Pundits use extreme and extremely unrealistic Tiger Mom as a straw man to support American anti-intellectualism.

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. 

4 thoughts on “Pundits use extreme and extremely unrealistic Tiger Mom as a straw man to support American anti-intellectualism.

  1. Thanks for puttng Tiger Mom into perspective. Her material is not the sort of thing I would normally consider worth reading, but when it got publicity out of all expectation, I began to wonder what was up with this. I agree with you, that it is popular as something to make Americans feel good about their sloppy ways. Everyone’s style of parenting will be different — with my three children there were appropriate (from a parental view) restrictions and opportunites.

  2. Sounds like you did a great job with your son.

    My partner had a strict upbringing from his Jamaican parents while they lived in the middle London. But once he turned 16, his father told him something similar and he had full control over his life – how and when he came and went, girls, education and religion. Now he is a man who shares the same good strong values as his parents and has come to choose those values by himself.

    My own parents were not the same and continued to rule strictly until I left home (as quickly as possible haha). My sister (who still lives at home) is 22 and has completely rebelled: smokes, head to foot in piercings and tattoos. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that (apart from the smoking thing) but in my parents mind it was the worst thing she could do… so that’s what she did. We all love each other very much but are five adults who need their own space. We keep ‘children’ as ‘children’ far too long in the modern world. Rebellion against your parents in a 5 year old is expected – children are supposed to test boundaries – rebellion in a 25 year old is just sad.

    Chua gives a total distortion on what typical Asian parents are like. Yes children are pushed. But they are pushed to always to their best in whatever they are doing and whatever they are good at – from small daily tasks to partaking in school plays and demonstrations etc.

    Great post

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