by Risa Green
Pretty much everyone, by now, has heard about the Tiger Mother and her evil parenting ways, but if you haven’t, here’s the recap: The Tiger Mother, a/k/a Amy Chua, a Chinese-American professor at Yale Law School, wrote a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, an excerpt of which ran in the Wall Street Journal last Saturday, with the title Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. I probably don’t need to say much more than that to get your mommy juices all riled up, but the gist of her argument is that the strict, perfection-driven, no-nonsense, “Chinese” way of parenting produces more successful children than the lazy, indulgent, fun-centric, “Western” parenting style.
Clearly, the WSJ, now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (also the owner of Fox News and the conservative, somewhat sensationalistic Times of London) was trying to bait every mom on the planet with this article, and the moms unfailingly took the bait. This last week, the mommy-blogosphere has been abuzz with post after post by “Western” moms about the horrors of Ms. Chua’s ways (No sleepovers! No playdates! No extracurricular activities!), posts by Asian women raised in the “Chinese” way about the horrors of their childhoods, as well as posts by Asian and Western moms alike arguing that Chinese moms must be doing something right since so many of their children attend Ivy League universities. Ms. Chua has even received death threats, causing her to backpedal a bit in the New York Times, in an article titled Retreat of the Tiger Mother.
A friend of mine initially forwarded the WSJ article to me last week, and upon reading it, my first reaction was mortification. Really? She told her daughter that she was garbage because she disrespected her? Really? She told her seven year-old to stop being lazy and pathetic when she couldn’t play a piano composition, and wouldn’t let her get up to go to the bathroom until she got it right? My friend emailed again a little while later to ask me what I thought. I told her that I needed some time to process it, but that I’m sure glad I wasn’t raised by a Chinese mother.
Now that I’ve had some time to process it, though, here’s what I’ve come away with: I still have an overwhelming sense of horror, but I also have a sneaking, guilty suspicion that she’s not entirely wrong. Don’t misunderstand me here, please – I’m not advocating for the “Chinese” way. I would never call my children names, I don’t expect them to be perfect in everything, and I certainly wouldn’t go out and buy hundreds of practice tests if my kid came home with a B. But there was one argument she made that stuck itself into a guilty little corner of my mind –that, she says, “what Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work….This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up.” Ouch.
I went through this recently with my daughter and piano lessons. She wanted to learn to play piano, but I wasn’t willing to be a practice Nazi. My thinking was that if she really enjoyed it, she’d practice because she wanted to, not because I forced her to. But of course, she never practiced, because she wasn’t good, and it wasn’t fun, and I didn’t make her. So she never really got any better. Two years of lessons, and she could still only play one real song, and even that one she didn’t play very well. Then I saw that movie Race to Nowhere, and I got all freaked out and decided to Reassess Our Priorities. I told my children that from now on, they were only going to participate in activities that they love. No more wasting their precious kid time on things that were just okay but clearly would never amount to anything. I told my daughter that it didn’t seem like she enjoyed playing piano all that much, but she loved to sing; she was always playing Wii Sing It and she joined chorus and sang in the school talent shows. So I encouraged her to quit piano, and to take singing lessons instead. Was I wrong? I don’t know. At the time, I thought I was doing the right thing. But reading Chua’s words definitely stung. “The Chinese strategy [of] tenacious practice, practice, practice, is crucial for excellence…once a child starts to excel at something – whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet – he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun.” It’s hard to argue with that. I’m not sure it’s just a Chinese strategy – after all, there are plenty on non-Asian figure skaters and basketball players and musicians who practice during all of their waking hours. It may not make for a very fun or child-like childhood, but there’s no question that it will produce children who excel at their chosen sport or instrument or hobby. So I do feel guilty about telling her to quit, and about my not putting in the time and effort to make her practice. If she’d practiced, would she have come to enjoy it? Will she always regret that she didn’t learn to play?
I can’t answer those questions, but I think the bigger question is, what is our goal? Do we want our kids to excel at the expense of everything else, or do we want them to have everything else at the expense at excelling? It’s interesting that this discussion started with an article about disparate parenting styles, because really, it’s exactly the same conundrum that we’ve been dealing with all along, or again, at least since the start of the Mommy Wars. Can we, and now our kids, really have it all? I think the answer we’re all starting to come to is that we can, just not necessarily at the same time. So I told my daughter that if she decides that she wants to play piano, she can always take lessons when she’s older. For now, though, I’d rather she go on playdates and sleepovers, and enjoy being a kid.
Also on MommyTracked: The Curse of the Tiger Mother