Tiger Mother

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

By now almost everyone has heard of Amy Chua, the self-proclaimed “Tiger Mother.” She is the Chinese-American mother and Yale law professor who just published Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. When an excerpt from the book appeared last month in the Wall Street Journal, all hell broke loose. But in case you have been off-planet since the new year dawned, here are some highlights.

Her daughters, Sophia and Louisa (Lulu), are not allowed sleepovers, playdates, TV, or computer games—the sorts of diversions that most parents take for granted. Instead, their days are consumed by study and practice. They are not allowed any grade lower than an A—a B+ would set off a towering parental rage—and they must take up either the violin or the piano and become concert worthy at one or the other. All day every day is devoted to the pursuit of perfection. Playdates, etc., are verboten because they siphon off valuable time. Chua’s late mother-in-law used to beg to have a day now and then with her granddaughters. Sorry. No time. The child that falls short or is disrespectful is deliberately threatened, shamed, and humiliated. “Garbage” is a frequent epithet, as in “You’re garbage!” Chua rejected her kids’ handmade birthday cards because they weren’t up to her standards (does anything get taped proudly on the Chua-Rosenfeld fridge, I wonder?)

Here we go again. Another salvo in the mommy wars. But this time it’s also a transnational culture war. We have stereotypes of Asian kids as overachievers and American kids as pampered doofuses. Kids from Shanghai test off the charts, whereas American kids don’t lack for self-esteem, that much-touted but suspect asset, but struggle with basic algebra, and their grasp of history would be funny—we love to parade their bloopers—were it not so sad. Our colleges are desperate to recruit most minority students but are setting quotas to keep the number of Asian admissions down to a manageable percentage. So several raw nerves were strummed.

That excerpt generated so much outrage that Chua has tried to backtrack, say she didn’t really do all those things cited, say that she was really describing her own upbringing, say that she was trying to be satirical. But no one is buying it. Some people do say, “Well, it’s true that our own kids tend to be spoiled,” “a little more discipline and structure wouldn’t hurt,” and so on. Hard to argue with that, although the idea that we have sent our Western kids to hell in a handbasket over the last forty years supposes a golden age of parenting (and teaching) that never existed. I have to agree with the guy who said this seems to be more about Amy Chua’s ego than her kids’ success. And that’s why this borderline child abuse seems so creepy and ugly.

Child abuse in this sense can be both active and passive, I think. It can be active, as with Chua: verbal abuse, unrelenting pressure to succeed, intolerance of imperfections. Or it can be passive: have as little contact with the kids as possible, buy them off with goodies, let them narcotize themselves with TV and video games. That the best way of raising kids lies somewhere in the middle hardly merits saying.

Parenting is always a crap-shoot. Diana and I were good parents. The proof shines out in Dan and his sister, now responsible adults (and Dan’s sister and her husband are the best parents—hitting that golden mean time and again—that I have ever seen). But I find myself always dwelling on the mistakes I think I made, not the good things I evidently did. Ok, maybe that’s just me, though I suspect that that residual guilt, even unwarranted, is characteristic of good parents. But at least they keep on clumsily trying. And need we cite the case of parents, either strict or lenient or somewhere in between, who try their best by their lights only to have a child (the bad seed, the black sheep) fall to crime or drugs, or just wind up a self-centered jerk? Parenting, the most important job in the world, can be so much a crap-shoot that it is a wonder that we don’t all give up. But most of us don’t, and we should take heart in that.

Some things nag at me. Why only piano or violin? Because she sees them as the most difficult of instruments or somehow the classiest? I can see that the accordion might not make the cut, but is the clarinet chopped liver? And with so many astounding Chinese gymnasts, why would she disdain gym class? What happened to a sound mind in a sound body? And this is sad: she says that if someone (i.e., either she or her husband) is going to be hated, she is happy to be the one. But this is sadder still: “The truth is, I’m not good at enjoying life.”

Hey, maybe we should just throw the Tiger Mother and the Mama Grizzly in a cage and see which one finally staggers out.

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