To Tiger Mom, or not to Tiger Mom

Even before the release of Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, an excerpt in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” started the bees buzzing.

Amy Chua’s parenting philosophy, simplistically, is this: offering the means for excellence predicates excellence. What makes her controversial is that she equates strong parenting with Chinese parents, weak parenting with “Western” parents.

Her memoir describes standing over one daughter as she practised piano for stretches of hours, threatening to revoke lunches, dinners and birthdays for years if she didn’t perform to her standards, and the means to her daughters’ success includes a lengthy list of “nevers” for them (never attend a play date, never choose their own extracurricular activity, never get less than an A, never not be the number one student in every subject except gym and drama, never play an instrument other than violin or piano, never not play the violin or piano).

Chua’s perfectionist goal, coupled with the financial means to achieving it, does result in her daughters’ academic and musical success, but her candor at the singular way to this success certainly ruffles feathers amongst parents.

Part of the complaint lies in her tactics. The other part is her generalization that the Chinese/Asian approach of strong leadership provides results, whereas the Western approach of sponge parenting, allowing the child to learn through exploration, results in mediocrity.
No one likes to be racially or culturally pigeon-holed, and the volume of commentary over Tiger Mom reflected that. But why were people really so incensed?

One reason could be comparative guilt. It’s easy to criticize Chua’s extremism, but you can’t pin laziness on her. Perhaps we look at Tiger Mom so bitterly because she has seemingly endless stamina.

The average (read “Western”) parent strikes a compromise to keep the peace and get things done. Tiger Mom doesn’t seem to have that self-interested motivation. She seems to be tirelessly insistent for the overall sake of her children. Does this make the rest of us feel a bit inadequate? Do we feel that deep down our laziness is inhibiting our kids from being the best they can be—just like Chua’s girls?

However, as disagreeable as her tactics and tone might be, the numbers are in. The results of the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show students from Shanghai ranked first in every single academic area, while students from the U.S. ranked 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math out of about 65 countries. Canadian students found themselves about halfway between the top and the Americans. Whatever Chinese parents are forcing their kids to do, is working for them academically. And whatever the Western parents are doing, isn’t.

Of course, the psychological ramifications of Tiger Mom-ism, the defence that Western parents will gravitate to, compound the debate. We want our progeny to be successful academically, financially and socially. Can the child who’s told they’re “garbage” unless they achieve “perfection” have a fighting chance at psychological normalcy? Conversely, could a child without parental guidance be psychologically balanced?

Many Western 30-somethings wish their parents had pushed them harder to succeed. Their carefree youth was fun, but was it worth being unprepared for competing in the adult world?

Then there are the Chinese kids who grew up without a playful youth. Many attest to their unhappiness, yet life looks pretty sunny when the career is secured, the retirement package padded and house paid off.

Chua doesn’t believe there’s a middle road here, it’s all or nothing. So, the question lingers: Can happiness preclude success, or success happiness?
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