My initial reaction to the Tiger Mom concept of parenting that Amy Chua presented in early January in her Wall Street Journal article titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” was to dismiss it as the ranting of a neurotic mother who presents her own almost sadistically extreme parenting tactics as representative of traditional Chinese attitudes towards education. I didn’t think it worth commenting.
But the news media has since used Chua as a straw man to represent a severe and unfriendly Asian model for parenting that the news media has explicitly and implicitly contrasted with the more loving, if less academic approach American parents take. I’ve read critiques and comments now in The New Yorker, Economist, San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post and New York Times and it’s amazing that all seem to take the Chua concept at face value as representative of an Asian model. To some degree, all find fault with Chua’s harsh extremism.
Chua brings disapprobation on herself with her list of what she never allows her children to do, which I will repeat here (for probably the thousandth time for those who read a lot):
“• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.”
Most of the list seems arbitrary or denying children the right to follow their own minds. Most of the list has absolutely nothing to do with getting good grades, e.g., attend a playdate or sleepover. The items related to school performance seem unfair, as sometimes a child runs into a teacher who doesn’t like him or her, and there are other smart kids around, so it’s tough to be #1 in everything all the time. Even the items with a kernel of good advice are extreme; for example, never watching TV or playing video games. Limit these mindless distractions, certainly, but to never allow is going a bit too far.
Merriam Webster tells us that a straw man is “an imaginary argument of no substance advanced in order to be easily confuted or an imaginary adversary advancing such an argument.” As we see in the case of Chua, a straw man is often a boogie man, in this case the boogie being China and the Chinese.
The Chua straw man plays into American fears of China’s growing economic power and influence in the world while at the same time makes us feel a little better about the inadequacies of the consumption-oriented and anti-intellectual American parenting style and the bad performance our children record on tests of knowledge and skills compared to not just the Chinese, but to most Western and industrialized Asian countries. Our kids may be ignorant, but they’re happy. (Of course, many of them are not, but that’s beside the point!)
The ideological subtext behind setting up Chua as a straw man is one that I have often found in the mass media, to wit: learning and school are bad and all intellectual activity is to be despised or mocked. In this case, the badness resides in the overly controlling behavior and unrealistic expectations of a neurotic mother who wraps herself in the flag of academic achievement.
I would like to propose that the broad Chinese (and also Jewish) model of stressing education and achievement in school while honoring intellectual endeavors is the right one, but to present Chua, the crazed “Tiger Mom,” as the model of this parenting strategy is inaccurate and even insulting.
I want to close this OpEdge entry with my parenting approach, which I believe is more representative of typical “strict” parents, be they Chinese, American or Norwegian. We did not allow my son to watch TV until he was four, and after that only within strict time limits that changed as he got older. The evening before my son started 9th grade, I said to him, “You now have total control over your life. No curfew, no requirement to do any extra curricular activities, you can hang around and watch TV all afternoon or you can be in as many clubs and activities as you want. Show up for dinner or not. There’s only one thing you have to do: Get only As and Bs, get more As than Bs and they all have to be in honors classes.” By the way, if my son had tested lower on his aptitude tests I would have lowered the academic requirement to whatever level was realistic.
This approach combined strict objectives with flexibility on how they are met, and I know it worked: After an outstanding high school career, my always cheerful and positive-looking son won an academic scholarship that paid room, board and tuition for his entire course work at Northeastern University, where he currently ranks first in his class going into the last semester of his senior year.