The Anatomy of A Tiger Mother

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This piece has sparked a firestorm of national interest and dialogue, and people are talking about eastern versus western parenting and lifestyles, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of both. Chua is a Harvard grad, Yale University law professor, daughter of Chinese immigrants, mother of two, and author of several books, most recently “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” from which the excerpts were patched together by the Journal editors. “Tiger Mother” is now the new buzz word for the stereotypical, driving, Asian taskmaster parent. I’m assuming Ms. Chua coined this term; she was born in the year of the Tiger (part of the Chinese zodiac system) and seems to embody the characteristics describing the animal: competitive; strong; inspiring fear and respect; hurried; brave; lucky. There’s more to this story than the text presented in the Journal which, by the way, compiled several of the most controversial excerpts, grouped them together into one article, made it look like an essay, and gave it an arrogant, incendiary title without Ms. Chua’s input.

The flashpoint issue that made her article go viral is the extreme parenting style she describes as the one she was raised with and chose to use in her own parenting, though she admits she’s softened a bit after her teenage daughter stood her down in public on a trip to Moscow. Ms. Chua names some of the things she’s done with her children that she claims many, many Chinese/Asian parents do to and with their children to keep their focus on fostering strong life skills and being super high achievers. These things include forbidding them from

·         making less than A grades     

·         being less than the No. 1 student in each subject except P.E. and drama

·         having play dates

·         attending sleepovers

·         participating in school plays

·         playing computer games or watching tv

·         studying and mastering any instrument other than violin or piano (which both her daughters play)

Ms. Chua is highly intelligent, ambitious and extremely driven. Interestingly, she’s married to a Jewish white man and together they are raising their girls Jewish but had a nanny teach them to be fluent in Mandarin (not even Chua’s native dialect which is Hokkein). It’s clear that Chua loves her children but also has exceedingly high standards and expectations for them.  Her methods undoubtedly fit an old-school eastern parenting system and harshly conflict with modern western sensibilities. She makes no bones about the ruthless techniques she used to make prodigies out of her children with academics and especially musicianship. Some of these questionable techniques include forcing one daughter to practice a piano piece for many hours into the night until she got a certain passage correct (no bathroom trips or water), calling her other daughter “garbage” when she was disrespectful, and returning home-made birthday cards due to lack of effort. In a television interview, Chua claimed that many Asian friends have corroborated (and laughed about) her accounts of Asian-style parenting recounting similar stories. She says her parents raised her that way – strict standards and high expectations — but with love in the mix, and doesn’t feel she is totally scarred by it at all. She still enjoys being with her parents and even vacations with them often. 

 

Unlike the Journal article appears to be, the book, according to Chua, is a tongue-in-cheek memoir not a parenting “how to” instruction manual. It is provocative because she is so honest about the things she’s said and done and defends the basic philosophy, though she falls short of completely endorsing it as a universal parenting method for everyone. Love and sacrifice, she maintains, play into parenting too, though it’s harder to see the love part in her book.

Her main grievance with western parents is their tendency (as she sees it) to be permissive and more concerned with their children’s happiness, self-esteem and feelings than with teaching life skills of achievement, tenacity, ingenuity, and being the best they can be, which she insists is usually better than they — the children — think they can. Chinese, or Asian, values of aiming higher than high, a work ethic that blows the competition away, teaching respect for elders, upholding family honor and making the parents proud are a significant part of her whole being. It isn’t clear from the book that Jewish values beyond liturgical and Talmudic traditions, not to mention compassion for others and desire to be a positive force in a larger world, are as high on her list though they could be in her private worldview.

In the end, she does discuss her own gradual transformation to allow her daughters more choice and gains some degree of perspective through her daughter’s rebellion and her sister’s battle with cancer. For instance her younger daughter desperately wanted to quit violin and play tennis (horrors!) and Chua finally capitulates. She admits that there are limitations to the Asian model of parenting but prefers to err on that side rather than the overly tolerant, laissez-faire parenting of the west, which she claims has not actually produced a people any happier than those of the east. A really interesting and challenging read! 

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