The Flailing of Tiger Mom’s Tail

Chinese Mothers Are Superior.

The title alone was enough to generate controversy. Amy Chua’s recent Wall Street Journal article on parenting ignited a firestorm of criticism and debate. In her piece, Chua criticizes Western parenting models for not being tough enough on children, while venerating Chinese parents (“tiger moms”) for pushing their children to work hard at all costs, thus better preparing them for the future.

For the Wall Street Journal, and Chua, who is selling a book about tiger moms, this article was an instant hit. Media publications want readers, which in turn promotes advertising revenue, and, in Chua’s case, publicity and book sales. In other words, “Chinese Mothers Are Superior” was controversial by design.

Who’s Right?

Chua isn’t exactly preaching from the pulpit of a society full of well-adjusted youth. If you read up on Chinese youth, they’re arguably just as messed up as young people in the West. “Chinese parents for “spoil and overprotect children, (which) hampers children’s ability to work through difficulties, make their own decisions and be independent…some parents are too busy earning money so they don’t have time to communicate or educate their children,” said one Chinese social work professor in this CRIEnglish article.

Even tiger parents produce dysfunctional offspring.

Who’s Better?

Chua’s thesis, basically, is this:

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.

It isn’t hard to break apart. For example:

“Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality.” We’re an individualistic nation. China is a collectivist one. This is a cultural aspect that doesn’t warrant apples-to-apples comparison.

“…encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment.” Chua insinuates that this doesn’t prepare them well for the future. But if a Western parent is successful in the above pursuit, the child will grow up as an adult with an idea of where her true passions lie, as well as a sense of being supported and nurtured. That bodes well for any adult, and there’s not enough here to adequately label the Chinese version as being superior. Then again, naming the article “Chinese Mothers Are Superior” was deliberate controversy anyway.

“Arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.” Chua doesn’t go too much into how Chinese parents cultivate that inner confidence, outside of mentioning that parents praise kids lavishly when they get perfect grades, master a piano song, etc. In my experience, parents can arm a child with good work habits and skills, but that child can base all of her self-worth on performance. When she fails to perform, the consequences can be disastrous. The fact that Chinese students have killed themselves over poor test scores and even a facial blemish indicates that Chua might overrate Chinese parents’ abilities to bestow that inner confidence, or else isn’t telling readers the whole story.

Mediocrity

Chua’s critique of American parents is that they encourage mediocrity and a sense of entitlement. Her judgment blacks out the benefits that American parents can provide. Take the economy, for example. It’s no secret that China has an innovation problem, while America doesn’t. This could be because “American culture, more than any other, forgives failure, tolerates risk and embraces uncertainty,” according to an expert quoted in this Seeking Alpha article. And the mediocrity-enhancing upbringing of American children likely plays a role.

“Truly successful people are often the ones who aren’t afraid to fail. But the Tiger Mom philosophy inculcates a fear of failure, and thus children will not be willing to take creative risks, the sort that lead to innovation,” claims this Brainz article. “The success of the West is often attributed to its freedom and willingness to take smart, calculated risks. Some of the greatest minds in history were average students who were given the freedom to take risks and think big thoughts without a fear of failure.”

Chua’s–and America’s–Real Problem

Getting into the pros and cons of Chinese vs. American parenting is an exercise in cultural futility. Chua herself admits that “(a)ll decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.” One strongly influenced by culture and tradition, the same way the American model is.

Which brings the story to Chua herself. The Financial Times’ Christopher Caldwell has an excellent sum-up of where Chua is coming from:

Contempt for others is the foundation of the hyper-vigilant child-rearing that Ms Chua practises. Children tend to know how their peers are raised, and they will submit to draconian discipline only if they have a low opinion of how their schoolmates lead their lives.

It helps, in fact, to hold the entire society in contempt. Ms Chua considers it “less a burden than a privilege” to feel like an outsider in America. Her daughter’s expensive violin “symbolised excellence, refinement, and depth – the opposite of shopping malls, mega-sized Cokes, teenage clothes and crass consumerism”. Such contempt, however, is disruptive in a social order marked by ethnic diversity, class insecurity and envy. And that is why child-rearing of the sort Ms Chua espouses is a “closet practice”.

The basic American failing, in education and most other things, is complacency – the assumption that you’ve figured out the “trick” of your forebears’ success, and that you can live as they did without making the sacrifices they did….Ms Chua’s failing is a version of this very American one. Laziness is certainly not her problem. But she seems to have forgotten that the mother who watched her own education like a hawk was not a world-travelling Yale law professor and author. A busy professional woman can be a good parent, but not the same kind of good parent as a village woman in a stable Asian society, or a recent immigrant. The Chinese educational tradition owes its excellence to the way it has been honed over the millennium and a half since the first imperial examinations were devised during the Sui dynasty. For that very reason it is unlikely either to travel well or to benefit much from tinkering.

But, like a good American, you can still feel entitled to your opinion and sell it for profit. In this sense, Chua just might be more at home here than she thinks.

  • As a psychotherapist in private practice for 30 years and the author of a book on parenting, I”m not surprised that American parents are considering a memoir as a guide for child rearing. American children are more depressed, anxious, entitled and unmotivated than they have been in many years. Parents are over-indulging children in most areas – material goods, bad behavior, and praise for the most mundane of accomplishments. Being an authoritative, yet loving parent produces the most well-adjusted and happy children. It’s not that hard. American parents need to educate themselves.
    I have posted a video parody of tiger mom, for those who want a smile. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zrdoOPOGp8

    Sheri Noga – Author of “Have the Guts to Do it Right: Raising Grateful and Responsible Children in an Era of Indulgence”

  • Something good may come of this debate since it is going to cause parents and future parents to think how they will raise a child or change what they are currently doing.

    The average American soft approach to parenting, which I call the SAP method (Self-esteem arm of Political Correctness) has been the only hyped approach to parenting for the last five or six decades. You either raised you child the SAP way or you were molesting them.

    It’s time for parents to know there are choices and that doesn’t mean being as extreme as Amy Chua or as soft as a SAP. There is a lot between the two.