I am not a Tiger Mom

I don’t know if there is anyone left in North America who’s not had quite enough of Amy Chua and her methods of producing brilliance in her children.    But in case any of you are late to join the party,

here again is that famous  bit of text from the  back cover  from the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother:

“A  lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

CAU cover

• 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.”

Amy Chua with her daughters, Louisa and Sophia, at their home in New Haven, Conn.

CAU cover

These  standards by which Amy Chua claims that she and most Chinese parents raise their children sound like harsh torture to most North Americans.  Yet Chua’s children appear to  have grown up to be well adjusted and happy young women, and are remarkably accomplished and devoted to their family.
It leaves us scratching our heads.
We would have expected that those girls would be in weekly psychotherapy and to show all the signs of unchecked eating disorders.     You can see in the above photo that they look just fine.

The Wall Street Journal’s article discussing Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was written under the very unfortunate title “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.”
It’s unfortunate they used such an inflammatory title   because all us American women are already insecure enough about our parenting skills and we are already second-guessing ourselves at nearly every turn.

Parents of home-schooled kids, privately educated kids, and the parents of public school kids are already looking askance at one another,  apparently feeling judged simply because someone else had openly chosen a path that another family intentionally rejected.
And the soccer/ hockey moms and the violin and harp crowd are looking down upon one another in derision, nevermind the “working mom” vs. “stay at home mom” rivalry which is still such a presence in the US.

We don’t much need another class distinction from which one pack of mothers can look condescendingly upon another.  But I think we have it.
Now the distinction   (not actually  new…. only newly defined)    is the one between the mothers who will stop at nothing to produce excellence in their children as opposed to the mothers who are content with mediocrity as long as home is a place of rest and peace.
And yes, I know this is a gross over generalization….but I’ve been raising kids for long enough to know that that is essentially where the boundaries lie.

The book has generated such a kerfuffle of controversy, which is great for sales.
And, being a consumer of the “herd” variety, I went to the bookstore to get a look at it on Saturday.

In the “Parenting Skills” section,  I found four copies of the book, and as I reached for one, a very attractive, fit, thirty-ish looking Chinese woman reached over my own hand and grabbed the other three copies.
She immediately started talking to me, and she was talking so fast I could hardly keep up.
She asked me if I had read it, and  told me she had read it a couple of times.
She also told me she has given copies of the book to all her friends, Chinese and otherwise.   And she was going to share the three in her hand  with three more co-workers.
She said that this book gives a perfectly accurate picture of life under the hand of a Chinese mother.
She told me she had given a copy of the book to her own mom, who read it and then called to say    “I was not that bad!”  But the daughter replied, laughing, “Mom, you were worse!”

She said all her Chinese friends were commonly called “garbage”  by their parents, and thought nothing of it.  And she was laughing at the idea that Westerers find the book so appalling.

This woman was such a wealth of insight to me, and she was so enthusiastic about my need to read the book that I bought the only copy she left behind.
And as I turned to leave she mentioned that she is a corporate lawyer and she has two young children who are violin prodigies.   She was still laughing.  And I believe every word she said.
Another Chinese lady I met in line told me that this book is not called “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” in its Chinese translation.  Back in China it is simply called “Parenting in America”.   This can only mean that  to the Chinese mind,  there is no  kind of parenting other than the Tiger variety, so back in the motherland,  the thing that makes this book newsworthy is the fact that this uber-mothering is  happening in the  very  breadbasket of  unremarkable performers which is America.
(I should mention that I live in an area that is so thickly populated with Chinese immigrants that you can go to Costco on a Saturday and never once overhear a conversation in any language other than a Chinese dialect, even though the store is packed and everyone is talking at once.  I tried it once.   And the bookstore I went to on Saturday is right behind that Costco.)

My daughter Audrey and I have both read the book this week.  We were both amazed, amused and horrified by turns.   We have enjoyed it tremendously, and have recommended it so much that people are beginning  to avoid us.
But, much as I loved reading the book,  I am not at all a Tiger Mom.
I am more like a “house-cat mom.”   I like to play, I like to keep them close to me, cuddled up and warm by a fire.  I love having all my kids around me for book discussions and history talks and anything where we are all in a bit of a pile together.
But, I do also have claws, and I am not afraid to use them when people need to move faster, produce better or just generally knock of the foolishness.
I could not ever live in the atmosphere of fighting and anger that Amy Chua describes in her book.   I am convinced that that kind of  destructive sharpness can do damage that’s hard to repair,  and I don’t want that.   But I like to get good results, and I want my kids to respond the first time I ask them.   And I require that of them, and that’s a standard that seems high, to some.

My husband  has  high standards for our kids  which have helped me to raise the bar.   He might actually be a bit of a Tiger Dad.    He exhibits many of the rigorous demands that Chua describes as being the norm for first generation immigrants who have had to fight for a better life, and who know the odds their children face, and so make strong demands of them.
Jon came to the US with $100 in his pocket at age 18, then put himself through college and medical school.  He understands how hard they will have to  fight if they want to compete and  succeed.   Jon’s expectations from our kids have been greater than mine from the moment our first son was born.  I’m really thankful for him and for his standard.

And it turns out that I don’t want mediocrity either.  Mediocrity from my kids makes me kind of crazy.

I insist that I be able to speak to my kids  “straight”   and I expect them to be able to handle clear honest criticism which is given in love and without insult.   This is  what instruction is all about.  And if they can’t  receive instruction, they won’t get very far in life.    I really believe that it is poor parenting to continually coddle your kids and allow them to be hurt by constructive advice.   Don’t we all know adults who are handicapped by this, who cannot understand that their failure to advance is due directly to their inability to stand up straight and learn from those who could instruct them?

In many ways I admire Amy Chua’s attitude when she states that she requires that her children attain high standards because she respects them and knows that they are capable of achieving high standard.   She is right when she says that requiring little of our children is a way of telling them that we do not think very much of them.   Her assessment of Western parents who allow their children to attain to only the most mediocre standard  is that they are producing children who will have poor self esteem because they understand, at some level, that nobody expected much of them,  and that  must certainly indicate that they are incapable of very great achievements.
I also agree with her very much when she says that there is nothing that will produce a strong sense of confidence in anyone more than having achieved great things.     If pride follows that achievement, there is sin to be dealt with.   But the achievement itself is not sin.   Achievement is honor.

And even though I understand that the achievement of great things is not the goal of our existence, but serving God in humility and obedience is.  That service is to be of a very high quality.  If we do everything as unto the Lord, that’s a high standard.   If your boss is the Creator of the Universe, and you are keenly aware of who that actually is, you might not cut so many corners.  If our children see us, as Christian parents, as willing as Amy Chua and the mothers like her to make enormous sacrifices of our time and our lives in order to get them launched on the path that is right for them, they will be blessed by that.   I don’t believe that it’s enough for us to tell them “we did our best”……we have to do what is required in order to help them find a good footing.  And unlike Chua, we must do it without arguing and complaining.   That is hard work.  We need supernatural help for that.  And people will laugh at us and criticize us, and then we have to ignore that and keep marching forward.

She’s right that most American (and Canadian) parents coddle their kids and fail them when they don’t ask them to reach for a higher and more difficult standard.  And she’s also right when she implies  that it makes the North American peers of these children of Chinese immigrants easy prey, always second best, and eventually subordinate to an entire class of people.  She’s right about these things, and they are hard to swallow.

I do not think she’s right about the way of going about it.  Even though she has won a success of a certain kind, and a success that’s really rich and satisfying for her, it’s not the success I want for my kids.  I want successful kids, and I also want kids who know that arguing and fighting are destructive.   I don’t believe at all  that anger and screaming, insulting and depriving children is the only way to get great results from them.
In many ways, Amy Chua’s method is a much harder path than the one most parents take.
But I think that in comparison to what is best, anger and shouting is the easy path.

We all want our kids to go rampaging wildly down the path of excellence and accomplishment.
Every parent who has the future success of the kids in mind is puzzling out what will set them on that road.
Should  they do sports or music, lots of social stuff or very little, more parental supervision or less, Youth Group or not, organic or freedom of choice.  And we make a choice and then preach on it for awhile, mostly to convince ourselves through the sound of our own strident voice that we have made the best and only intelligent choice.

But I think that when we stop and make those decisions THE BIG ONES, maybe we are stopping short.   Maybe the really big decisions have to do with helping them to learn to understand what the best good standards are and why they matter.   Karate or Not Karate, Organic or Not Organic, Violin or Hockey are really the  minor choices.
The big choices for our kids, and the choices that should be dealt with in a thousand different discussions every week are the discussions about who they will serve as adults, and why will they serve that god or God, and how should they serve.  If they understand that they are serving something, and if they understand that every choice they make reveals who they are serving, they can then learn to be honest with themselves, because honest service will require honest self evaluation.   They can learn to ask questions which are harder than “which sport?”,  “which musical instrument?” or even “which university?”     And if they can learn to ask themselves really big and honest questions, they can then learn to see what the high standard is there for.  That the high standard is not there to torment them.   It’s there to help them by giving them a good path  they can follow.

I can see that I have given no good practical steps for parenting which will produce outrageous success in children.

But isn’t it true that if our kids grow up  loving  a high standard, and if they see that it is for their good, they will excel?
I can already hear somebody saying that it’s not reasonable to expect a seven year old to love a high standard…….but I say that’s not true.
I think that if we really do love them well, and we really train them well with patience and we are willing to sacrifice our time for our kids in training them , only training them in godliness rather than training them to be competitive and selfish, and if we pray for grace as each day unfolds, God is faithful and will help us to show them the way they should go.  And when they are old they will not depart from it.

4 thoughts on “I am not a Tiger Mom

  1. Thank you for this post, Missy, reminding me to continually seek the balance that is necessary to live the Christian life well, whether it be in parenting or elsewhere. I have struggled with being a controlling, angry, perfectionist mom and with the patience of my family I have learned that allowing my children to make their own decisions with our guidance and then helping them live with the consequences bears more fruit than legislating their behaviour. I do not want to raise children who are performing for me but rather produce people who understand that “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:23-24)

  2. What a great post Missy! My thoughts after reading the Washington Post article:
    “I never thought it was possible to be simultaneously horrified and inspired.”

  3. I echo what Jeanine said — except that I would change “I have learned” to “I am learning” — and I’m rather slow at truly applying the lessons :)

  4. I just saw Doug Wilson’s post this morning, and it’s on the topic of parenting young kids, and there’s so much that he has to say there that I wish I could attach to this because it’s so helpful. My little linky thing is not working this morning, or maybe the coffee isn’t working. But this good article is at Blog and Mablog, and is well worth reading. http://www.dougwils.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8392:parenting-young-people-ii&catid=147:topical

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