'Superior' Tiger Mothers & Their Perfect Kids Pay a Price

At first glance Amy Chua, the author of the new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which was excerpted by the Wall Street Journal last week to a hail of controversy, seems to have it all -- she is a professor at an Ivy League school (Yale), she has two talented and successful daughters, and she is a published writer.

Her essay, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," has drawn ire from many who say she was too hard on her daughters, raising them under a regime that allowed for very little deviation from perfection. According to Chua:

Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, "You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you." By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they're not disappointed about how their kids turned out.


Chua goes on to say that she didn't allow her children any sort of free fun time throughout their childhood. She restricted almost everything and listed the things her daughters were not allowed to do. They included:

  • Attend a sleepover
  • Have a playdate
  • Be in a school play
  • Complain about not being in a school play
  • Watch TV or play computer games
  • Choose their own extracurricular activities
  • Get any grade less than an A
  • Not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • Play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • Not play the piano or violin

She got what she wanted. Her children have excelled. They play their instruments and earn their As. They are shining examples of what seems like perfection. At first glance, Chua seems to be right. After all, what do we all want for our children if not success?

But her definition of success differs somewhat from mine. I, too, shudder at mediocrity and want to excel at the things I do and hope for the same for my children. But I won't make their choices for them. If they are good runners and they love that, then I do expect them to work hard and run fast, not jog about and waste time. I will expect them to practice hard and not give up and be the best at what they love. The difference is, it's what they love, not what I love. 

Love is the missing element. Chua might call it mushy Western parenting, but I call it something else -- passion. And passion, not working your ass off, is always what puts any success over the top. My dream is that my daughter might push herself to the limits, denying herself bathroom breaks (the way Chua once does with her daughter) so that she can perfect a piece of music. I want to see that drive come from within in my children.

Chua's way works, of course.

I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.

Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.

But at what price? Katherine Huang, a personal jewelry consultant in Boston, Massachusetts and daughter of a mother much like Chua, blogged:

Because I started school early and skipped a grade, I was 11 during 8th grade. I once scored an 80 on a math test. My mother regularly went through everything in my room, including my papers and discovered the math test that I had brought home that day. She came out of my room right before dinner, waving the test in her hand, and said “get in the car.” I knew what was coming next. She was going to kick me out of the house ...

Huang didn't get kicked out, but she was subject to brutal punishments that mirrored some of what Chua described with her own daughters. Huang got into the Ivy League school and made six figures before she was 30, but there was a price:

I went to therapy for years, continue to loathe my mother and resent my father for locking himself downstairs in his office while she beat me relentlessly and he could hear everything ... What I know for sure is that when Amy Chua’s father looked at her and said, “Garbage,” he was absolutely right. I think she should re-read this article to herself in forty years when she is dying alone in a nursing home. It might give her some clarity when the aides call her daughters to tell them “it’s time” and she wonders why no one shows up.

Betty Ming Liu, a blogger and journalist, also talked about the article and the way she was raised in a post she titled "Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian-Americans like me are in therapy":

But getting back to Chua’s essay. In it, she writes: “I’m happy to be the one hated.” Poor thing. It’s the only time the word “happy” appears in this excerpt from her book. As for me, I’m happy to be the one ... who is finally happy. I sucked at piano, which my mother made me study because she had been a child too poor for lessons. My grades in college were so bad that one semester, I had a straight D average. Screwing up academically was the only power I had over my dad, a tyrant who wouldn’t let me take art or English courses .... Don’t bother with Chua. Instead, let us go on, with tenderness for ourselves and our children. Let us explore the joys of having a real life.

Chua's essay called out Western parents as birthing "loser" children because we don't push them hard enough, but I wonder, with all of her incredibly narrow culturally stereotyping viewpoint, if she hasn't actually proven the opposite. We all want the best for our children and sometimes the "best" means letting them be happy.

What did you think of the article?


Image via Amazon

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