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Thoughts on Tiger Mom February 20, 2011

Posted by frrobins in Books, Parenting, Schools.
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As promised in my previous post, I am now writing my thoughts about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Like many people, I was horrified when I read an excerpt from her book titled Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. Later I read another article maintaining that Chua’s book was not a how to manual but a memoir and that the article strung things together to make the book seem worse than it really was. I thought of recent events such as the unfair persecution of Shirley Sherrod when her words were deliberately taken out of context and decided to read the book for myself.

Honestly, the first article gave a pretty good overview of what you will find in the rest of the book. Yes, it was a memoir and Chua’s methods did blow up in her face, yet her conclusion seemed to be more that her draconian methods worked well for her older daughter, Sophia, but not for her younger daughter, Lulu. Then it changed to that her methods worked for Lulu, but in a round about way.

Throughout the book Chua employs abusive, torturous methods to ensure that her daughters succeed. When she sits down with three-year-old Lulu to teach her to play the piano, and Lulu acts like a typical three-year-old and bangs away at the keys, Chua throws her outside in New England in the dead of winter in the snow. The girls had to practice their instruments every day for many hours a day. Chua reported that if they were sick, they still had to practice. One girls had dental surgery and she still had to practice. Chua would be over their shoulder the whole time screaming abuse (Sophia’s lists of what Chua said when she was practicing was disheartening to read). Even on vacations, they still had to practice. For her birthday when four-year-old Lulu and seven-year-old Sophia give her homemade cards, Chua rejects the cards saying the girls put little thought into them and she expected better.

She justifies this by saying that when the girls’ grandmother died they composed beautiful speeches for her funeral because she made them give her good birthday cards. Never mind the fact that the girls were grieving and said they didn’t want to write and give a speech. And never mind the fact that Chua made 12 year-old Sophia throw out her first draft, saying it was no good, and insisted on a better one.

The litany of abuses is long. And while the book is a memoir as opposed to a how-to manual, you never get the sense that Chua regrets her methods. When Lulu completely rebels (gee, who saw that coming?) by throwing glasses in a restaurant in Moscow Chua finally backs down and lets Lulu quit the violin. Lulu decides she doesn’t want to completely quit (ie, playing thirty minutes a day instead of 5 hours) and that she wants to play tennis as well. When Lulu’s tennis instructor comments that he’s never seen anyone improve as fast as Lulu and that she knows how to drill, Chua seems to take this as proof that her methods worked in a round about way, that she taught Lulu how to work hard and that she just needed to let her have some control.

Like myself, a lot of Western readers were also uncomfortable with the contempt she had for Western parenting techniques. Though she plays lip service to the idea that anyone can be a Chinese mother and Western parent, it’s obvious that she doesn’t really feel that way. Now, I think some of it is reactive. She most likely grew up hearing people criticize her parents for how she was raised, and then as an adult met with criticism about how she raised her daughters. As a result, she criticizes the “lax” Western ways that lead to kids playing Wii all day. She really doesn’t do herself a lot of favors, though.

Especially because as she stereotypes Western parenting methods as weak and permissive, she stereotypes “Chinese” ones as strict and abusive.

I remember when I first started watching a lot of Japanese anime. I was surprised by how many focused on a character who didn’t do well in school. Used to be when I thought of Japan I thought of a place where everyone must make straight As. Turns out, like in the west, there are students who make straight A, students who make Bs, and those who fail school. There are some who drop out of school all together. Like students in the west they run the gamut, even though as a whole they test better than us. I imagine the same is true for China.

And from the studies I’ve read the higher test scores do not result from abusive parenting, but from other factors, some of which Chua does employ but doesn’t seem to pay much mind to. In the West, people’s abilities tend to be seen as fixed. When a kid does well on a test, we tell him/her that s/he is so smart. In the East, parents tend to remark that s/he worked hard studying for a test. The difference is subtle but leads to startling results when the child has a hard time with a subject.

In the West, when a child has difficultly with a subject s/he tends to assume it’s because s/he isn’t smart or that s/he is no good at the subject and gives up. In the East, s/he assumes that s/he isn’t working hard enough and puts more effort into it.

The other thing they do in the East is use preschool as a time to learn about how to be a student. In the West we tend to see preschool as a time for kids to get ahead by learning their ABCs and how to do math. The thing is, sitting and listening, developing skills, taking notes, doing homework, etc are not things that children instinctively know how to do. Like ABCs and 1, 2, 3s, they have to be taught…preferably before you get to the ABCs. Hence children in the East are given lessons on how to be a good student while in the West we throw our children into the water without teaching them how to swim.

Chua employed both of the above methods with her daughters. Which is great. And along the way she threw in a good deal of torture and abuse. Which isn’t.

And you see plenty of it with Western families. I remember riding in a car with a friend while her mother berated her for not getting As. My friend was humiliated, especially to have it happen in front of an audience. I’ve seen my fair share of Western parents employ authoritarian techniques on their children. And throughout the book I was reminded of the concept of the stage mother, a western concept.

Like plenty of Western parents, Chua believed erroneously that she could force her daughters to do anything she wanted them to do. At least Chua came to realize that she couldn’t. Most authoritarian parents never do. It’s unfortunate that she only came to this realization after spending seventeen years of Sophia’s life and thirteen years of Lulu’s utilizing harsh, draconian techniques.



1. madmothermusings - February 20, 2011

This was a really informative article. Its funny too, I had just been talking to my husband today about the cultural differences creating a bit of an advantage for eastern children as far as test scores, etc. But we both agreed we did not know what the differences were specifically, and that we’d like to know. Now I do. I’m curious to read the book, and slightly scared to at the same time. It does not sound like a pleasant story at all. I am also a preschool teacher, and although we’ve discussed these differences in class (in testing and culture) we’ve never delved deep. As an educator, I am much more curious than a parent. Thank you for an enlightening glimpse!

frrobins - February 21, 2011

Thanks! The book is a good, quick read, though I’d recommend reading it in a bookstore coffee shop (like I did) or borrowing it from a library rather than buying it, especially as you’re unsure about it. A lot of the cultural stuff I learned while taking a class on the psychology of teaching while in college. I wish I could give more specific referrals beyond that.

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