Tiger Mother: She’s Not My Hero
By: Alan Carson
Alan Carson is an ACPI© Coach for Parents and the author of Before They Know It All:Talking to Tweens and Teens About Sexuality. Alan’s website is www.coachforparents.net. Alan has also facilitated teleclasses for RaisingSmallSouls on a variety of parenting topics such as communication with teens, problem ownership, and talking to teens and preteens about sexuality.
Most of you would be familiar by now with Amy Chua, a Chinese-American mother, Yale law professor and author of the recently released book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Amy has appeared on numerous television interview shows in the past week, and many articles about Amy’s book have appeared in print because of Amy’s strict and inflexible parenting style, a replica how she was raised. Amy’s book is not a “how to” parenting book, but a memoir of her personal parenting journey with her two teen daughters, Sophia and Lulu. To clarify, “tiger” is in reference to being born in the “year of the tiger.”
Prior to sharing my opinions on her parenting style and philosophy, it is important to provide context. I spent thirty-six years in public education, my last sixteen as a middle school guidance counselor. As a result of my work, I am well aware that a disproportionate number of Asian Americans comprise the student bodies at our best universities— and the reasons for this phenomenon.
One of my favorite all-time students was AJ, who was born in India and sent by his father to live with his aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania— hoping AJ would have a better life. AJ wanted to be a teacher, however, after sharing this with his aunt and uncle, was immediately told that being a teacher was an unacceptable goal and would bring shame to his family. AJ was to work hard to become a physician. As you can imagine, AJ was a superb student and went to college at the top tier Case Western Reserve University, majoring in biology. I went to Cleveland to visit AJ and was struck by how few students were Caucasian Americans. I clearly recall saying to AJ, “AJ, there aren’t any white people here.” AJ’s response was, “Too many kids in the U.S. don’t value an education— everyone else in the world does.” I conclude by telling you that AJ reached his goal. He is a cardiologist who also teaches at in hospital in which he has his practice!
I know that Asian Americans comprise 4% of our population, but make up 23% of the students in our best universities. We can’t ignore the fact that too many “westernized” American kids are not willing to work, sacrifice and persevere, and our standing in the world may suffer as a result. The latest result from the Program for International Student Achievement places U.S. students 17th in the world. Students in Shanghai placed 1st in every subtest. We score below students from Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland and Estonia. These results are frightening, and U.S. parents need to make earning an education a top priority.
Regardless of the challenges we parents face, I am appalled with Amy Chua’s methods. Nevertheless, we have to keep in mind that the Chinese culture is different than our culture, and this is why it is not appropriate to make cultural comparisons regarding education. Three beliefs held by most Chinese people with respect to parenting are:
1) When children don’t excel academically, the family is shamed; it is a child’s duty to his parents to be exceptional in school
2) Anything less than an A is unacceptable
3) Being a kid, having fun, watching TV, and playing with friends or on the computer lacks value; devotion to work for future success is the target.
These Asian beliefs aren’t without fallout. The pressure to succeed, let alone failing to succeed, leads many young Asians and Asian Americans to suicide. This reality is well documented in our top tier schools. For example, even though Asian Americans only comprise 14% of the students at Cornell, 13 of the 21 on campus suicides between 1996 and 2006 were Asian/Asian American students. To quote journalism professor Betty Ming Liu, “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian Americans like me are in therapy.”
Specific to Tiger Mom’s book, I will list excerpts from her book (in bold) along with my opinion regarding her comments.
Amy made Lulu, age 7, practice the piano piece, The Little White Donkey non-stop for hours and hours one evening until she perfected it. No dinner, no water, no bathroom break— nothing. After numerous breakdowns and threats, Lulu played the piece perfectly and was very proud of herself.
At the very most, I could accept this once— to make the point to our child that, “You can achieve great things you never thought you could achieve if you work hard, stick with it, and refuse to make excuses.” After that, it is up to the child to tell himself, “If I can learn The Little White Donkey in one night, I can do anything.” To make this approach standard practice is insane.
Amy told Sophia she was “garbage” for talking to her disrespectfully. Amy’s father called her garbage as well for the same infraction. Amy said, “It worked. I felt terrible and really ashamed of what I had done. It did not damage my self-esteem. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me.”
Are you willing to take the risk that you can degrade your child and he would not be scarred by it? I hope not. It is a rare person who can border on being brutal with a child and have that child understand and respect why the adult said what he said. Some gifted sports coaches (i.e. Vince Lombardi) have been able to lead this way, but to say those things to your own child? Remember how offended we were when William Baldwin called his daughter a pig?
“Everything I do as a mother is built on a foundation of love and compassion.”
It doesn’t matter what I think I am doing. What matters is how my child interprets what I am doing. Is it OK to abuse your child and say, “I am doing this because I love you?” You’d be setting you child up to be in very abusive relationships because her boundaries were not respected— out of love!
“By disciplining me, my parents inculcated self-discipline.”
That is the goal— for our discipline to lead to self-discipline. But I don’t think the end justified the mean. There are more humanistic ways.
When Amy won 2nd place for something at a school awards assembly, her dad said to her, “Never, ever, disgrace me like that again.”
So, our kids should not be experiencing success for themselves, but for their parents? Totally disagree. My daughter’s life is her life, not mine. If she behaves badly, she is reflecting badly on her own character. She needs to accept responsibility for her own her life. If my daughter messes up, I want her to be disappointed in herself. I also think, what about the other parents and the other kids? Don’t they matter? Do I only win when I am better than everyone else? I am a winner, therefore you are a loser.
Paraphrasing Amy, “My parents didn’t think about our happiness when we were children, they thought about preparing us for the future.”
I agree. We want our kids to make it in the real world and whether they are happy at any given moment in their childhood is not the priority. If it is the priority, our kids will be wimps. On this very topic, I highly recommend Edward Hallowell’s book, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness.
Amy’s kids practiced their instruments seven days a week, no excuses. While in Moscow, Amy got into an argument with Lulu, then 13, because she was not practicing the violin well enough and long enough. Quoting Amy, “All out nuclear warfare doesn’t quite capture it. After screaming and a glass smashing public showdown in a restaurant, I admitted defeat. ‘Lulu you win. It is over. We’re giving up the violin.'”
First, I do not like hearing parents say “we” when referring to something the child should own (i.e., “we need to start your homework.”) Second, power struggles are lose-lose. If our child doesn’t want us to win, he can dig his heels in. We have to keep in mind humans have basic psychological needs: fun, control, sense of belonging and feeling capable to name four. We have to meet our child’s needs. Making our child do something because it is important to us, yet not impacting us, is dysfunctional.
“Chinese parents demand their kids get A’s because we believe they can get A’s.”
It is wonderful to believe in your child and his capabilities, but what if he truly struggles to learn Geometry or Russian? Are we willing to ruin our relationship with our child over striving for A’s? Are we willing to turn every evening into a tension-filled battle? Of equal importance, people who pursue excellence in life are self-motivated, they love challenges, and they enjoy the journey.
The way I see it, there are better ways to achieve our goals. We can raise our children to be responsible, to be resilient, and to take pride in doing their best. Our kids can feel disappointment when they let us down without us telling them they should feel badly. We can raise kids to care about other people and contribute to their community. Lastly, we can have high expectations for our children, yet maintain a connected relationship with them.