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Tiger Mother and her critics: Still missing the point

Mary Hasson

Amy Chua, the now infamous “Tiger Mother,” delivered her parenting manifesto last week in a Wall Street Journal article headlined “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” The article, excerpted from her book, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” outraged American moms.

Circling about, sometimes snarling, American mommy-cats pounced on the Tiger’s arguments, shredding them with sharpened claws. Bewildered and a bit scratched up, Chua has been in defensive mode ever since, appealing for parents to see her book as a “personal memoir about her own struggles with child-rearing” not as “judgment on anybody else.” Chua’s daughter even came to her beleaguered mother’s defense, publishing a warm letter thanking her mom for parenting her, Tiger style.

One thing’s for sure. Chua’s book has sparked an American conversation about children, their parents, and the elusive notion of “success.”

What have we learned?

First, that we are utterly confused, as a society, about what “good parenting” means.

And second, following from the first, we don’t really know what defines “success.” What do we really want for our children?

The Tiger Method

For Amy Chua, her children’s success is all about high academic and musical achievement. Her “Tiger” method produces nothing less than perfection, in classroom and concert hall.

What ignited the firestorm surrounding Chua’s book is her thesis: she asserts that, unlike “Western” mothers, “Chinese” mothers produce successful kids—perfect students and musical prodigies—because their parents expect perfection and force the habits that produce it. She scorns the permissive parenting model where children make their own decisions and quit when things get tough (like when they need to practice or study more).

In fact, Chua sneers at how Americans’ preoccupation with a child’s “self-esteem” prevents parents from correcting the child or insisting on better results. In contrast, the Chinese “solution to substandard performance,” is “to excoriate, punish, and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.”

Chua also argues that parents must firmly control their child’s upbringing: require hours of music practice and rote drills, limit leisure and friendships, and reject interest-driven extracurriculars to ensure more time for music or studies.

The bottom line: rules and more rules, work and more work, breed success. In the end, the thinking goes, Chinese children will be forever grateful to their parents.

The Western Pushback

What do Western parents want? Happy kids. Kids who feel good about themselves and who achieve their full potential. It’s a model that has its own problems.

Not surprisingly, Chua’s critics reject her methods as brutal and off-base. Business executives deride her approach, saying its emphasis on individual achievement and solitary pursuit of perfection stunts leadership abilities and fails to instill teamwork. The Tiger Method, they argue, also stifles initiative, independence, and creativity--qualities highly valued by Americans. As workers, then, her children’s potential may be limited.

Chua’s socio-economic assumptions drew fire as well. Parents note the costs of lessons and tutoring—options unaffordable for many families. Similarly, the time commitment is an impossible luxury for single parents or parents of large families.

Back in the mommy world, Chua earns scathing criticism for the harsh rebukes and insults she hurled at her daughters. She rejected their gifts - homemade birthday cards - because they represented less than the girls’ best efforts. Appalled, her critics wonder how can Chua’s daughters possibly feel good about themselves?

The Tiger mindset also minimizes legitimate human needs—like friendship. Chua adamantly refuses to let her girls have playdates and sleepovers. Fatigue and frustration are simply obstacles on the way to perfection, whether that’s a perfect test score or a flawless performance. The Western mind worries, however, that she’s creating robots.

Finally, on the lighter side, Chua’s demand for three hours of music practice brought laughs from one mom I know, who shook her head knowingly, “Chinese kids clearly don’t play the trumpet. Mine do. Three hours? I’d go mad.”

Flawed Assumptions

Is the measure of successful parenting whether our child achieves her full potential? If so, then both Chua and her critics have something to teach us.

Western parents often fail to set high expectations. Or they may deliver a steady diet of unearned praise and instant gratification, undercutting the child’s ability to persevere through tedious or difficult work. And parents who abdicate their authority create underachieving kids. Chua is right on those points.

At the same time, my heart cringes at Chua’s reported harshness. Berating and belittling injure relationships. Encouragement spurs achievement more powerfully than criticism does, in my book. So too do good friends. And allowing a child to follow her interests may ignite her strongest passion yet, leading to her greatest achievements. On these issues, the critics are right and Chua is wrong.

But the real flaw in Chua’s manifesto--and in her critics’ responses--is how they define parenting success. Achievement is great, but it’s not the end game. It’s an inadequate measure of human success or flourishing.

I remember a few years back when an Olympic swimmer graced the front of my Wheaties box. The back of the box listed interview questions and her responses.

One stood out:

Q: “Who’s your hero?”
A: “I am.”

Here was a champion swimmer who had pushed herself to reach her full potential, winning an Olympic medal in the process. Admirable, certainly. But she could think of no greater hero in her life, in history, than herself?

In my book, her arrogant self-absorption represented a huge parenting failure, no matter how great her Olympic achievement. Great achievement, without an underlying vision for character development and deeper human purpose, can be the product of narcissistic drives, greed, or self-absorption. And there’s nothing good about that.

The Ultimate Goal

Missing from Chua’s work—and the comments of her critics—is any sense of a fuller purpose to human life. The measure of our parenting success is not what our child does or achieves, but what kind of person he or she becomes. It’s more about “being” and less about “doing.”

So what should successful parents strive to do?

  • Raise a child who is determined to be a good, moral human being

  • Teach the child right from wrong, grounding her in the rules that limit and govern human behavior

  • Teach her the virtues (Habits of doing good.)

  • Help him forge strong relationships, built on love, service, and respect

  • Help him orient his talents, decisions, and achievements towards others (“the common good”) rather than selfish goals.

  • Model love, humility, forgiveness, and respect for all.

Amy, a word of advice from a fellow mom….We’re all far from perfect but love makes all things new again. You’ve loved your girls fiercely. Perhaps this is the season to love gently.

Topics: Culture , Family , Home Management , Motherhood , Parenting

Mary Rice Hasson, the mother of seven, is a Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C. She blogs at wordsfromcana.

View all articles by Mary Hasson

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