“Tiger Mom” Amy Chua must be extraordinarily pleased with herself. The controversy surrounding her recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, has not only landed her book on the bestseller list, but now her parenting methods are the subject of the cover of TIME magazine. In bold letters, the headline shouts, “The Truth About Tiger Moms,” then in smaller print asks, “A mother’s memoir about tough-love parenting unleashed an international debate. Is that because she’s onto something?”
In a feature for Babble, Stephanie Thompson opines that there are authoritarian mothers of all stripes, and I would have to agree, from personal experience. Thompson writes, having an American authoritarian parent “likely does cost us a mountain of money in healthcare as we later — as adults — try to uncover the mystery of why we feel like crap about ourselves.” On the other hand, she says, Asians know exactly why they have low self-esteem. “Because their parents tell them: it’s because you’re fat, they might say, or, it’s because you didn’t ace that test or nail that interview. If we know, they reason, if we are told, we might actually have a better chance at the time of doing something about it.”
I’ve avoided weighing in on this issue personally thus far, instead allowing my friend and fellow comedian Jen Kwok to share her experience having been raised by a Tiger Mom. And I suppose having a Tiger Mother is all well and good, if that Tiger Mother is an acclaimed professor at Yale. For someone like Amy Chua, the incessant and forceful demands she places on her children will pay off for them, because she’s intelligent enough to see a very specific end-result in her mind’s eye.
But what about those of us that were told we were fat, lazy, rude, pathetic, good for nothing, etc. by parents who had no professional advantages, no connections, not even so much as a college education? What about those of us who were insulted by authoritarian parents who believed we had to do better, be better, but who didn’t know exactly for what purpose? My mother constantly berated me as a child because she wanted me to be more disciplined, but she didn’t have a specific goal in mind. College? Sure. Because college would be a great place to find a husband. Not because it would help me become self-sufficient or self-reliant. I don’t believe the goal of authoritarian parenting is instilling self-confidence. The goal of authoritarian parenting is to simply remain unchallenged and in control.
That being said, I simply can’t get behind calling a child “garbage” ever. Not ever. Because I know how much it hurts. And while, yes, being mistreated in my youth has propelled me to seek success in the media/entertainment industry and acceptance and love from an audience of strangers night after night, I also think it helped thrust me into a failed relationship with a much older man who lied to me, and whose abuse I accepted because it’s what felt familiar. That end result is a bit less appealing than giggling about having mastered a difficult concerto.
In another Babble feature, David Shenk nails exactly what is wrong with being an authoritarian parent. He writes:
But what Chua’s article seems to miss — on a tragic level, if her words are to be taken literally — is that parents do not get to control this process fully. Parents are guides, vital guides, to be sure, with powerful direct and indirect influence, but still mere guides. A child will always develop according to the totality of his or her own environment and will always make millions more decisions for him or herself than any parent can make for them. A child will always develop a singular world view, a sense of self. The smartest parenting, in my view, recognizes and respects that reality from early on — doing everything in the parent’s power to help the child make smart choices and develop strong habits. I want to practice piano. I want to solve this math problem. I want to work through this disappointment.
This is exactly the type of thinking process I’m trying to encourage in my own daughter. My 5-year-old is so much like me: she’s got a wonderfully creative and sharp mind, but she cries a lot. She gets frustrated easily. Instead of yelling at her when she does things wrong or expecting her to be perfect all the time, I’m patient. Much more patient than I ever expected I could be, actually. I stop, I get down on her level, I talk to her. I help her calm down and face her frustrations rationally. Because I’m hoping to instill in her an independence that will flourish when she’s in her teens and 20s. I hope, at that age, when she begins to deal with the really complicated parts of life, falling in love, getting hurt, finding a job, living on her own, having to chose between studying and partying, that she’ll think, “What would my mom say? How should I handle this?” Not, “Oh no, my mom will kill me if I screw this up.”
I’ve lived with that kind of fear my whole life, and I can tell you, it hasn’t helped me excel. In some ways, as I stated, it has pushed me to prove myself, but I don’t believe feeling a need to constantly prove oneself is the same thing as having the kind of confidence and self-possession to fully flourish. I’m trying to develop those senses now in my early 30s, hopefully making up for lost time.
TIME magazine has tried to spin the controversy around Chua’s momoir, suggesting it “has hit hard at a national sore spot: our fears about losing ground to China and other rising powers and about adequately preparing our children to survive in the global economy.” They go on for several paragraphs in their cover story, expounding on this theory. But I don’t think that’s why Chua has captured the minds of mothers everywhere. I think it’s because Chua, in her WSJ article at least, comes across as a monster. She does a good job of softening her image up in the TIME article (“About “The Little White Donkey”: she was perhaps too severe in enforcing long hours of practice, Chua says now.”) and reportedly in her book as well. (One of my criticisms of all of this Tiger Mother coverage is that these tiny, evil excerpts don’t tell Chua’s whole story. She wrote the book, she says, in a time of crisis when she realized her Chinese parenting wasn’t working out as well as she’d hoped.)
One thing I do find compelling about Amy Chua is her “maternal confidence — her striking lack of ambivalence about her choices as a parent — that has inspired both ire and awe among the many who have read her words.” Perhaps that’s what’s best to glean from her ancient Chinese wisdom: don’t be afraid to be who you are and don’t feel guilty about doing your best. Then again, that attitude probably comes more easily to those who are natural authoritarians, anyway, since they’re less likely to be self-reflective. My own mother has told me numerous times that while she wishes she had done some things differently in raising me, she did the best she could, and that has to be good enough. It’s too bad she never felt the same way about me, that I was doing my best, too.