Thoughts on the Tiger Mother

So unless you’ve been under a rock (or possibly you have an actual life) you probably have heard about the Tiger Mother.   Also known as Amy Chua, she has a book that came out this week, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  In case you haven’t heard of her or her book, you can read an excerpt here in the Wall Street Journal. Or you can read a review here in the Washington Post. All over the Internet people are talking about her and her book and her parenting methods.

One thing is for certain.

Amy Chua has a great publicist who organized one fantastic  marketing campaign.

I haven’t actually read the book so I can only base my opinion on the excerpt and the review. From what I’ve read, I would agree with those who think Chua’s parenting methods border on or downright cross the line to abuse.  On the two homeschool message boards I visit there have been long discussions about the articles and for the most part people are vehement in their opposition to her. She had to have known that titling an article in the Wall Street Journal “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” wasn’t going to win her a lot of friends. And I’m pretty sure she was looking for that controversy. It sure has gotten her a lot of buzz.

I think the unfortunate thing about all the controversy is that it sounds like the book raises some interesting questions about different cultural views of success and happiness. Chua’s methods are extreme but judging all Asian mothers by one woman who refused to give her seven year old daughter a bathroom break for seven hours while she was practicing the piano is like judging all unschoolers by the one family who lets their kids watch video games all day. I might not think unschooling is right for us but there are things about the method that I can learn from.  Likewise, if we can just agree that virtually none of us are going to parent like Chua then maybe we could discuss the broader ideas in her book.

When H. read the Washington Post review the part he found the most intriguing was when they quoted Chua: “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.”

That is intriguing.

I can see that it’s often true. When H. and I were first dating we played golf a few times. It wasn’t very fun for me, mostly because I was terrible. I could see that it would be more fun if I put the time in and got better but it wasn’t that important to me so I didn’t.

On the other hand, there are times I can think of when something was fun precisely because I wasn’t good at it. Or maybe to be more exact, because I didn’t care very much about it and could just do it without worrying about if I was doing it right.  I went swing dancing once and was pretty terrible. It was a blast though because I had no idea what I was doing and could just enjoy watching all the people who were good at it.  I took an oil painting class my senior year of college and it was incredibly relaxing because I wasn’t very good at it. My days were filled with science classes that I loved (and was good at). I found science class and lab research fun. But it was also stressful because I wanted to be the best. Oil painting was something I knew I wasn’t ever going to master but it was just really fun to do. I didn’t have to worry about being the best, but could appreciate the experience.

I think most of us as parents walk the line between pushing our kids to be the best they can be and wanting them to know they are loved and accepted for who they are. In the suburbs where I live, I think most parents struggle with the notions of ambition and success and happiness. Most of us want our kids to be happy, but if forced to admit it would have to admit that we have some model of traditional educational and career success in mind as part of that happiness. I plan on reading this book eventually, when it’s available in the library. If nothing else, it may help me think through some of these struggles, even if it doesn’t serve as a model for how I want to parent.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Tiger Mother

  1. Ah, Alice! A sensible comment on the Great Tiger Mother Debate? Trying to ruin all the fun, eh?

    Seriously, I think there is something homeschoolers (and, indeed, anyone else) can learn from the Tiger Mother debate:

    For a thousand years or so, China had a system where the one way to get ahead in society was to get a high grade on the national master test: the higher your test score, the higher your position in the governing elite, and the more you could advance your and your family’s interests, including economic interests.

    America did not used to be like that. My great grandmother was born in 1883 and died in her nineties when I was a senior in college, so I knew her well throughout my childhood (better than my other grandparents, in fact). She dropped out of school after fourth grade (at which point she was of course already literate and numerate), and no one ever seemed to think the worse of her for that.

    School in her day seems to have been a place that provided a service: you got what you needed from that service and moved on.

    School is not like that any longer: it is a place to prove yourself for your future life, to gain credentials that will guarantee to other people that you are intelligent. Of course, prospective employers could just give people IQ tests as necessary, except, for various reasons, that is now effectively illegal. So, instead the college you went to is a surrogate for an IQ test: If you got into Harvard, you are probably smarter than some kid who went to UCLA. If you went to UCLA, you are probably smarter than someone who went to Kent State. Etc.

    In principle, universities provide a service: they help students learn. But real service providers offer their service to anyone who pays the money, and it’s up to the client (or some third party) to judge if the client used that service effectively. There is no application process to use a gas station, a dentist, or a grocery store – *we*, after all, pay them; *we* are the customers.

    Universities do not work like that. They graciously “admit” us, if we meet their high standards.

    When my great grandmother was born, none of that mattered: Ivy League universities were finishing schools for the male offspring of the upper class.

    But, now, the Ivies and other elite schools are the certification agencies that provide a ticket to elite positions in a credentialized, stratified society.

    And, *that*, I think, explains a lot about both Amy Chua and the reaction she has engendered.

    Culturally and historically, the Chinese grasp this game: they know how to maximize their chances to score as high as possible in the national exams in order to join the Mandarinate.

    Amy Chua believed that she could transfer that experience and make it work equally well in the contemporary American environment.

    And, I think, quite a few of her critics are terrified at the thought that she is probably right.

    Alas, such efforts may not align that closely with “education” as traditionally conceived: acquiring useful skills, gaining a broad understanding of the nature of human beings and of the natural world, learning to enjoy the greatest achievements of human art and culture, etc.

    But, if the goal is solely to win the race and jettison any unnecessary garb that interferes with that goal, well, Chua may know what she is doing.

    Full disclosure: I myself am a product of the system – B.S. from Caltech and Ph.D. from Stanford. And, my wife has quite a few similarities to Amy Chua: like Amy, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, slightly older than Amy, and, indeed, even born in the same state as Amy. So, I have extensive experience both with our current credentialing system and with the cultural perspective of first-generation American-born Chinese.

    I don’t have a magic solution. Our own homeschooling approach (I’m the homeschooling parent) is simply to focus on serious intellectual content, primarily in science and history. How will that work out when the kids apply to college? I don’t know: I’m not sure that should be a primary element of concern.

    We are, more or less, “classical” homeschoolers. Superficially, our approach is similar to Chua’s, studying Mandarin, Suzuki piano, etc. Except… our kids are allowed to have fun during piano practice – compose their own pieces, learn new pieces of their own choosing, etc.

    I think Chua was focused on schooling. I hope we are focused on education.

    All the best,

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • Wow, thanks for reading Dave and for the very thoughtful and interesting comment.

      We have a fair amount in common. My husband is also a first-generation American-born Chinese. I think the Tiger Mother article interested me partially because I do see some of the same things in his family. One perspective he had was that culturally for the Chinese respect and honor are really the most important thing. Respect is gained primarily through education so as a parent you do everything you can to ensure that your children will maximize their education and therefore, gain respect. I think though that you are right in saying that the focus may really be more on schooling than education.

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Little House on the Freeway « Supratentorial

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother « Supratentorial

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