: what is the purpose of parenting? Is it to guide children to academic and subsequent financial success, or is it to teach them to be faithful and to love one another? I value the second more than the first, but the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Hopefully I’ve made that clear to my children, but hopefully they also know that when I encourage them to follow their passion, they understand that they’ll only have that opportunity if they work hard.

Instead of criticizing Chua, I think we should thank her for her honesty and willingness to share her story. We can all learn from her successes and failures, and decide whether and how we can adopt any of her techniques in our families and in our lives.

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5 Responses to “What I learned from the Tiger Mom”

  1. Thank you for sharing! Here’s a follow up to exactly what you reflected from Chua’s daughter to the New York Post:
    http://www.nypost.com/p/entertainment/why_love_my_strict_chinese_mom_uUvfmLcA5eteY0u2KXt7hM

    01/19/2011 at 7:20 am Reply
  2. margaret #

    It’s a tough thing. I appreciate her honesty, and I do think she’s been misrepresented, but I think it all speaks to widespread anxiety parents have about parenting in an age of declining empire.

    01/19/2011 at 4:15 pm Reply
  3. Anne #

    I spent more time than I care to admit thinking about this Tiger Mom “issue”. I would have gone to hear Amy Chua speak had I known she was in town. As a memoir, I’m sure her tale is interesting. It bothered me a lot that the story was presented as an Asian Vs. Western Parenting Style debate, which turned the discussion into something much more volatile and even absurd. Most–if not all–the parents I know are doing the best they know how to raise their childen into productive adults, and working hard to ensure that their children have a fairly full spectrum of opportunities to explore their potential as human beings. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Frankly I have never been able to understand how pushing a kid to play piano makes them a better person. Like any extracurricular activity, they ultimately get joy and pleasure out of it or they do not. Not every kid needs be an accomplished pianist,or musician for that matter. What they do need is to find that activity that motivates them to dig deeper and master in a way that allows them (and hopefully their parents) to be proud of, and give back to the world at large.

    02/07/2011 at 11:54 pm Reply
  4. I knew about her book & related articles prior to her Vroman’s speaking engagement. Unfortunately I wasn’t aware of her Vroman’s appearance until the day after! Was it well attended??

    I think it’s clear Amy is trying to be a good parent and loves her children. Whether her tactics are best is the question. However, those kids whose parents (and teachers) expect more from them will generally come out vocationally/educationally better than parents who expect less or aren’t involved much in their upbringing. Particularly if those parents themselves did well in school.

    Parents have to ask themselves also if they are trying to bring up better people or better workers/employees.

    02/18/2011 at 8:17 pm Reply

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  1. Thoughts on 5 years of blogging | KChristieH Blog - 03/01/2011

    [...] What I learned from the Tiger Mom. I spent a long time writing this post about hearing Amy Chua, author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom“. I wanted to consider all sides to the controversy surrounding her parenting techniques. [...]

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