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The Problems With Amy Chua's "Tiger Mother" Hypothesis

Amy Chua's just-released "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother"

By now you’ve probably read or at least heard about Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua’s hyperbolic WSJ essay of a few days ago in which she asserted that the way she is raising her two daughters – via an extreme, rigid and authoritarian approach she claims to be iconically Chinese – is far superior to the way western parents like you and I are doing the job. Chua wrote the essay in support of a book she has coming out this week titled  “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” in which she makes the case that children raised by overbearing and exceptionally strict Chinese mothers are superior (yes, she uses that word) to other children.

In Chua’s essay, which certainly has gotten people talking about her book, she names all the things she would never let her two daughters do (playdates, sleepovers, participate in school plays, etc, etc, etc), as well as explaining which activities she not only allows, but insists upon (math drills, marathon music lessons, etc).  Critics of Chua’s essay have focused on her recommended parenting methods – such as denying her daughter water or bathroom breaks until she managed to perform a musical selection properly, or calling her child “garbage” when her academic performance fails to satisfy – as cruel and abusive, and as potentially damaging to kids’ psychological health. I agree with these critics that the parenting practices Chua espouses (and which I suspect she exaggerates more than a little to make her point and sell books) could rise to the level of abuse.  At the very least, living with Chua as a mother sounds like hell, even if you did end up playing Carnegie Hall and graduating from Stanford with a quantum physics degree.

However, my criticism of Chua’s “Tiger Mother” hypothesis –  her assertion that this style of extreme Chinese parenting produces individuals who are “superior” to others who are not raised this way – is not focused on the methods she recommends, but on the outcomes.  I reject Chua’s assertion that her children are necessarily “superior” to their classmates being raised in a more relaxed, western fashion.  That’s because Chua’s definition of success for her daughters is extremely narrow, focusing as it does on music (classical only, and only on acceptable instruments), academics (specifically math and science) and complete acceptance of parental domination.  The only way Chua’s hypothesis of superior parenting producing superior children is if you accept this very limited definition of success.  Furthermore, she doesn’t suggest that her extreme methods could also create superiority in other areas of interest or activity, such as the arts, public service or athletics. No, she basically says that Chinese mothers are better mothers because they insist that their kids attain high achievement in three or four specific areas. And frankly, this makes her whole argument fall apart.

If Chua’s suggested parenting  methods really work to create superior abilities in the children raised in this way, then the methods should be applicable to any area of activity or initiative. And while Chua smugly points to “tons” of studies in which Chinese kids are shown to make better math grades, I am going to have to checkmate her by noting the fact that there aren’t any Chinese kids playing in the NFL.  Does the fact that such a high percentage of highly paid, very successful professional atheletes are African American mean that African American mothering is “superior” to Chua-style parenting? Obviously, I am engaging in a bit of pretzel logic here, but so is Chua, and she’s trying to use it to belittle and demean other cultures, stereotype her own culture,  and of course, to sell books.

I also want to point out that Chua’s assertion that Chinese-style mothering produces “superior” outcomes really only works if you view it within the context of American (or other western) culture.  In China, Chua’s hypothesis that Chinese mothering is more successful falls flat, that is, unless you define success as a totalitarian state in which basic human rights are denied, women are second class citizens, the arts and religion are brutally suppressed, and freedom of thought and speech are punishable by death.

Mothering is about more than raising one’s own child, it’s about creating an individual who becomes part of a generation of citizens.  So while it’s fantastic that Chua’s daughters play violin and piano so well, and while it’s definitely impressive that they make such stellar math grades, wouldn’t it mean more if Chua’s self-defined Chinese, “Tiger” mothering – which she undertakes from the luxury and freedom of her totally American lifestyle – produced young adults with a passion to return to China and work to create a more just, equitable and free society for the billions of Chinese mothers and daughters who never get to take a music lesson, much less attend school at all? It’s easy to feel superior and successful when you are chauffeuring your healthy, American-born daughters around in your Volvo, taking them from pediatrician appointment to private tutoring to music lessons.  But that’s not the experience that most truly Chinese mothers have – those mothers actually living in China – not for themselves or the single child per woman that the Chinese government decrees as permissable.

Every parent’s definition of success for her children will be different. Amy Chua has shared hers with us (classical music virtuosity, high math SAT score, submission to parental dominance), and now I’ll share mine with you; I’d rather turn out the woman who manages to create freedom for other women through her politics, activism, art, spiritual practice or community service than produce the next National Merit Scholar.  Of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means, but if parents only focus on test scores and recital performances, they may fail to see the other talents and gifts their child may possess – talents and gifts that could change the world.

So what did you think of Chua’s essay? How do you define success for your kids, and for your kids’ generation? Talk about “Tiger Mothering” in the comments below.

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