Why Tiger Mother is Wrong (And Her Critics Are Too)

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.

© 2011  Mary Rice Hasson




8 thoughts on “Why Tiger Mother is Wrong (And Her Critics Are Too)

  1. I’ve thought about this a lot and it seems that it is better to err on the side of being too loving than on the side of too strict. Of course the best would be to have the perfect balance of bonding and boundaries. But if a parent is overly loving at least the child knows they are loved and that the parent is trying their best to do what is best for the child. But a parent who is overly strict could easily end up with a child who rebels against everything they tried to teach because the child believes he was not truly loved. Like the deference between a loving father who sets goals and boundaries vs. a master who sometimes gives rewards for good behavior.
    What do you think?

  2. I am following the response to Chua’s book with interest. I have been an educator/counselor my entire adult life. Now, at 55, with two teenage girls, I look back at the parenting I have provided.
    Their father is German, and believes much like Chua that excellence should be the norm. I think that’s a parenting style Americans stepped far away from the last two decades. The emphasis on “self esteem” generated a barrage of complimenting substandard achievements. The goal was not bad – positive encouragement – the actuality not so great. Kids being clueless as to what excellence really looks like.
    I am curious as to how this will all play out. Sadly, as a culture, people seem to leap collectively on anything spotlighted by the media. I suggest, rather, to look carefully at the role model you are being as a parent, the individual needs of your children, and, most especially the pace at which each of them develops. Whereas one may thrive on careful attention to detail, another may be more attentive to nuances of social interactions. Our school systems – private and public – do a much better job rewarding the “excellence” of the former. Our lives are often more enhanced by the “enlightenment” of the latter.
    We’re all in this together, with our own patterns for child rearing. Ms. Chua is now experiencing, through the critics, the fact that not one of them is “perfect”.

  3. No escribo inglés pero he leido on mucho interés este artículo. Creo que no se insiste lo suficiente en la importancia del ejemplo de los padres en la educación y formación humana de los hijos, en la formativa que es la tarea en común de sacar la familia adelante, en lo natural que es que es la adquisición de virtudes humanas una familia numerosa -aceptada con alegría- para los propios hijos, y en la importancia de las reuniones familiares en las que se ayudan unos a otros.

  4. While I believe that there should be a standard of excellence, I disagree with Chua on who should be setting these standards. As a student myself, having immigrated from China to Canada at the age of 8, I’ve been exposed to both sides of the spectrum in terms of education. I should also point out that Chua’s parenting techniques are not representative of Chinese parenting in general. I think that the most important education that a parent can give to their children is to teach them self motivation – that excellence should be a standard set by the student rather than the parent. One critical question that came up in my mind as I read her expectations is what is the *purpose* of achieving high marks? At the end of the day, what does high marks mean to you? The child needs to find a personal purpose in achieving those marks, rather than just fulfilling the wishes of his/her parent. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that the exposure to both strict and lenient upbringing – the combination of which – has given me an excellent education. Currently, I am achieving a 97% average in my second year (equivalent of Junior year in the US) of high school, having voluntarily enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program. I can say that this “accomplishment”, if you consider marks to be an end of itself, was derived mostly from my own sense of purpose and subsequent joy in learning – not strict parental expectations.

    Something that puzzles me is why Chua stresses the importance of playing a music instrument? I do not see the importance that being able to play a musical instrument (or two) have on the life of the child. Why not advocate writing, or reading, or playing a sport? I have been an avid reader since grade 6, and I can vouch that the vastness of perspectives I was exposed to since then has definitely made me a better, more balanced, human being. For me, her enforcement of practicing music is almost ritual-like, strangling the life out of the soul of music. Along the same line of thought, her insistence on “PERFECTION” and being the first in terms of academics, rather than personal enlightenment, gives me the sense that she is out looking for competition to beat, rather than bettering her children and spurring them to personal growth in order to become balanced, healthy, and self motivated leaders of society.

    Her funneling of her children’s time and interest into solely music and academics is something that I do not support. While it is likely that many children would achieve academic and music excellence had they undergone the same upbringing, those victories are empty. The child is left with no other interests and without a sense of self-identity. Essentially, the constant achievement of excellence in a few dedicated fields make them more robot than human, and without the human feelings of disappointment, sadness, regret, and ultimately happiness that makes up the bittersweet tea of life. I would more readily congratulate someone who has started a year with a 60% average, and rose up to 80% average than someone who has been achieving 95% average the whole time. It is not human to consistently expect excellence. It is human to seek this excellence and to push oneself to attain it. It is also human to have setbacks and defeats. But what is most human is that we try, try, and try again, taking the lessons that life has taught us and growing to be better people in the end.

  5. Thank u for posting this! When the book came out I was 15ish (im 17 now) and I cried upon reading it. In my family, compassion and elevation r high on the list. I couldn’t (and still can’t) see a sane person doing what Chua does. Accomplishments mean nothing if someone is standing over u going “do better, do better… Ur not doing good enough.” NO ONE (child or adult) benefits from criticism– not constructive criticism, mind u, but pure, unfiltered disdain for small accomplishments. Her methods r flawed because she is not doing the right thing to create winners and because it is WRONG of a parent to try to mold a child into their warped, high pressure, high strung version of a “success”. I really hope Chua lives with regrets for the rest of her life.

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