The Tiger Mother and Us

Mona Charen

1/19/2011 12:01:00 AM - Mona Charen

Amy Chua may or may not be a superior mother, but she is a superb marketer -- and I say that with admiration. Who among the literate has not heard of her defiant declaration of independence from the American style of cosseted childrearing -- "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother"? My 17-year-old son demanded to know whether I had seen the Wall Street Journal excerpt -- "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." I hadn't. Before I could catch my breath, he had uncovered research showing that Asian females ages 15-24 have the highest suicide rate of any race or ethnic group.

Talk about touching a nerve! My son had lots of company. A follow-up piece in the Journal sampled some of the 4,000 comments (a record) the piece had elicited on the paper's website. (It reportedly received more than 100,000 responses on Facebook.)

Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, purports to let the rest of us in on how Chinese families produce so many straight-A students and musical prodigies. "Here are some of the things my daughters ... were never allowed to do: 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."

Some Americans might be prepared to call child protective services on the evidence of that list alone, but Chua is just getting rolling. "The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable ... to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, 'Hey fatty -- lose some weight.' By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of 'health' and never ever mentioning the f-word ..."

The really hair-raising part is Chua's account of a battle with her then 7-year-old daughter who was having trouble mastering a piano piece. Declaring that her older sister had been able to play it at her age, and flinging a fusillade of insults and threats at the child, Chua "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 the child mastered it.

Happy ending? Chua thinks so, to a point. According to her follow-up comments published the next week, her book actually chronicles her evolution away from such tyrannical tactics. But only a little.

Some of the comments about Chua's piece were negative, even vehemently so. But others, a surprising number, were admiring and even envious. That even an exaggerated and half tongue-in-cheek account of a rigid, demanding, insensitive approach to parenthood elicited positive comments reflects, perhaps, our awareness of how soft and indulgent we've become.

"In one study," Chua writes, "of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70 percent of the Western mothers said either that 'stressing academic success is not good for children' or that 'parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.' By contrast, roughly 0 percent of the Chinese mothers felt the same way."

Chinese (and other immigrant) parents believe that drill, effort, and some rote memorization are paths to accomplishment and that it is mastery -- not empty praise about how "special" each child is -- that builds self-esteem. The tiger mothers may overdo it a bit -- but let's face it, many American parents are too reluctant to demand work that isn't "fun" and too ready to believe that our children have something to teach us rather than the other way around.

Americans may also be spooked by an unavoidable reality of our shrinking planet -- our kids will have to compete with more than 2 billion Chinese, Indian and other Asian kids who, through whatever combination of genes, culture, and technique, are outperforming us. On a 2007 international test of math and science (in which China and India didn't participate) U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders lagged behind those in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Latvia, England, and Korea.

But parenting, in the end, is not about winning trophies, nor even about keeping up with the Asians. Could we stand a bit more steel in our spines? Sure. But to want your children to be happy is no sin -- after all, it's in our founding documents.