Tiger Mothers, Depression Moms and Reasonable Expectations

I didn't expect to like _Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother_ - in fact, I expected to hate it. Instead, I found it funny, charming and moving - and give Amy Chua a lot of credit for having the ovaries to expose herself. I didn't just like the book, I loved it.

If that seems strange, give me a minute to explain before you assume I'm secretly Mommy Dearest ;-). I should note that I am not a Tiger parent, although Chua and I perhaps have more in common than you might think. You see, like Chua, I don't necessarily think that that assumptions of western parenting are always right. Like Chua, I think more can be expected of children than most American parents expect. And like Chua, I think the psychological assumptions that underlie Western parenting are not unassailable. My husband jokes that we are slacker tiger parents - too lazy to invest the kind of effort that Chua does in her kids, but in broad agreement that high expectations of children are good for them. Even if they aren't the same kind of expectations.

Now if you have only read the media coverage of this book, you probably think it is primarily a memoir of a borderline (or perhaps over the border) abusive mother, and don't grasp why I would like it. I would encourage you to read the actual book, not the extracts.

That said, I don't think that highly of much of her behavior. Indeed, I certainly don't think I'd enjoy being Chua's kid. The media coverage has focused on her rages and over-the-top behavior, and well, there's no good excuse for those - they are awful. The only problem is that they don't seem so strange to me - most of the parents I know are guilty of rages and bad behavior to their kids, if not so consistently as Chua. Moreover, they don't seem to be central to the point - they are Chua's excesses, rather than the actual necesary behavior of Tiger parents.

Chua normalizes this, seeing it as part of a model of parenting, whereas Western parents deny, deny. deny. But nothing seems to change the fact that our kids can really piss us off - this is merely a deep secret in our culture. Chua claims children of tiger parents (and she was one) hear what is really intended in the anger - not "you are bad" but "you can do better, you are capable of more." I'm not sure that this is always true, nor that I would want to try it - I think by personality I just don't have Chua's investment or passion, much less the anger. But that doesn't mean I've never blown it with my kids - despite not having a philosophical underpinning to do so with ;-).

Consider what Chua says about pressuring her oldest daughter to practice:

"According to Sophia, here are three things I actually said to her at the piano as I supervised her practicing:

1. Oh my God, you're just getting worse and worse.
2. I'm going to count to three and then I want musicality
3. If the next time's not PERFECT, I'm going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!

In retrospect, these coaching suggestions seem a bit extreme. On the other hand, they were highly effective." (Chua, 28)

Now this is all outrageous, and I should be outraged, I guess, except I've done awful things to my kids too. I wish I hadn't, of course, but I've blown my stack enough times to make this not sound so unusual. And I don't think it *is* that unusual - when I read the bit about stuffed animals, all I could think of was Annie LaMott's wonderful essay in _Plan B_ about parent rage:

I need to put n a quick disclaimer so that when I say what I'm about to say, you will know that the truest thing in the world is that I love my son more than life itself. I would rather be with him, talk to him and watch him grow than do anything else on earth. Okay?

So: I worked up one morning not long ago and lay in bed trying to remember whether, the night before, I had actually threatened to have his pets put to sleep, or whether I had only insinuated that I would no longer intercede to keep them alive when, because of his neglect, they begin starving to death.

The thing that is both crazy and true is that both things are right - your kids and your spouse if you have one, who you love more than life itself, can make you crazy-angry faster than almost anyone on earth. The only people better at it might be one's own parents ;-).

I know a few people who never raise their voices at their kids, are unfailingly kind and never really lose it with their children. I do not, however, get the sense they are an overwhelming majority - one of the best parents I know once said "everyone says you are such a great Mom and you walk along thinking 'if only they knew.'" Nearly every parent I've ever met has the same feeling.

My own mother recently told me a story I find funny and totally understandable now, but would have been horrified by when I was a kid. When she was a social worker, doing removals of children from abusive homes during my and my sister Rachael's teen years, she was assigned a family in which the mother, coming home after a long day of work, had hauled off and hit her teenager who had trashed the house and left a sink full of dirty dishes for her. My mother told her supervisor not to give her this case - that she had at times been so angry at her own daughters for doing precisely the same thing that she didn't feel that she was capable of judging this mother fairly - that she understood that urge (if not the action - my mother is incredibly opposed to physical violence of any kind) to beat the crap out children who were so disrespectful and uncaring of their parent's hard work.

And oh, do I grasp that now that I'm a parent. I have said pretty terrible things to my kids too - I once screamed out a window, where my boys were fighting (physically) over who got to drink out of a glass of water first that if they did not stop fighting I would never, ever let them drink anything, including water, again. They burst out laughing and after a minute, so did I - but the fury that led me to say such a ridiculous thing was real. And I wasn't necessarily wrong to try and make them feel lousy about such stupid behavior. Even though I was capable of just as stupid behavior when I was young - maybe more because I can remember it.

This does not make Chua's actions ok - I'm not saying that her rages were appropriate, or for that matter that mine were. What I am saying is that rage is part of parenting for many of us regardless - Chua's narrative makes it more acceptable, which might or might not be bad, and it makes it more natural, which also might or might not be bad. Our own psychological narratives make it less acceptable, but also make it secret, and erase it from the larger story.

I have little strong opinion on which is better - what I think is that her rages aren't the center of the Tiger parenting story, but an expression of the kind of Tiger parent she is (I'm guessing there are tiger parents who do it differently) and of angry parents and parenting. Her anger isn't something I admire, but I do identify enough with it not to see it at the center of everything.

The book could have been written by a mild mannered, or quietly manipulative or silent-treatment rendering or dispassionate, cold Tiger parent, or a sweet, loving but incredibly tough one too - but it wouldn't have gotten the same kind of attention that Chua with her showy parent rages get. It is fun to be outraged by her - and allows us to forget that most of us behave just as outrageously at times, we are just more comfortable with it as our secret shame rather than in our faces.

At the real center, however, is this - what Chua eloquently writes about the losses caused by living in modern America - what she calls generational decline in which values of hard work, thrift and commitment to creating something multi-generational worth having start with the first immigrant generation, and are lost in the priveleged generations that follow. She writes about the decline between her parents and her children:

Well, not on my watch. From the moment Sophia was born and I looked into her cute and knowing face, I was determined not to let it happen to her, not to raise a soft, entitled child - not to let my family fail.

That's one of the reasons I insisted Sophia and Lulu do classical music. I knew that I couldn't artificially make them feel like poor immigrant kids. There was no getting around the fact that we lived in a large old house, owned two decent cars, and stayed in nice hotels when we vacationed. But I could make sure that Sophia and Lulu were deeper and more cultivated than my parents and I were. ...To make sure that Sophia and Lulu weren't pampered and decadent like the Romans when their empire fell, I also insisted that they do physical labor." (Chua, 22-23)

It is probably pretty obvious that I think the Chua is in some measure shooting at the wrong targets. Her goals are intellectual achievement, and resistance to what she sees as Western intellectual decline (to be fair, Chua is actually much gentler to Western parenting choices than I would have anticipated) is couched in both terms of discipline, but also of achieving *to the standards of Western Industrial culture* - I don't share those goals. I don't share her goals of making my children the best - or the advocacy of competition uber alles. I think she's wrong and too quick to conveniently shift her ground away from the economic culture of thrift and hard work that created her parents and herself.

Actually, I think she gives economics short shrift in the book - why does she think being professors, doctors and musicians is so much better than being a really good woodworker or farmer or welder? Ultimately, where she sees high achievement is also where the money is, and Chua doesn't really acknowledge this - she doesn't acknowledge that the things she takes as a given - the pricey house, the private programs for kids, the nice cars, the travel - aren't themselves a goal that reinforces her overarching objectives, and in fact, they fully undermine it. She does recognize this in some measure, but doesn't explore why her goals are so focused on financially achieving professions, and why she sees discipline wholly in these terms - here, she has allowed Western culture to takes sway.

At the same time, her fundamental recognition that we have lost something in our expectations of children, and that softer parenting hasn't brought greater happiness, harmony or cultural benefit is right. I think she's picked the wrong way to reduce generational decline - she'd do better to sell the lavish house (not just large, but pricey) and the nice cars and cut her family's income - that the artificial disciplines she's choosing aren't as good as the structural ones of less money and more need. But I think she's got her finger on something that is right - that we aren't necessarily serving our children by our way of life.

At the same time I was reading _Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother_ I re-read Mildern Armstrong Kalish's wonderful memoir of the Great Depression _Little Heathens_. In it Kalish recounts the structure of her childhood on an Iowa farm in the difficult years of the Depression, and particularly the workload and expectations of children. In one section she talks about hog butchering, remembering the job given to the "Little kids" - ie, the kids under 10, too young to do heavy work - cleaning the head of the hog for headcheese, She recalls a group of children around the dismembered head of a pig, washing it thoroughly, even brushing its teeth to make sure no dirt contaminated the later project, and asks rhetorically whether it is possible to imagine 5-10 year old children taking on this job now.

Whether you mourn the child with the skill set for pig-head cleaning or not, it is manifestly the case that historically much more discipline was expected of children than now. An 8 year old in 19th century America would be expected to wield the hatchet competently and keep the woodbox full. Kalish writes:

I never earned any money for my work until I was in sixth grade and teh lady who ran the dry goods department of the Farmer's Store hired me to clean her big house for her. Grace was the widowed mother of three girls...For seventy-five cents an hour I did the washing and ironing, vacuumed and cleaned the floors, bathroom and refrigerator. The was a job that carried some prestige....The summer after I graduated from seventh grade I became the live-in caretaker and companion of an elderly, arthritic, cranky, devout, retired Methodist missionary....Here in addition to helping her with dressing, bathing and toileting, I did all of the washing, the marketing, the cooking, the baking and the cleaning. The discipline of my early years in building fires in teh kitchen stove, planning and cooking meals, cleaning house, washing and ironing were paying off. I knew how to run a household...Though I had no leisure time of speak of, I was finally acquiring what I craved most: the approval of the adult community and a modicum of independence...My sense of my own self worth soared right along with my finances." (Kalish, 277-278)

Kalish spends much of her time describing the hard work and discipline that shaped her childhood, and that provided her with satisfaction. Kalish's memories dovetailed with Chua's narrative about Chinese parents suggest that "western parenting" assumptions may not be all that western - they are *modern,* rather. There's more in common in Kalish's childhood, which assumes a high degree of resilience and has little interest in inner well being than you'd think:

"...I've noticed that Western Parents are extremely anxious about their children's self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure tehir children about how good they are not withstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. IN other words, 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."

This assumption of strength was true in America in Kalish's childhood - and presumably has been normative for most of human history. Now let's not pretend that this has no costs - the low achiever, the failing, the child that could not or would not conform met high costs. Chua talks briefly of the challenges for her parents of a youngest daughter with Down syndrome, and the way that westernization benefitted her sister - her parents emerged from a culture that offered little for the disabled and were told iniitally to insitutionalize her. At the same time, Chua's other reference to her sister suggests that Tiger parenting can be compassionately and affectionately used to drive maximum achievement despite disabilty - and presumably some of the conformist pressures of rural Depression culture are not necessarily essential elements of high achievement.

Chua gets her finger on something really important - that an assumption that children are strong and resilient can be as truthful as an assumptiont that they are vulnerable - and that the assumptions we use about the nature of childhood shape a lot of things. Chua points out that despite the tendency of Chinese parents to criticize, while western parents validate, there is no evidence that western children and parents get along better because of the way they act, or that they love each other more. Nor is there any evidence they are happier with lower expectations.

Some people might see my family as tigerish, living a life where kids are expected to do chores, and have physical responsibilities, to live up to a certain discipline (that imposed by the farm, and by our homeschooling). In fact, we're slacker than that - my family only looks unusually tough because the rest of the world is so different - yeah, my kids feed rabbits, goats and chickens every day, while most American kids might have to fill a dog bowl, but they don't do anything like the kind of work that most children through history have done.

Some of that is good, of course - time for education, time for other pleasures. Indeed, what seems most missing from Chua's stories are two things that farm families have. First, their father - Jed, her husband, is absent from the story. She says that it was somewhat natural they would use Chinese parenting because "like many mothers, I did most of the parenting." Even though both are law professors and work, this is all Chua ever says about the fact that her husband seems to be largely absent from the story except as a dispenser of treats like pancakes and Yankees games, and occasionally offering a weak "you are too hard on them." While Kalish's father is explicitly absent due to criminal activity and divorce, farm and work life in rural America often involved much less separation of parents and children than we are accustomed to.

The second thing missing from the story is playtime for her children. Chua explicitly rejects some kinds of play - despite the media play her not letting her daughter go to sleepovers got, Chua's real reason was that the only one her daughter attended was rife with factionalism, exclusion and meanness, as well as sexual discussions she didn't think her daughter was ready for - a very ordinary reason to exclude them. But Kalish and her brothers and sister do play - they work hard, but time is allotted for them to play baseball, make up games, enjoy nature. Chua's family never seems to have fun.

Which just brings me to where I felt I was most like Chua - ultimately, what Chua is creating to reduce generational losses is artificial, the form of the thing, without the substance. She wants the discipline poverty and ambition and hard work impose without actually living a life that requires physical labor, thrift or discipline except to please your Mom.

In a way you can make the same case for me - I'm reproducing a farm childhood for my kids - but it is facsimile, a chosen way of life that is not motivated by necessity. We could sell out, move to the 'burbs and play soccer. Moreover, just as Chua is working constantly against a culture that does not validate her choices, so am I - and the culture often wins. She knows it and I do, which is why the story of her younger daughter's rebellion and "victory" is part of her framing narrative, and why the media thinks the story of her losing is so much more interesting than what Chua actually has succeeded at. Even Chua sees it as more interesting - Lulu's rebellion becomes the center point of the book.

A friend of mine wisely observed that this book must be tough for Chua's kids to handle and that she could have waited a few years, and published it then. I think she's right, and for more than one reason - declaring defeat or victory in a child's adolescence seems to me a bad idea anyway. My parents looked like utter failures at instilling their values in us during our teen years - one of us got in serious trouble, another slacked off and smoked dope and ran after boys, still a third rejected everything our parents wanted from us and took off on her own path (and smoked some dope and ran after boys too ;-)). All three of us looked like Tiger Mom despair.

Now, all in our 30s, my parents are starting to be able to rest on their laurels. They might have wanted to kill me at 13, but the thrift and discipline that seemed like they failed so miserably are back. All of us are happily married, self-supporting, achievers in our own ways. Chua might do better - or worse - than she thinks.

Living in a culture that doesn't value hard work and discipline much, that doesn't see kids as strong or their contributions as worthy of excellence, one that diminishes their competence and pretends we shouldn't ever be really mad at them when they fail, Chua and I are both working on related projects with different goals. I don't see high academic achievement in the traditional sense as having the economic value that people have invested it with - indeed, the high student debt and reduced subsidies available make the trade offs harder. At the same time, I think the day is coming when hard work and self-discipline, however achieved, may be critical to security - when we simply may have to expect more of ourselves and our kids than we are accustomed to.

Balancing this with having a childhood is important - but not, I think, impossible - hard working kids on farms and in cities have had childhoods. Chua may have gone to far, but so has our culture - finding the intellectual space between those two things to begin to think about what a right childhood might be, what good expectations might be is challenging. I'm grateful that Chua is working out one end of that spectrum of thought, even if I don't share all her goals. The reality is that I suspect that a world facing the kinds of challenges we are facing is going to require a different kind of parenting - not Chua's model precisely, but something not totally unrelated to it.


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Show me a Chinese "tiger mother" and I'll show you the girl she aborted.

Chua's parenting style and all of her values are garbage. It is a moral crime that she bred while good people are infertile.

I also think that the disturbing cult around this book would never have been so nourished by the media if it had been "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Husband," in which a man went into detail about how Western life made most wives self-indulgent and lazy and what you've really got to do is constantly berate, threaten, and emotionally abuse them to get them in line. Ditto for your mother's story, if it had been written by a man whose certain propensities made him more likely to "understand and be unable to judge" another man who had beaten his wife half to death.

>the overies

what is the overy?

consider using a sperl chucker

First world child-rearing culture is overrun by intellectually indolence: the result of parents prioritizing their own mental comfort over anything else. You are advocating more of the same, only you recommendation is that sticks are less effort than carrots. Good luck with that.

By agrees_with_TTT (not verified) on 04 Aug 2011 #permalink

Show me someone who doesn't identify at all with being really angry at your kid and I'll show you someone who has never been a parent. My mother didn't condone what she did, she just wasn't the social worker to handle it. I don't like how Chua managed her kids particularly, but I don't think that has that much to do with the basic values - I think it has to do with how angry parents can get at their kids.

Your analogy doesn't work - adult women are not children. Children do need a kind of guidance and direction that adults don't. I don't think you do have to berate them to expect a lot from them or require a lot from them. I understand that some people can only see the anger - I just think the anger exists in other parenting models as well, but isn't as clearly or honestly acknowledged.


I too have read "Little Heathens" and am raising children on a farm and homeschooling them. I too have gotten angry when they have not stayed on task and accomplished things well within their abilities. I like the idea of changing assumptions. It is a discussion I have had with my husband. He tends to be softer than I am - I think that the expectations are reasonable and he doesn't always agree. he is now in some ways paying for that - for some reason especially this year.
I have been thinking about going to one of the alternative high schools here and talking with those kids. I would tell them they are way ahead of their peers because they are already able to think outside the box. They didn't conform or fit the "norm" we are going to need those young adults to see other ways to define success.
Thanks for posting this.

I found that Chua's "anger" at her children was either manufactured or grossly exaggerated in order to get the results she desired - and throughout the book seemed tantamount to child abuse - effective child abuse no doubt (her daughters both appear to be prodigiosly talented in the areas she decided they should excel in) - my favourite piece was when the younger daughter was perfectly willing to freeze herself to death in defiance of her mothers ridiculousness.

Another rather telling point was Chau's mother admonishing her for treating both children the same way - apparently she lucked out with her over the top approach with her first daughter, and probably severely messed up her relationship with her younger daughter by attempting to utilize the exact same approach - Chau's mother understood that different approaches worked for different kids - Chau clearly didn't make this connection and as such turned her younger child's life into an exercise in misery (which shows that assumptions of strength, or weakness, are bloody stupid, and that one should tailor ones approach to the individual child - some kids likely need their self esteem maintained, some can deal with criticism and indeed may thrive on it, no one size fits all model is going to work in every case)


Interesting view. I mind an Amish acquaintance that echoed what I read in _The Amish in Their Own Words_, that they believe a farm is the right place to raise children, precisely because the amount of work available to each is easy to increase to meet their needs. The Amish, many of them, live a disciplined and respectful life, and their love and care of the welfare of the Earth is part of their faith.

I find that expectations can very well be conveyed without demonstration or even words. _Tools for Teaching_ (Fred Jones) points out that the teacher has an invisible zone of influence. Any child within a couple of feet acts and reacts as if the teacher were Right There. At five feet, the impact is a bit lessened -- ten feet away and you get attention drifting away. One approach is to roam the classroom, so that no student is left outside and impact zone for more than a minute or three (the time the effects linger increase with passage of the school year, and consistency of discipline).

Working at Wal-Mart, I find that many kids acting out will stop, if I but pause and look at them. No stern expression, just a waiting to see if they will behave. Many rise to the occasion. Often the parents never notice their little darling has interacted with another adult, let alone changed their behavior. Even infants will give attention, and toddlers on the verge of crying out will pause with a look, a low low phrase of humming, and an extra moment of attention, sometimes from across the aisle or floor. I cherish these wordless communications.

When I substitute taught at the local schools, I found the classroom discipline parts of _Tools for Teaching_ to be extraordinarily effective. (I had a very long learning curve.) I found that just reading a section, without intent it would show up, helping me and helping the class, the next day. Working cows, strangely, even got simpler and more understandable. Most of it was about consistent discipline and expectations, and the non-verbal feedback of where you spend your attention.

I find it telling that your children, when you shouted in anger, understood the message to be "stop that bickering", and not "you don't deserve to live". That part of a pattern of acting out anger and rage, when it becomes a practice, conveys the underlying meaning rather than the surface attack. The problem is that it is very wearying, and teaches that you don't mean the words you say, sometimes. That makes other communication problematic, as the child is free to disregard any words said.

Blessed be!

Show me someone who doesn't identify at all with being really angry at your kid and I'll show you someone who has never been a parent...Your analogy doesn't work - adult women are not children. Children do need a kind of guidance and direction that adults don't.

According to whose culture? Chua's whole argument is that Chinese traditional ways are better than those of the West. Do you know how many of the world's traditional ways emphasize keeping women subservient, and complaining over how the West is doing it wrong? Cultural relativism isn't a slippery slope--it's a bottomless abyss.

And yes, of course as a parent I know what it's like to *feel* anger at my kids; this is why, as you've discussed here before, "Go the F to Sleep" is so hilarious and cathartic. It works perfectly as a joke because everybody understands it. Chua isn't joking.

Anger, jealousy, hunger, fear, and lust are all very basic and normal human emotions that can surface in any relationship, no matter how long or how close. We don't criminalize emotions, and most people, if you gave them a try, would probably understand them being there. But when those emotions come out as harmful *actions* is when society shuns those who have committed them.

And that's why Chua's wholly unearned pride in her pseudoparenting is so disgusting. She thinks she's working hard, but she's actually one of the laziest mothers I've ever heard of. Parents who routinely, year-upon-year cannot or do not control their anger at their children are failures.

Two thoughts: THANK YOU for admitting to getting angry at your children. I think all of us need to accept that every child occasionally gets yelled at and most of us aren't scarred for life by it. Turning ourselves in our minds into "Abusers" because we occasionally yell is just wrong. And by the way, why does it only apply to moms? Most of us give dads the latitude to yell, but moms must be 100% loving and nurturing all the time. I call bullspit on that!

That said, I try to yell less than my mom did, and to yell less damaging things. Hearing your mother scream "I wish you were never born" is qualitatively different than hearing her yell "if you don't clean your room this instant I'm going to make you sleep in the doghouse!" In my family we have a talent for yelling things which are so dramatically ridiculous that they just can't be taken seriously - Once my mom yelled at me "I'm going to tear your arm off and stuff it up your nose!" That was cathartic for her, I'm sure, but I wasn't afraid it was actually going to happen.

The other thing is in regards to our expectations for children working. My husband comes from a poor background in Mexico, and he worked like an adult from the age of 9 or so. Now I'm not suggesting THAT is healthy, but having lived there, I know for a fact that there is no biological reason that an 8 year old can't do medium-hard physical work for an hour or so a day. We have reached a point in this culture where we think making our children take out the garbage is child abuse.

Kids NEED to learn to do age appropriate work, and they will need to be encouraged and occasionally pressured to do so. Hopefully, most of us can learn the knack of helping kids enjoy sweeping the floors or weeding the garden, but when your kid isn't enjoying it and has to do it anyway... well, that's an important lesson and a lifelong skill, the ability to buckle down and do a hard boring job.

For the most part, children LOVE to help their parents, at least until they reach the teenage years. It's often WE who stop our children from helping, because it's easier to just do it ourselves than it is to teach the kid how to do it too.

By the way, when our friend came over to help us butcher the goats, his eight year old son helped out in a hands-on way, sharpening the knives and carrying dishes of blood and viscera. His father was pointing out the anatomy and the boy was learning and interested. Almost all the American parents I know would send their children away to shield them from the slaughter - we anticipate damage so often that we are actually doing our children a disservice.

"I know a few people who never raise their voices at their kids, are unfailingly kind and never really lose it with their children."

Oh, those parents can be abusive too, in a cool, controlling, manipulative kind of way. I've seen very close, in my own family, parents who lose it and parents who never lose it, and both can be either good or bad news for kids.

What's more important from a child's or teenager's point of view is this: are the parents fair? Are they coherent? Are they able, after screaming at their kid or threatening to kill pets, to say, "OK, I'm sorry I went to far there, because I was very angry (or frightened) by what you did. Next time we'll both have to do better"? Do the parents who hold their children to high standard and expect them to do chores or excel at school *also* give them kudos when they do well?

In other words, do they make their kids feel valued when they hold them to high standards, or do they just make them feel like pawns in their parents' own ego game of social competition?

TTT, I don't think the book says what you think it does - I don't see any "cult" around this book other than the self-satisfied "oh, I'm better than that" dismissal of the book. The book's central premise is that she was wrong in her behavior as a parent, if not in the expectations, and that her kid had to show it to her. That's why the subtitle includes the part about how the book was "supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.

But instead it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year old."

She says in the end of the book, though, that she wrote it after Lulu rejected the violin - that is, she's telling the story after it already failed. All of her claims are touched by that irony, and all of her descriptions of her over-the-top behavior are leading up to the part where it all falls apart and she had to admit she did screw up. That's why I think it is both brave of her, and also, I think she's right not to wholly abandon the principles that she's been shooting at, even though she wasn't very good at enacting it, even though she was angry.

I find it weird that so many people ignore the larger point of the book - even though it is in the text and on the cover. She's not glorifying her rages, although she is asking us to view them through a slightly different lens than the one we are trained to view them through - and that's not, I think unfair. She lacked perspective - and she acknowledges that. But I think so many of her readers want her to abase herself and say that everything she was shooting at was wrong. It wasn't - she did some stupid and lousy things, some really bad parenting - but she also wasn't wrong about the larger problem of values and expectations.

I see it as a little like when artists are rotten people - they write beautiful books or paint beautiful paintings that say something really true. And then you find out they are jerks with feet of clay - or worse. But it doesn't make the work of art less true, and it isn't the case that no one else has feet of clay.


...that assumptions of strength, or weakness, are bloody stupid, and that one should tailor ones approach to the individual child

Thanks, Ewan, for cutting through the bull and saying what needed to be said. QFT.

By moonkitty (not verified) on 04 Aug 2011 #permalink

@TTT - The gender oppression thing a bit of a bait and switch argument, isn't it? Chua's argument about how western parenting is flawed and aspects of Chinese parenting works better = she supports keeping women subservient. How is that even relevant? That's like saying all American capitalists must love apple pie because America values capitalism and apple pie, thus capitalists are bad because apple pie is unhealthy. I mean, really, if Chua's supporting the idea women have to be as subservient and oppressed as she is (as a Yale law professor), then I'm totally there.

And look, as someone who was a teenager only a few years back, I can say with only mild old person bias, that I was yelled at quite a bit in my childhood for stuff like grades, and I really don't think it was damaging. It certainly wasn't fun at the time, but I think I turned out okay and we're still very close. It did motivate me to work hard, and my parents, like Chua, always emphasized that they were upset at me because they knew I could do better (the constant refrain being, "if we didn't think you were capable of this, would /we/ be spending so much effort?") And yeah, seeing my college acceptances and the scores on my AP report added way more to my self esteem and happiness than a thousand "good try" comments on my crappy papers.

You can argue that Chua takes it too far - I think she herself suggests that - but that doesn't mean she doesn't have some good points, especially about assuming strength and not weakness. I don't see why the idea of taking into consideration the ideas from other cultures (or even just different ideas) is so offensive to some people. You can bet lots of people in China are looking to see what Americans do. (One of my TA's studies China, and she said after the economic meltdown, a newspaper headline about it translated roughly to "the teacher stumbles.") Ideas aren't religion, just because you think part of it is reasonable doesn't mean you have to accept everything it's ever been associated with. We can always plug our ears and chant that we're awesome and the best in every way, (maybe that's how we're raised, heh) but I doubt everyone else is doing the same, and I guess we'll see what turns out in the long run.

By Jennifer F (not verified) on 04 Aug 2011 #permalink

Aimee: "For the most part, children LOVE to help their parents, at least until they reach the teenage years".

I'd go farther; the #1 thing children want to do is please their parents; and actually helping them, contributing to the family, is one of the things that makes them happiest. And; even teenagers! Not sure this is a universal, but I mocked my kids when they started to act like "teenagers", as learned on the bus and the rare TV exposure. "Ew!! Don't tell me you're going to turn into a TEENAGER! You really don't have to, you know." Sure, they'd always grump, mostly playfully; but the underlying pride of contribution and achievement was always there, too.

As soon as your child learns they CANNOT please you- you've lost.

One of my favorite essays on parenting is Ron Howard's film "Parenthood". Lots of truths in it, and I get to fantasize about Mary Steenburgen... :-)

Re: Tiger moms. They push/drive their children, yes? I greatly prefer to open doors and paths, and lead. Though occasionally a good nudge may be the only way to get movement. Anger? Pretending parents don't get angry is a lie- and the kids know it. Far better to be open about it. Patching up and forgiving is natural too- nobody can forgive you like your own children.

You may be right, Ewan, although it does seem easier for Grandparents to step back and show perspective - perspective they didn't necessarily have as parents, and to pass jusgement on parenting.

I don't see her rages as artificial or manipulative - I think that's part of who she is, and it would be way too much work to manipulate. At the same time, I think it is interesting that the cover sentence points out that this book is "supposed to be" about how Chinese parenting is better than Western parenting, even though the events - and her failure - happened before she began composing it.

In that context, then, "supposed to" becomes "what the readers want to see" not "I set out to write this book" - she didn't. The book is about her failure from moment one - Lulu from her first entry is admired for her rebelliousness and intelligence and resistance - in fact, Chua keeps pointing out that she's like her (a telling point - there's a reason for the famous parent curse "I hope you have one just like you." ;-)).

I guess I see the book as much more self-conscious than other people seem to - yes, what she did didn't work - and she's proud, as most parents are, that it didn't work because what Lulu has is both enraging and wonderful. The whole point of the story is that it didn't work on Lulu - that you can't really be a full Tiger parent in a culture that allows for other choices.


Moreover, they don't seem to be central to the point - they are Chua's excesses, rather than the actual necesary behavior of Tiger parents.

No no no. You miss the point entirely. Chua is behaving exactly as a Tiger mother (or Asian mother, for that matter; the issue isn't Chinese-centric) would behave. You, Sharon, talk about times when parents are driven to anger or frustration. That is NOT what Chua is about.

Asia values age. The older you are, the more respect you garner, regardless of whether you're an incompetent prat or not. Therefore, the younger you are, the less respect you deserve and are accorded. Therefore, as a parent, you are free to treat your children like complete shit, knowing all your contemporaries and authority figures are in complete agreement.

I had a Tiger Mother. I am living in Asia right now. I know of what I speak. And it is despicable.

PS The alternative to Chua's "parenting" is not permissiveness. It's not a dichotomy, people, it's a continuum. There are degrees; it's just finding the right one and giving your children the respect they deserve as human beings.

The trouble with humans is that speech and motor skills and reasoning come in way before prefrontal cortex development. So sometimes emotional development is not remotely in synch with what might assume as 'age appropriate development'.
Kids can do physical labor and intellectual labor far beyond what we typically challenge them with in this day and age. What they can't always do is emotional labor we think should go along with those skills-regulating their own emotions or helping us regulate ours. It's not the tasks that are too much- it's demanding that they stay on task the way an adult can. It's important to remember that they used to send 8 year olds out to fill the woodbox *when they were frustrated and need to burn off some steam* (it's a very productive sort of therapeutic distraction, chopping wood), not just when they needed wood.
In a way, I wonder if "high expectations" tends to exacerbate the problem... when our kids get so amazingly competent at X, Y and Z, we forget they can't necessarily do A, B and C to keep themselves calm and happy whilst doing X, Y and Z. For an adult, taking a break, a deep breath, getting a snack when your blood sugar is low, or recognizing when you are just frazzled beyond all else and Need a Nap, should all be second-nature. It's hard to realize how much self-knowledge all that depends on.

Full disclaimer- I only have a toddler. I may be talking out my ass when it comes to older kids.

You may be right, Ewan, although it does seem easier for Grandparents to step back and show perspective - perspective they didn't necessarily have as parents, and to pass jusgement on parenting.

I don't have the book around anymore, or have a particularly great memory - but didn't Chau mention that her siblings weren't all raised as she was - I got the feeling that her mother tailored the parenting to the kids (to an extent at least) - although I may be utterly mistaken here.

I don't see her rages as artificial or manipulative

I do - it's particularly illustrated with her rage when child no.2 shows rebellion for the first time - nobody remotely sane would get so enraged with a child that they would put them outside in freeze your fingers off weather - she consistently goes to defcon 1 fully conscious that in doing so she's forcing the issue with her kids. Now I'm not claiming there is no anger, only that she is expressing it through a loudspeaker rather than simply expressing what comes naturally - this appears to be a great deal of what being a Tiger mother entails - turn up the anger to 11, hit the mute button when your kid does something good.

Or at least that's what I got out of it.

A guy I work with has a pretty good perspective on parenting - he figures that if you don't feel like you're making it up as you go along then you're probably doing something wrong - 10 months in (so clearly I speak from impeccable authority...) and this is an approach I can buy... if only because it validates my parenting skills as being right on track. (confirmation bias? I can't help it if everything I do or think just happens to be right)

I do have experience of someone who responded just exactly that crazily (not the same reaction, but the same scale in a different way) to outright rebellion - so I guess it doesn't seem as strange to me. My father was like that - defiance just pushed his buttons (he was not a screamer in that sense, though - it played out in other ways) so I guess I see it as bad, but not forced.

I did get the impression that her parents learned that lesson when they had their youngest, disabled daughter - although from a few things they say, it sounds like she got a slightly lightened tiger parenting too.

As for authority - you know, you never do get to declare victory on this one - we're all talking out our butts in some measure ;-).

Greenpa, Eric and I love _Parenthood_ - we watched it once when each child was born.

Chua has issues to say the very least. If you take a gander at her book World on Fire: Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, Chua discusses the murder of her aunt in the Philippines. The ethnic Chinese dominate the Filipino economy. According to Chua, this dominance spawned the hatred that led her aunt's driver to murder her.

However, if you actually read what Chua writes, you quickly realize that Chua's aunt was an irony-less, abusive, petty kleptocrat whose cruelty brought her demise.

At eight-years-old, Chua staid with her aunt her âsplendid hacienda-style houseâ when, one night, she decided to grab something to drink. Groggy, Chua ended up in the male servant's quarters, a room Chua says was packed with at least six men who slept on mats on a dirt floor that reeked of âsweat and urineâ. Confronting her aunt the next day, Chua's aunt informed her, in front of her Filipino staff, that Filipinos were âlazy and unintelligent and didn't really want to do much else.â While her staff maintained her aunt's childless household that the aunt did not have to work to sustain or create, she proceeded to launch into the libertarian saw about how if they (the staff) disliked their jobs they were free to leave. As Chua recalls, her aunt said this about her household staff as if they were not present.

Another endearing trait of Chua's aunt is her habit of stealing ketchup packages from McDonald's whenever they ate there. While the ketchup packets are provided free of charge, they are provided free for the food you purchase there. Chua's aunt stuffed her Gucci purses with them with apparent disregard for either their cost to the company or the desire of other patrons for condiments. This thievery and ignoring the wishes, desires, and rights of others does not bode well for the decent treatment or accurate payment of her household staff.

Naturally, it was racial hatred, not her aunt's unconscionable behavior that brought her aunt's death. And I am sure being raised, at least in part, by scum like that had no impact on Chua's parenting decisions.

Certainly children are capable of doing more than we in the United states typically ask of them. But Chua's big problem seems to me to have been her forcing development in narrow areas of her children's lives while failing to nurture other areas.

In 1931, when my mother turned 13, she left her farm home where her parents were having seious difficulty in providing for her, moved to a nearby city where she shared a room in a boarding house, and went to work in a cigar factory. She had two dresses. Each day she wore one and washed the other. There was no one to wake her up or to insist that she go to work on time or that she keep herself clean and neat.

After nearly a decade of experience in self-sufficiency, when the war came she trained at the Federal ship yard as a welder and worked there even after marrying until I was born as the war was ending.

But she missed out on her education.

Children, like adults, have just so many hours a day. Some of those hours need to be spent learning, some working (and maybe learning at the same time), and some playing and socializing. Children also need to have gradually increasing control over their own time and behavior in order to mature. I think that to a large degree parenting is about preparing our children eventually to say no to us in a healthy way.

I'm not so sure that getting one just like you is the worst that can happen. I was (and am) a happy-go-lucky kind of person, I keep pretty much to myself and have been mostly responsible with the opportunities that I've received. My teenage son, on the other hand, has such a negative outlook (possibly due to divorce and his mother's prior abuse [she blamed him for trapping her in parenthood]) that we have never been able to see eye to eye on anything. He's smart, but consistently berates his own intelligence. He's capable, but often undercuts his success by not applying himself.

As I've grown older, I've come to the conclusion that I don't know how to help him - so I've told him that everyone finds their place in the world and he will need to find his. I try to show him ways to see things differently so that he can learn from his experiences. I look back on my own life and realize that I didn't grow up until I left my parents' house - and I know that he won't grow up until he makes that journey. For me, that was a stint in the military. For him, I don't know what it will be...

Lastly, my youngest daughter is as much like me as a girl could be. I want to encourage her to do the things that I did as a kid - and find that I'm not allowed to because such behavior is "neglectful". I want her to play hard, wear our her clothes, scrape her knees and elbows and get the shit scared out of her when tries something that fails.

Because I know that experience is a much better teacher than I ever will be. The best that I can hope for is showing my kids how to use someone else's experiences to guide their own development.

Eric, I have one pretty much like me (Simon), and I admit, he's not the one I struggle with most. When my mother so cursed me (saying, as she said it, that her mother had done the same to her and she'd sworn she'd never say it ;-)), my comment was that as long as I didn't have one like my sister Rachael, I'd be fine ;-). Still, it can be hard to see your faults in a child - sounds like you are less faulty than me ;-).


I'm so glad you liked this book, Sharon! I loved it too; disagreed with a lot of it, felt good about my own parenting by comparison, and laughed a LOT, of course.

Overall, I think I ended up just admiring her willingness to put all this stuff - both positive and negative - out there. She's a very confidant, smart writer and I wish her all the best dealing with her kids as they get older...