Contemplating, And Cringing At, The Tiger Mother
First Moms Talk column examines fear and anger brought on by new book.
Genuine fear mixed with doses of incredulity flitted through me while watching Amy Chua, self-described “Tiger Mother,” talk on ABC's "Nightline" last week about the strictness and relentless expectations she foisted on her children.
No sleepovers? No school plays? Three hours of piano practice a day? And then this thought passed through me: “I’m glad she’s not my mother.”
It was the first in a palette of emotions I felt while watching interviews with and reading excerpts by Amy Chua, author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (Penguin $25.95), a book that was released a few weeks ago and has set off a national conversation -- as well as national vehemence -- about parenting, education and expectations.
The furor caused by Chua and her book also presented itself with impeccable timing for the first of our Moms Talk columns, which we hope will engage you and encourage you to share your comments and views, as well.
A little catch-up if you haven’t heard about Chua’s book: In it, she writes of the journey she took in raising her two daughters, describing such intake-of-breath incidents as rejecting a birthday card made by a daughter as not good enough, calling her oldest daughter “garbage” after disrespectful behavior and forcing her youngest daughter to practice a piano piece called “Little White Donkey” for, literally, hours – with no breaks for food, water or the bathroom.
She weaves this in with her family history (though her parents are Chinese immigrants, she was born in America), as well as anecdotes about her own strict upbringing.
Chua’s book was first framed by The Wall Street Journal, the first publication to run an excerpt of it before the book was released, with the headline, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.”
As a Chinese American, this made me grimace, as I felt like it was flagrant generalizing and stereotyping; it seemed to make parenting by Chinese or Chinese American parents as homogeneous, when in fact, Chinese parenting styles can be very divergent.
Chua later stressed she had no control over picking the headline. In fact, though much of the book speaks to what Chinese parents do versus “Western” ones, Chua herself writes that she uses these terms loosely, as some Chinese mothers do not parent in what she references as the “Chinese” way; conversely, “Chinese mothers” refers to more of a style that can encompass methods used by Korean, Indian, Jamaican and parents of all different ethnicities.
This “Chinese” way, she posits, represents more of a framework that emphasizes hard work and academics above nearly all else.
I point this out because parents like mine, who are also Chinese immigrants, employed none of the blatant, high-pressure tactics that Chua used, and though they are Chinese American, I would never classify them as the kind of Chinese parents Chua references. Unlike Chua’s daughters, for instance, I attended as many sleepovers as I wanted, watched television every night, participated in multiple school plays and chose every extracurricular activity in which I participated. So the Chinese parenting Chua describes is better thought of as her specific style of parenting and what worked for her family.
A decade from now, we’ll see whether or not her daughters, now teenagers, resent her relentlessness.
If you can’t tell by now, I initially reacted to what Chua wrote with repulsion.
I myself am the mother of an 18 month old who already seems to be joyfully developing his own personality, and I don’t think my husband or I would ever impose some of the extreme rules Chua did, like ban play dates and sleepovers.
By not allowing these experiences, the Tiger Mom likely deprived her kids of essential interactions that build assertiveness and social intelligence. After all, life is as much about how we treat others as it is about career or academic advancement.
When it comes to our son, my husband and I would never want to be so repressive or cause him to feel so deprived as to prompt a personal implosion or a rebellion. We would rather watch him explore his own interests than construct parameters so rigid as to place him on a metaphorical, barbed wire-enclosed path.
At the same, time, I now realize that some of the anger at this woman — she has received vitriolic, threatening feedback—is a bit misplaced. First, her book is a memoir and the documenting of her experience. Over and over, she says it’s not meant as a parenting manual.
Second, her book revolves around the journey she has taken as a mother: She says multiple times that the mother she was at the beginning of the book is not the same as who she is at the end, when she retreats a tiny bit in order to preserve the love between her and her daughter.
Knowing that, the latest emotion I felt while contemplating the Tiger Mother surprised me: gratitude.
Even if you find Chua’s methods horrifying, her book has ignited conversations about parenting across American communities.
At a service at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington over the weekend, I listened as Henry Cloud, a Christian clinical psychologist who has written about parenting, talk about how the Tiger Mother has helped us re-evaluate “a culture that has drunken the Kool-Aid of high self-esteem.”
He opined that the construct for our kids should be one of self-image and not of self-esteem and that constant, lavish praise that could stymie them from doing anything more, for fear of failing.
The Tiger Mom does believe one thing with which I absolutely agree.
During an interview on “The Today Show,” Chua said, “Good parents of any culture, you gotta know your child.”
A parenting style that builds up one child may utterly destroy another. What's more, parenting does not necessarily require constant commands, but it does call for constant communication.
If Chua’s book prods us to discuss, rethink and invest more in the relationships with our kids, and if it prompts us to undergo an introspection of how we love, discipline, encourage and inspire them, then it’s worth a few cringes.