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The Threat of The Tiger Mother

As both a memoirist and a parent, I was anxious to read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. If you haven’t heard of it, you must have been off visiting another planet for the past three weeks since the Wall Street Journal printed an excerpt of the book with the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” It was a provocative headline that sent shock waves around the world. Countless news articles and interviews have been printed and aired since then, including the cover of Time magazine with the headline “The Truth About Tiger Moms.” I haven’t read every article out there. I’ve read the WSJ excerpt. I’ve read a few articles, including those in Time, I’ve listened to a couple of interviews with Amy Chua, and I’ve read the book. Many people I’ve spoken to who are outraged by Chua’s claims and parenting practices haven’t read the book. In fact, I haven’t yet spoken to anyone who HAS read the book. Here are my thoughts:

First of all, this isn’t a parenting book; it’s a memoir. It’s not meant to be a treatise on how to raise your children. Second of all, Amy Chua has said in interviews that she does NOT think that raising your children the way she did is “superior” as the WSJ article suggests. She did not write that headline, as writers of articles in newspaper never do. Copy editors write those headlines, and having worked at a newspaper and received many angry calls by people I interviewed about misleading headlines put on stories I wrote, I can sympathize with Chua. Third, there are some questions about whether the way she raised her children is really “Chinese” at all. Some Chinese reviewers on Amazon said they were not raised that way and neither were their friends. Others say it is a immigrant’s way of raising a child and not necessarily Chinese (Chua says herself in both the book and WSJ article that she uses the term “Chinese” loosely and that she knows people of all different descents who have raised their children that way. My own husband was raised by a self-proclaimed Tiger Mother who is a Polish immigrant. She wasn’t as strict for as long as Chua, but she did make him play the violin when he was a kid, and she did use harsh methods of punishment when he did something that she perceived as wrong.) Still other Chinese and Chinese-American reviewers said they were raised that way and that yes, it IS traditional Chinese practice. But moving on to the book …

For the record, when I write a real book review, I spend a great deal of time rereading passages and taking notes, which I haven’t done today. This isn’t a review, just my thoughts on the book and controversy. I find it amusing what strong reactions people are having to the book WITHOUT HAVING READ THE BOOK. The book is very very funny. I laughed out loud more than once. It’s also very honest—as honest as a memoir can be.* It’s also very sad, for the reasons people who have read the excerpts know: a lost childhood can never be reclaimed.

*Memoirs are not factual because 1) The choice of what to include and exclude colors the story and 2) The subjectivity of the author colors the story. Chua did include both her husband and daughters in the editing process (the result being that she cut large sections about her husband), and her daughters’ reactions are included in the last chapter of the book. Sophia, the eldest daughter, also wrote an editorial in defense of her Tiger Mother.)

Chua makes it clear in the book that she knows her parenting measures are extreme, that she regrets some of the actions she took, and that she knows she’s a little bit insane. Throughout the book, she repeatedly makes fun of herself and how over-the top/crazy she is. As for her extreme parenting measures, I have a few thoughts: 1. My own parents and my husband’s and many many other parents are guilty of having done things during their parenting years that are regrettable—things just as bad as making your child practice the piano all evening without breaks to eat or use the bathroom. The difference? They didn’t write memoirs about it that are perceived as “bragging” about their superior parenting practices. Does that make those actions okay? Of course not. But Chua had the courage to admit to her actions knowing that she would be judged. My opinion of Chua throughout the book was that she is definitely a little bit crazy. I’m certainly glad she wasn’t my mother. And yet … here I’ll touch one some of the reasons I think people are so up-in-arms about this book …

What Tiger Mother does is cause us to question both our own parenting practices and the way we were raised. We ask ourselves questions like those I’ve asked myself during the past three weeks:

1. Do I wish my mother had pushed me harder? Do I wish she’d made me practice the piano more? Do I wish I hadn’t given up the piano? Is it too late to learn?

2. Am I too easy on my kids? Should I get my three-year-old started playing the piano now? Should I be drilling him on math and reading?

3. Is Time magazine right that maybe the book has hit a sore spot with Americans because the Chinese economy is growing so fast? Are we threatened by all those hard-working people and wondering whether we should be working a little harder ourselves?

4. Do I wish I were more “successful”? Do I wish I’d studied harder, gone to an Ivy League school, gone into medicine or law?

My answers to those questions are as follows:
1. No, yes, yes, and no. I remember having to practice every day for 30 or 60 minutes, and my mom was sad when I quit, but that was the extent of how far she pushed me. I’ve always wished I had stuck with it, and I’ve always planned to take it up again someday, which I will once my life is less hectic. I don’t wish I had had a tiger mom who forced me to practice several hours a day, but I do remember watching countless hours of television and some of that time could have been put toward something more productive. I blame myself, not my mom, for giving up the piano, but Chua’s point is that kids will not make that choice for themselves. They will choose TV/friends/FB over practicing an instrument several hours a day. I know some of you will disagree and say “I danced three hours a day because I loved it and not because my mom made me,” but MOST kids would rather go outside on a beautiful day and run around with their friends than practice an instrument all afternoon. I have a friend whose parents told her she didn’t HAVE to play her instrument but that if she didn’t practice for three hours a day, they would stop her lessons. She did it and is a professional musician today with no regrets.)

2. I do think I’m a little too easy on my kids—or rather, on myself, because tiger parenting is no picnic for the parent either. My three-year-old understands both French and Spanish but rarely speaks a word of either. Despite our initial ban on TV, we’ve bought more and more kid DVDs over the past year and have gotten in the habit of letting him watch a half hour (sometimes 45 mins) every other day. We started out with “educational” DVDs like Baby Einstein and The Letter Factory but quickly degenerated to Kipper, Caillou, and Diego. (I’m being a little bit facetious. Kipper, Caillou, and Diego are all very cute and innocent TV shows). So how has Tiger Mother affected me? I’m not banning TV completely, but I’m making more of an effort to use that half hour to 45 minutes to get my son to speak French instead of watching TV. And he loves it. His curiosity and thirst for knowledge are boundless at this age, and he craves stimulation. (Although I have to say I was happy when he saw a picture of a woodpecker in a book and knew it’s name. He said he learned it from Diego.) After less than a week of my extra efforts to get him to speak French, he came up to me on his own tonight and said, “Peux-tu lire une histoire s’il vous plait, Maman?”—”Could you read a story please, Mama?”—huge progress by putting in just an extra 30-45 minutes with him every day. As for piano lessons, nah. If he’s interested later, maybe, but not at this age. Right now he’s taking swimming and loves it, and I’m going to keep pushing the French and Spanish, but otherwise, I just want him to be a kid and have fun. He has his whole life ahead to study and work. This is the only time he’ll get to just play and explore without homework or bills to pay.

3. I do think there’s something to the Time article—that we as a country feel threatened by China and the Chinese model of education. What can we do about it? At the individual level, we can push ourselves and our kids a little harder. On a larger scale, I guess we’ll have to rely on our creativity, innovation, and superior universities to compete in the marketplace. Or maybe we’ll just have to settle for being the second largest economy in the world. It wouldn’t kill us to be humbled a bit, and then maybe we’ll get off our butts and work a little harder.

4. I did study hard as a kid, and I did well in school, but I couldn’t have afforded an Ivy League school even if I’d been accepted to one. (That’s something else that has had people up in arms. You have to have a LOT of money to do what Amy Chua has done—the countless hours of private lessons, the reception after Sophia’s Carnegie Hall performance, etc. etc.) And I did seriously consider going to medical school. I was studying math and biology in order to get into a program that would have fulfilled my prereqs for med school when I decided to be a writer instead. I make so little money at this point in my life that yes, there are times I wish I had chosen a more lucrative profession. But I still have hopes of combining a teaching and writing career to make enough money that we can send our kids to private school if we choose to and take a vacation now and then, and that’s all that really matters to me right now. Otherwise, I’m happy with my choice.

We can spend our time finding fault with Chua’s parenting practices, which is easy to do, or we can look into our hearts and ask ourselves, why are we so riled up about Tiger Mother? Could it be because it hits a nerve within ourselves? That maybe we didn’t live up to our full potential? That we wish our parents had pushed us just a little bit harder, or that we had pushed our own kids a little more?

There are many many topics I haven’t discussed here: whether Chua’s harsh parenting methods qualify as child abuse; whether those girls will still thank their mother ten years from now or whether they’ll write best selling Tiger Daughter memoirs about their damaged childhoods; what the media’s involvement has been in the hype and marketing of the book; why Chua as the villain of the book made it such a page turner, how reinforcing stereotypes of Asians vs Westerners helped to sell the book and how damaging that is to both sides; and on and on. There are endless topics to discuss, and I’d love to hear any and all of your thoughts!

I will be back Tuesday as usually with my regularly scheduled post. Until then, bon weekend!

20 comments to The Threat of The Tiger Mother

  • I've already posted my "response" to the Tiger Mother thing, but I did want to add this: I was under the impression that Chua was not an immigrant, and neither were her parents. (Her grandparents were the immigrants, I thought?) So basically I'm not sure she (or anyone) could claim her style to be that of immigrant parenting either. (My mom, on the other hand, is an immigrant, as were most of my friend's parents.)

    So again, I think her story should not have been framed (by her or anyone) as a "Chinese" story or an "immigrant" story or anything other than HER single story. Because that's all it was. IF she wanted to talk about where she saw some of the methods that she ended up using, that's different. But to label them and frame them the way she did is part of what brought all this on, and definitely the part I object to most.

    That said, people have certainly gotten carried away, and there were some elements (like the WSJ headline) that were out of her control.

    ANYWAY. I'm glad you actually read the book, and I enjoyed reading about your take and insights on it. 🙂

  • You never know from the media what's really going on!

    I agree: We shouldn't judge a book until we've read it. I also like this comment of yours: *Memoirs are not factual because 1) The choice of what to include and exclude colors the story and 2) The subjectivity of the author colors the story.

    As I was writing my own memoir that's about to be published, I realized how true this statement of yours is. Yes, what happens in my memoir IS "true," but how "true" is the narrator, aka me? Or the other "characters"?

    Anyway, there are definitely as many reactions to a book as the number of people who've read it–including news reporters!

    Thought-provoking post, Meghan. Excellent review. I enjoyed reading your insights.

    Ann Best, Author

  • Kristan – You're right that Chua is not an immigrant, and her parents immigrated but from the Philippines, not China. I think you're right that her story should be framed as HER story and neither as a Chinese woman's nor as an immigrant's. I haven't read your post on it yet, but I will right now!

    Ann – Yes, never judge a book by its Wall Street Journal excerpt! And the more I revise my memoir, the less "real" it feels because it's been crafted to the point that it feels almost artificial now (even though the facts are all true).

  • Denise

    I'll read this eventually. I've read the WSJ article, the Brooks article, the NYer review and the daughter's response, and I heard her on Forum.

    I should say that I know her father–I worked with him. I don't know him very well, but what I do know of him makes me a little sad for her, because he's a giant narcissist and is all about his own ego. I can't see him having much time for a child unless he could show them off. From what I've read, she sort of seems to be repeating things, even if she did have a breakthrough or whatever. I'll hold off on my book review until I actually read it.

    I'm not an especially soft person–I don't coddle my kid–but there really isn't a circumstance when I can imagine calling her 'garbage'. An asshole, yes, but garbage?

    (Kidding, kidding!)

  • Fantastic and thoughtful, Meghan. I really like your the 4 questions the book invokes in us.

  • Denise – Ha! And funny that you mention her father because I've been meaning to ask my hubby (who graduated from the EECS program at Berkeley) if he had him as a prof while he was there. I'm definitely curious to know what you think about the book. My feeling is – great book for entertainment, but take it as that only and not as a parenting manual. I keep imagining it as a comedy directed by Alexander Payne or Christopher Guest, someone good at portraying caricatures – because that's what Amy Chua is – a caricature. Thanks for the insight about her father.

    Sierra – Aw, shucks. That's a big compliment coming from someone who writes such great posts!

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SierraGodfrey, Meghan Ward. Meghan Ward said: Are we, as individuals and as a nation, threatened by tiger mothers? Chime in here: […]

  • Where Tiger Mother and this white Rabbit Dad AGREE:

    If you put yourself first, you won’t be tired or inconvenienced much, but you won’t be happy for very long either.

    My experience is that Western-style self-focus is secretly a form of self-sabotage. Like many addictive behaviors, it gives you a quick fix, but ultimately leaves you hungry.

    Do I plan to tell my daughter this?

    Absolutely. I believe the key will be to teach her to value her family and community at least as much, if not more, then herself. Frankly, I wish this had been more emphasized in my family and schools, but it certainly wasn’t in the culture in the 80′s and 90′s. This value has become more prevalent with the rise of the environmental movement, but I still believe this is one area where this fluffy, year-of-the-rabbit dad could learn something from the rabid Tiger Mother.

    1000 small steps toward a better life for all grown-ups, based on what I learn from my baby daughter over the next 1000 days!

  • David – thank you for mentioning the importance of family and community. I really want to start teaching my three-year-old son about the importance of community. I have had plans (but haven't done it yet) to take him to a couple of places where we will donate books and toys and articles of clothing to people in need. Your comment was a good reminder. And I'll check out your blog. Thanks for visiting!

  • This was an interesting and thoughtful post. I think the way the Chua book was portrayed gives everyone something to wonder about: are the Chinese going to take over? were my parents too strict? not strict enough? how strict am I/will I be with my kids? how do we balance happiness and accomplishment? what do our kids need to succeed in life (and what is success?) and how do we give it to them?

    What's a little disturbing, which you point out, is the disconnect between the discussion about the book and the book itself (which I haven't read, though this didn't stop me from posting about it like everyone else!). However, it was the WSJ piece (deliberate marketing ploy or not) that started the larger discussion and – I hate to say it as an aspiring author myself but – it kinds of makes the book itself superfluous.

    Thanks for your review and discussion.

  • aditi raychoudhury

    Great post, Meghan – for clarifying many things – i don't plan to read the book – so thanks for the summary – I did read the Time article – which I thought was rather disjointed, confused and overall poorly written – The essay (in response to the whole parenting thing) at the end of that same issue was a much better piece of writing. (,8599,2043298,00.html)

    I also think that the oft-repeated comparison between China (Authoritarian) and the US (Democratic) – is not a fair one – and I am glad that Obama pointed some of that out in his SOTU address, while stressing on education. At least, comparing India to the US would make a little more sense.

    I agree with your view of parenting (balancing structure, discipline, and free play), and I also think (and seems like its also a part of Chua's memoir) – is that we need to adapt according to our children – some children are so happy to study, that they really don't need the tiger parenting, and some kids may need more structure than others.

    However, I just wanted to highlight the dark side of such extreme parenting – the rate of academic performance-related suicide in India, Korea and Japan is also pretty high. I also feel, from growing up in that culture, that if a child doesn't learn well in a conventional environment, there are very very few alternatives, to reaching your full potential.

    Also, America, seems to always feels threatened by some country or the other (the former soviets, the islamists, the Japanese, the Chinese etc) – i remember reading an article about the Japanese being smarter, way back in the 80s, in an issue of Scientific American. We need to get over it, and focus on improving the public schools, and having parental involvement in academics. And yes, we will blame our parents no matter what.

    "Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?"

  • suiling

    Meghan, I loved reading your take on this.

    My answers:

    1. yes 2. yes 3. no. Really? I never saw working harder as a threat to anyone, just an opportunity to improve your lot in life and possibly others. 4. yes

    I'm not sure what the fuss is about: Amy never claimed that this is the way to raise children but she did see some patterns, listened to comments about the success of Chinese kids and decided to recount her own tale. And people shouldn't see it as a threat. Achievements are gained because of parental expectation and not because of the desire to conquer the world. If others sees this as a threat then they should ask themselves why. For me it's very refreshing to finally have someone of this particular generation write about commonly held Chinese family values and expectations, and write it with humor and substantial self-revelation.

    What's possibly worse is having a tiger mother who ISN'T educated but still holds those values in high regard. Yes, I had such a mother (literally born in the year of the tiger) who expounded to me and my siblings the values of a good university education, musical accomplishment, marrying someone Chinese and educated, preferably a doctor, etc. My mother was the second youngest of six children and being merely a girl was made to leave school at 14 by her authoritarian father. As a result she was undisciplined in all areas of her life including raising a family of five kids and keeping an orderly household. Her favorite motto was, "Do as I say and not as I do". Not surprisingly not one of her children managed to aspire to these lofty heights of achievement completely. We disappointed her; we'd manage maybe one or two on the list and in her eyes that was tantamount to failure. We ended up resenting our mother for a long time for failing to invest her time and effort in providing a stable environment in order for us to achieve these so-called goals. I also saw that my cousins and friends who had the same expectations placed on them AND had parents who actively encouraged them and spent time with them managed to become the requisite doctors, dentists, lawyers, and engineers and end up marrying the perfect partners and having the ideal number of 3-4 children. As far as I know they are all financially comfortable, happy and close to their parents. Interestingly, many of my friends who also never managed to conform to the "ideal" model or were considered rebellious, eventually return home from afar to be near their ailing parents and allow their own children to form close ties with their grandparents. I haven't gotten to that stage yet.

    Amy hides nothing and many of the thought processes that Amy describes is very familiar territory. She has a great writing style and I have to say I laughed through much of the first half of the book. The second half of the book reveals the full extent of the author's pathological parental control, which I found rather disturbing, but at the same time I understood it. Amy always balances her excessive behavior with frank descriptions of the responses of her daughters and husband, just to reassure us that 'yes I know it sounds extreme and obviously it was; I didn't see it at the time, but now I do'.

    This book gave me great insight, which is hard to see coming from the inside, and I see it as a cautionary tale in the upbringing of my own two kids. That the author's family helped to proof-read the book reassures us that the author may have learnt some valuable life lessons and I am grateful she was able to impart the results to the rest of us parents (Chinese or otherwise) who have fallen into the same mind-set. Now maybe I can fix where I think I'm going wrong…

  • aditi raychoudhury

    ps: about the WSJ article – it was a smart marketing ploy- but at the end of the day (even with all the editing) – its mostly her voice – and to that degree, any discussion on that specific article is valid as well.

  • aditi raychoudhury

    I also agree – that extreme parent can often be self-serving. I have seen it first hand in Indian culture – where insulting your own child is quite common place (or at least used to be)

  • Aditi – thanks to the link of that Time essay. I missed it when I read the Tiger Mom issue. And it's so true that all kids are different and learn differently, and it isn't possible to apply one parenting method to everyone. As for the threats – yes, there has been much talk of the U.S.'s past threats – Russia and Japan in particular. We want to be number one in everything, and I don't think it would kill us to be number two for a while. Might humble us a bit.

    Sui-Ling – thank you so much for your comments. So great to hear from someone who is both Chinese AND has read the book. Great point that many Tiger Mothers may not be anywhere near as educated as Amy Chua. How hypocritical to expect excellence out of your children if you can't provide it yourself! And even if you can provide it yourself, your children are not you and, like Aditi said, they may learn differently from you. But who needs a world full of doctors and lawyers! Good that there are writers and artists and teachers and computer programmers and all types of people out there. The music thing I don't quite get. I guess it's a Chinese thing – or maybe an old-fashioned thing from an American standpoint – but I would rather my kids played sports than play the violin. And I hated sports as a kid and took piano lessons instead. Just seems more fun and social to go out there and swim or play soccer or rock climb than to sit in a living room all day practicing an instrument. I guess we've just lost our appreciation for classical music in the U.S.

  • Claudine

    Meghan you bring up some excellent points. After having read the book myself, it's almost impossible not to reflect on your own childhood experiences and parenting style.

    The book was fascinating to me. Apart from being mostly hilarious, it was amazing to get an inside glimpse of a uber performing, mega-achiever family. My mom took me to the token piano lessons when I was a kid and gave up on me when I refused to practice. Amy Chua didn't just schlep her kids to piano lessons. The extent of her knowledge about piano playing, learning how to play, finding the best teachers is astounding. She was passing her skills of excellence onto her daughters. Not in some kind of diabolic "Mommy Dearest" kind of way, but in a genuine quest for excellence.

    Did her daughters have a "lost childhood"? I think not. They had a childhood, maybe not the kind `

  • Claudine

    [Avril kicked my keyboard while I was typing and managed to submit my half written comment]


    Did her daughters have a “lost childhood”? I think not. They had a childhood, maybe not the kind of childhood you would want for yourself or your kids but a childhood nonetheless. They traveled all over the world. They did have lots of friends. They went to excellent schools. They had loving, supportive parents. They had loving extended family. And they were formally trained in classical music.

    Those girls are already living their lives to the fullest. When the younger daughter rebels, she doesn't turn to drugs or suicidal thoughts. She quits violin for tennis. She uses all the skills her mother taught her and transferred them to the activity of her own choosing. Reading Sophie's op-ed, you can see how much she admires her mom. She doesn't sound like damaged goods. I will be very shocked if these girls end up being failures. My bet is that they will continue to lead charmed lives and had incredible experiences.

    Chua says in her interview on Forum that she realizes now that you need to find a balance between self-discipline and high expectations and freedom of choice. Overall, her story was very inspiring to me. When the time is appropriate, I don't think I'm going to sell my kids short by taking the path of least resistance when the going gets tough.

  • Claudine- thanks for that reply! I'm so glad more people are reading the book and basing their judgment of Chua on that instead of the articles written about her. I found her inspiring, too. Extreme, but inspiring. I mentioned above that I've been more motivated to spend more time teaching my kids things and less time letting them watch TV (all that went out the window today since we're all sick), and it's made a difference already. If you've ever read Haruki Murakami's memoir about running, it occurred to me while out running yesterday that he is very "tiger mom" about his running. Maybe we could use a little tiger mom, too, to get us through the Oakland Marathon!

  • Hi Meghan! Your 4 points definitely resonated. And Aditi said some of what I think too. Fun post!

    You're right, this book is everywhere-even people without kids are talking about it. Furthermore the general topic of pressure and our kids' education is abuzz–we just saw this film (see made by a mother in Lafayette attempting to uncover the source of the incredible pressure kids are under to get into the best colleges. The film was initiated after a suicide in the community of a 'tiger student'.

    So my thing is about mental health. I would like to know how much therapy Amy Chua's girls will be needing versus the amount of therapy needed for the children of the other extreme to lead healthly, happy lives. I was really struck by the woman's face at work when she told me her mother was a tiger mother. A wave of sadness came over her as if it was all still very fresh even at our age. On the other hand, I know plenty of slackers who need therapy because their parents were too easy on them; life was too easy and they have no goals nor skills to pursue them.

    So this is going to be my strategy: piano and academics and whatever other activity Chua promoted with her girls are not the only skills to hone. I shall aim to understand the personalities and capabilities of our kids and then guide/support them to the degree required by their personalities (in case one of them has a lazy gene or something) and all this with carrots, not with sticks. It's not that I want to be wimpy, I just think it's possible to nurture the native curiosity and drive that a kid has. Also I (will try to) reject valuing one activity over another (although I have proclaimed motorcross racing off limits so I do follow some conventional elitist rules…) I think this might be how I was raised although they should have recognized that classical piano wasn't for me and helped me to see that sooner. I could have been a Latin Jazz Rock Star by now! 😉

    Thanks again for the thoughtful post and comment guys!

  • Lara – I agree with everything you said! Motorcross racing never occurred to me, but good idea to ban that one! I think my only fear with NOT being a tiger mother is that I will discover my child's penchant for piano or saxophone or whatever TOO LATE because I won't have started him at 3 and instead waited until 8 or 10 or whenever it is they start at school. Looking forward to discussing this more in person!