Tiger Mother.

The Wall Street Journal ran an incredibly controversial personal essay yesterday entitled Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, by Amy Chua, the author of a book coming out this week called the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Given that I’m not a parent and I’m not Chinese, I don’t feel comfortable judging her either way, but I am fascinated by what she says and it resonates with my observations of so many parents here in Hong Kong.

  • What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up.
  • Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.
  • I don’t think most Westerners have the same view of children being permanently indebted to their parents. My husband, Jed, actually has the opposite view. “Children don’t choose their parents,” he once said to me. “They don’t even choose to be born. It’s parents who foist life on their kids, so it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide for them. Kids don’t owe their parents anything. Their duty will be to their own kids.” This strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent.
  • There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids’ true interests. For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.

I will say that given that her daughters are both still under 20, she isn’t really qualified to be dispensing parenting advice, but  I do appreciate her candor and honesty because it really is difficult to understand another culture and she gives great insight into what drives the Chinese. Here are a few interesting responses from a Quora thread on whether Chua really captures the totality of Chinese mothering accurately.

  • I think Amy Chua should do a bit of research outside her comfort zone and help readers understand why Asian-American females have one of the highest rates of suicide in the U.S.
  • I personally found her argument to be way over-the-top, advocating what strikes me as an absurdly extreme position. Surely there’s something between her absolutist, autocratic style of tough love she preaches (and apparently practices) and the namby-pamby approach she rails against.
  • What I see among other Chinese children who I was raised alongside or who I see now in workplaces today is that this method of Chinese parenting is great at producing skilled and compliant knowledge workers, but it utterly fails to produce children who can achieve greatness, remake industries, or come up with disruptive innovation.
  • My ability to play the piano is restricted solely to pure technical mimicry, devoid of any emotion. At one point, I attended a “piano camp” with other equally talented white students, and what struck me is that those students actually practiced for hours because they loved music, and genuinely practiced for hour after exhausting hour because they couldn’t get enough of the emotional expression that piano afforded them. Piano held none of that for me – through rote practice, I had simply acquired the ability to simulate true talent.
  • The military taught me an extremely important lesson in life. Self-discipline comes from within–it cannot be imposed. You can train yourself to do something because you fear the consequences, but that is NOT self-discipline–that is coercion. I succeeded because I wanted to succeed, not because I was forced to succeed. I did what was necessary because I wanted to do it.
  • I’ve always wondered why certain “Chinese mothers” do this. Assuming that Amy has defined the subset of “Chinese mothers” to be international or at maximum one generation in, many values that these mothers draw upon are from their homeland in China. There is a strong notion in China of the need to save face. So strong that the parents view their children to represent them in society and if society looks down upon the child, the parents are looked down upon for poor parenting.
  • It’s not that Americans aren’t interested in promoting excellence, it’s that Americans think education is effete, intellectual, snobbish, all of that. If you want to hear an Anglo-European parent berating a child for being less than perfect, don’t go to a piano recital; go to a Little League ball game. Chinese Moms wouldn’t be perceived as a threat if Americans valued education as much as they valued sports and other activities.

And while we’re on the subject of educating independent thinkers, if you’re looking to read the completely opposite point of view, I highly recommend this speech on Solitude and Leadership given to plebes at West Point last year. It blew my mind.

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    6 responses to “Tiger Mother.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! As I read this Saturday on my way to work, I was shocked and fascinated. But your fact and experience based thoughts were just what I needed to start sorting my thoughts on this.

      One thing that did strike me was her lack of distinctions–is this the method of all the Chinese people? I found it telling that the reading statistic the WSJ cited for China were only for the cities. What about the rural areas?

      Her tone bothered me so much. How has she managed to stand being married to a lazy underachieving Westerner all this time, by the way? Or has he brought something to the table in parenting, too, something that combined with her rigor, made a fine combination in her two daughters.

      Most sobering of all, of course, is the suicide statistic, which I hope she addresses in the book, but was a rather shocking omission in the article.

      (This is your DC SIL’s old roommate, btw.)

    2. Yes, I agree! It’s all a lot to take in… but I appreciate your comments so much. Chua has obviously opened a large can of worms. I think her extreme position and absolute honestly will earn her a pretty penny because I do think her book will sell really well, but you have to wonder how her girls will respond to her extreme parenting, plus the added stress of a lightning rod book like this. And, of course, you’re right: one can’t help but wonder how much her Western husband tempered the experience of her girls.

    3. I found this article extremely interesting as well. Like most things, the best course is probably somewhere in between hers and ours (“ours” being the “American” way…though with all those “–“s things start getting a little fuzzy!)

      I did like what she said about not giving up and showing the child that they can accomplish–through hard work–something they previously thought was unattainable. I suppose I know that deep down but sometimes it’s easier to say “maybe they’re just not ready” or explain it away with quirks or with developmental bs. I’ve heard mothers explain away their child’s dreadful math scores but I’ve never heard anyone say “Well, I just don’t think reading is his thing.” We all assume (correctly) that our children can learn to read; why not with other things?

      Self-discipline comes from within–it cannot be imposed. You can train yourself to do something because you fear the consequences, but that is NOT self-discipline–that is coercion.

      This is true but that doesn’t make it always bad. It’s also part of the process of obtaining self-discipline. You have to have discipline thrust upon you from the outside, so you know what it feels like, and eventually–hopefully!–you will claim it for your own.

    4. A very thought-provoking piece. But I strongly disagree with the idea that “nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” I have hobbies. I’m not good at them, but I thoroughly enjoy them.

      What does it mean to be “good at it”? Good at doing it (by some professional standards) or good at enjoying it? I’m with G.K. Chesterton, who said that anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

    5. Thanks for a great post, Natasha. What an interesting article and an extreme viewpoint – it prompted me to order the book tonight and if that is any indication you will be correct in assuming that she’ll make a pretty penny.

      I can only imagine how Ms. Chau views hobbies such as crafting and making stationery!

    6. And… thanks for sharing the “Solitude and Leadership” speech. William Deresiewicz (the author) was a professor of mine in college!

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