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Eye of the Tiger Mother: How One Little Book Started a Parenting Firefight

Eye of the Tiger Mother: How One Little Book Started a Parenting Firefight

The world is rife with parenting manuals that either tell it like it is, or tell it like it should ideally be. Just when you thought the parenting section of Borders was about to collapse under the weight of its own self-righteousness and inherent controversy-baiting, comes a book by Yale law professor, author and mother Amy Chua titled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: a book that is, without a doubt, capable of stopping, or starting, dinner conversations around the country.

Chua’s book is a relatively unapologetic account of her ironclad approach to the parenting her two daughters. She determinedly breaks with western norms (Chua is of Chinese descent while her husband is Jewish-American) to raise her two children in accordance with “Chinese standards” of excellence. This translates to a general shunning of the touchy-feely ethos that many American parents (not just mothers) champion and a full draconian embrace of an unyielding and dictatorial parenting style to tease the prodigy out of the child.

This desired result is achieved by unrelentingly pushing your children to get straight A’s, forcing them to spend hours each day practicing piano and violin, and forbidding extraneous social activities like playdates and sleepovers and generally demanding steadfast obedience and devotion to family and personal excellence above all. Beyond Chua’s insistence upon brilliance above all and her commitment to achievement, Chua achieves much of her goals by (and this is where much of the controversy and outrage resides) being unapologetically harsh with her daughters. The book documents how Chua would ceaselessly ride her daughters by dispensing with the niceties and gentle encouragement and instead by sometimes calling her daughters “garbage” when they didn’t excel to their mother’s standards. Chua explains:

“Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable — even legally actionable — 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, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. … Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.”

Predictably Western parents are chewing up the internet over Chua’s book, as some are finding her methods not entirely sound but compelling, while others are just calling for her head on a stick. In an attempt to quell a cultural war, I will say that, while Chua does not (and cannot) represent the Chinese way in totality, I respect the fact that there are different parenting styles to achieve different results. Western standards of parenting are decidedly different than those in China or Gambia, but so are the societal expectations. That said, it is hard not to take issue with Chua’s methods as well as her tone of self-satisfaction in the book. And it is equally hard not to be cynical about the existence of this book as well. The books publisher (along with Chua herself) were obviously banking on the controversy to raise up a cultural dust cloud that would threaten to consume the blogosphere for a few weeks, and in turn sell some books. The formula is relatively easy: Write a book that is inherently controversial that plays upon cultural stereotypes and intentionally provokes a parental outrage, and then wait for the firestorm to ignite.

But beyond my cynicism on the subject, I think there exists some real value to both the book as well as the controversy it has stirred. The appeal of a book like this is its relative swagger and confidence. Chua shows unflinching resolve and a near complete lack of ambivalence about her approach with her children. That is a relative rarity, and luxury, in today’s Western approach to parenting. We are always hungering for a “better way” or a more evolved approach to raising and nurturing our children – a way that yields better results and makes us feel like better people. While Chua’s way may not do much to make us parents feel all that good about ourselves, she does get results (both of her children are enormously accomplished and successful in their endeavors). This way out of the fog of parental uncertainty holds some allure. As the acclaimed Dr Spock presciently diagnosed half a century ago, hesitancy is the “commonest problem in child rearing in America today.”

So what is your take on this approach? Do you think the “Tiger Mother” technique has its merits or do you think the harshness and severity of the approach actually erodes the familial bond, rather than strengthening it? Is parenting so simple that it could be boiled down to an absolute equation, or is it more of a shifting formula with an ever-changing subset of variables? Can there be a culturally superior way to raise a child, or is just exaggerated contrarianism manufactured to sell books? Please discuss.

Read more: Babies, Children, Family, Love, Parenting at the Crossroads, Relationships, Sex, , , , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

22 comments

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6:35AM PDT on Apr 5, 2011

"I'm not bullying, I'm supplmenting for some idiot's lack of having a tiger mom, i'll call you a fat dumb untalented slut cow because you are, shape up or ship out.
get thicker skin next time"
:P

5:24AM PST on Feb 12, 2011

so, telling your kid "sorry this stupid ugly birthday card isn't good enough, try harder" and thow it away is different "parenting style, which is valid"
you can't say that, then to me who said "OMG why did you share with us that ugly drawing, you are 14, you know what a dog looks like. what a waste of webspace"
I mean. people say it's bullying. I'll just make them try harder

11:45AM PST on Jan 27, 2011

Different children, Different parent...
Anyway, interesting!

5:30PM PST on Jan 26, 2011

It is great to have a smart child (all of mine are,no kidding) but if we look at a cutture that can dump a girl child in a ditch because it is a girl ya gotta stop and think about the standards that are being upheld. I know of a family that has a child that has brain damage for a cord around her neck at birth. They LOVE that child with all and thier second that had no such compication. My bottom line in raising child and for living life is LOVE. I know that sounds 60ish but all we need is LOVE nad the oppiste of war is LOVE so I'm all for loving my children and letting them learn and excel (which they will,I know) by recpecting them and letting them be the great ones in history because their minds were free to discover by questioning and learning from all that is around them. Question: has the world become a better place through knowledge or through LOVE?

4:55AM PST on Jan 24, 2011

Thanks for the article.

6:40AM PST on Jan 23, 2011

I think that it largely depends on the child. I think that parents should be firm, and have high standards, but also keep the child in mind. But I think Time had it about right, something like children can succeed under a wide variety of parenting styles, but the same goes for failing. To be honest, I would have liked a stiffer mom, because I could have had the chance to achieve much more with higher standards.

7:48AM PST on Jan 21, 2011

every one of us will raise our children differently. And since we all are imperfect humans every one of us will mess up somewhere in rearing children. No one has the perfect way or answer except God and they have kicked Him out of the schools, , government ,most homes, and even trying to kick Him out of the country. no child on earth will be perfected or grow up with the perfect parents. At least she is with them, keeping them away from bad experiences and she is guiding them.

10:54AM PST on Jan 20, 2011

There's something both sides are missing in this. Overly permissive parents produce insufferable, irresponsible brats. And the over-controlling aggressive types like Chua may produce high-achieving children, but do they enter careers because an over-critical, menacing mom has taken up permanent residence inside their heads, or do they become adults who truly love their work? I'd hate to be operated on by a surgeon who hates being one!

What both sides are missing is a third way that I think is far more effective. We're musicians, one of our kids became one, and we never nagged him about practicing or working diligently on music-related projects. We didn't have to because he saw it around him every day. I think example is far better than being either a bitch or a wimp.

7:59AM PST on Jan 20, 2011

many American children are left without guidelines, discipline, love, and a stern hand. many are spoiled crying brats who have no respect for parents, or others. or they are into gangs, drugs, sex & unwed mother/daddy hood. I think American mother & daddys could learn from this book to raise better children. We have left our children to raise themselves. and every body makes mistakes. Being a parent is a job that takes wisdom , love and trial by error for us all.

6:53AM PST on Jan 20, 2011

Sure, some of the tactics would work, but I can't help but wonder at how the girls feel. Which is pretty pointless considering that with how their mother behaves towards them, so long as she lives, they cannot speak a word against her. It is required that they uphold the image she wants portrayed. They seem like exceptional young women, but that doesn't mean everything their mother did was right. The same results could have been gotten by being a bit nicer to them. As a last note, what the heck is so wrong with drama and school plays? Or instruments other than violin and piano? I played violin, but also learned some cello and quite a bit of viola and both are beautiful instruments, more so to me than the violin. Just my two cents, to each his own.

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