If you’re a parent, or otherwise tapped into the parenting zeitgeist, you’ve probably heard of the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, and/or have read her “Wall Street Journal” article titled, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Among Chua’s parenting principles: kids shouldn’t be allowed to watch TV, play video games, or have play-dates; must get all As; must be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama; and are fair game to be insulted by their parents (e.g., to be called “garbage”) in the name of motivation. If you haven’t read the article but these bold ideas sound interesting, check out the WSJ piece and then come back here.
In this post, I will explain why I think the book and article are important; describe what I like about the article; and then explain what’s wrong with it. My post will be longer than Chua’s WSJ article—not because I’m needlessly verbose, but because it’s harder to carefully analyze something than to say whatever simple, brash thing pops into your head. If Dostoevsky had spray-painted a profanity on the side of a building instead of writing Notes From Underground, I wouldn’t say his existential angst would have been better served. (No, I’m not trying to say Chua’s writing is like graffiti, nor that I’m like Dostoevsky. I’m just explaining where I am trying to land this post within the literary spectrum.)
Why “Rooster Father”? Chua calls herself a “Tiger Mother” based on her Chinese zodiac sign, and tells the reader that tigers are “powerful, authoritative, and magnetic” and inspire “fear and respect.” I’m no expert on Chinese zodiac, but as a rooster I’m said to be hard-working, honest, and blunt. And I can be pugnacious, especially when some human outfits me with spurs.
No, I haven’t even read Chua’s book. Why should I, when a) her WSJ article gives me a strong enough taste of her perspective, and b) her writing isn’t very good? I haven’t even read At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’Brien yet. How can I ignore a writer like O’Brien who offers up sentences like “My mother owned a cat but it was a foreign outdoor animal and was rarely seen and my mother never took any notice of it” in favor of Chua’s “Western parents worry a lot about their childrens’ self-esteem”? My time is too scarce to spend it on inferior books.
That said, I think it’s perfectly legitimate to make a case against Chua’s parenting tenets by evaluating what she wrote in her WSJ article, which I have read very carefully. It’s reasonable to assume her book is in the same spirit as the article, espousing similar views.
Why the Tiger Mother book is important
I have never encountered a more earnest bunch than parents. The intense yearning to get things right begins before the first offspring is even born, when the mother-to-be gets a copy of that accursed book What to Expect When You’re Expecting. My favorite one-star Amazon review of that book says it all: “Guys ... consider this a warning; this will be the worst book that your significant other can read and will make your life utterly miserable for the next nine months.” It’s true. The book should be called What to Dread When You’re Expecting. And then when the baby is finally born, alive and well and without gills or fangs or asbestosis, you’re still not out of the woods. Parenthood is (among other things) a long cycle of fear and dread, for both parents. When my wife and I took two-day-old Alexa home from the hospital—not just for a visit, but to live with us—I felt like a mistake must have been made: who were we to raise a child? We knew nothing! (An entire industry preys on parents’ lack of confidence; I give you the baby-wipe-warmer and baby-bottle-sterilizer.)
Doubtless there are huge pockets of America where parents pick a pacifier up off the floor, wipe the dog hair off it, and stick it back in their kid’s mouth as a standard practice beginning with the first baby, instead of only gradually reaching this point on the second or third. But here in the
Highest among parents’ virtues in progressive communities is a willingness to second-guess ourselves. Much of this is worthwhile; parents are rightly cautioned against such evils as helicopter parenting and over-praising. But then there’s the flip side too, like the myth that immunizations cause autism, or that your cat will suck the breath out of a sleeping infant. Whenever parenting culture starts to swerve around, I get really nervous.
When a parenting advice book comes out by a
Some of what Chua says I can agree with. I’ve lately felt as though parenting trends are already shifting towards greater strictness, but the signs of what I take as rampant over-permissiveness are all around us. When dining with another family I’ll occasionally witness the children being given a totally separate menu—hot dogs or chicken fingers or mac ‘n’ cheese—as though the parents are short-order cooks. (My kids eat what they’re served, even if it’s my wife’s okra-based gumbo creation.) I’m shocked, though perhaps I shouldn’t be, at kids who never say “please” or “thank you.” I’m irked by parents who append every command with “okay?” and let these quasi-commands go unexecuted. It seems to me that some parents, for whatever reason, are uncomfortable with their own authority. Their kids, needless to say, take full advantage.
On Chua’s list of rules, I find some items that loosely match the rules my kids must live by. My kids don’t get to watch TV (they’ve literally never seen it, expect perhaps at friends’ houses), and videos and PC time are strictly rationed. And like Chua, I tell my kids I expect them to get good grades (and that “good” will mean “A” once the kids are switched to the letter-grade scale). My kids are expected to practice the piano (though only twenty minutes a day). And, they will play league soccer until and unless they find an alternative sport that provides as much structure. I do get the occasional raised eyebrow when I mention these things to another parent. Chua’s book and article may reduce the number of raised eyebrows I get, or (on the other hand) may align me, in others’ eyes, with the enemy camp. Perhaps some of both.
The problem with the Tiger Mother
I’m just going to come right out and say it: Amy Chua’s parenting approach is wrong. Now, as much as we may all enjoy simple, bold statements like that, for me to convince anybody of this notion, I’m going to have to back it up. I don’t have a Ph.D., I don’t teach at Yale, I’m not a bestselling writer, this is just a humble blog and not the “Wall Street Journal,” and my daughters aren’t (yet) successful, so I can’t just declare what ought to be done and have thousands of parents scurrying around retooling their policies. But that’s okay! I relish the opportunity to take Chua on, within the (albeit obscure) pages of albertnet. When I’m done taking apart her argument, you’ll be cheering and saying, “Her fame and riches are rightfully his!”
The more responsible way of saying Amy Chua is wrong is to say that her argument fails to show a causal link between its premises and its conclusion (i.e., her argument is not valid), and/or that its premises are false (i.e., her argument is not sound). Here’s how her case, in the WSJ article, breaks down:
Premise: Chinese parents are more strict, and push their kids harder, than Western parents.
Premise: The wisdom of a parent’s approach determines, in large part, her child’s success.
Premise: Asian-American kids achieve greater success than other American kids.
Conclusion: The Chinese-style strict parenting approach works better.
I am going to first attack the premises, because they practically attack themselves. If there’s anything of the argument left after that, I’ll attack the causality (though it’s kind of latent in the second premise anyway, her argument being plagued by the petitio principii fallacy to begin with).
First premise – Chinese parents are more strict
Certainly, Amy Chua isn’t the first person to describe the strict parenting common in Chinese culture (and Asian cultures in general). At the same time, I wouldn’t be the first person to accuse her article of reinforcing unfair stereotypes. There are plenty such accusations in the reader comments on the WSJ article; I also looked at the 1-star reviews of her book on Amazon and found that sixteen out of eighty-six (32%) were from self-identified Asians. It has also been pointed out that Chua’s family actually emigrated from the
Anecdotally, I can offer one solid counterexample to Chua’s assertions about Chinese parenting: while my own mother obviously isn’t Chinese, a prominent figure of my alma mater was (and is). In college, I took a creative writing class from bestselling writer Maxine Hong Kingston. While Chua tells her kids they have to be ranked number one, Maxine had little use for such hierarchy. All you had to do to get an A in her class was write the requisite number of pages (I think it was fifty) during the term. She told us that it was hard enough getting into her class (she offered only thirty spots per semester, with admission based on writing samples), so she felt we all already deserved As. When I graduated, Maxine gave the commencement speech, and a rather memorable moment was when she gave all of us English majors permission to get fired from our first few corporate jobs.
What kind of parent was Maxine? I can’t say, but in her new book (as quoted in a recent interview) she laments not focusing more attention on her son: “I regret always writing, writing. I gave my kid the whole plastic bag of marshmallows, so I could have 20 minutes to write.” Hardly the slave-driver Tiger Mother Chua describes.
Chua’s characterization of Western parents is also troubling. She makes vague references to “my Western friends who consider themselves strict,” but really, how valid a cross-section of the American people is that? Is the Yale community subset of
Chua is quite bold about drawing vast conclusions from skimpy anecdotal evidence. She states, “Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can’t,” such as calling them “garbage.” I doubt the Chinese have a monopoly on verbal abuse; who knows what our nation’s parents say to their kids behind closed doors? What Chua probably means is “Rich white
Conveniently, in the context of the WSJ article, Chua doesn’t differentiate between Chinese-American and Chinese families. If she focused on the latter, she might have to answer for the mental health problems in that country and the teen suicide rate. If Chua is really talking about Chinese-American families, then she might do well to look beyond the family and examine the role our immigration laws might have in allowing only the most hardworking immigrants into the country. (For more on the topic of immigrants having more motivation than natives, and how this pertains to Chua's book, check out this interesting essay.)
Second premise – parents’ wisdom determines kids’ success
Chua is clearly proud of her parenting: “A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids.... Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it.” Her authority in this realm stems from the success her kids have had. I’ll take it as given that her kids have in fact turned out great. Here is the petitio principii argument: a) great parents turn out great kids; b) my kids turned out great; c) therefore, I’m a great parent. The first premise, (a), only holds true if you also accept the conclusion it helps to present. I would look like a jerk challenging (b) or (c), and would have almost no evidence.
What I need to show, then, is that Chua’s kids would have turned out great regardless of, or even in spite of, Chua’s approach. Of course I have absolutely no view into the mechanics of Chua’s family (beyond the few shocking anecdotes she relates), but that’s actually okay. Chua makes a number of assertions about what a parent ought to do, and uses her daughters’ success to validate those assertions. To refute her ideas, I’ll attack the assertions themselves, and show that they’re absurd; from there, the reader will naturally conclude that Chua’s kids succeeded on their own merit without their mother’s crazy ideas getting in the way.
(The idea that parenting style determines the success of one’s offspring has been compellingly challenged at length: Judith Rich Harris attacked the assumption with vigor. As described in a 1998 “New Yorker” article by Malcolm Gladwell, Harris posed the question, “What if children learn the things that make them who they are—that shape their characters and personalities—from their peer group?” She ultimately concluded that “what’s important is not what children learn inside the home but what they learn outside the home.” She wrote a book on this that might make a nice counterpoint to Chua’s. It's called The Nurture Assumption. I haven’t yet read it, but it’s a lot higher on my to-read list than Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The basic gist of it is well described in Gladwell’s article.)
One suggestion that Chua’s parenting techniques are not all-important comes from her daughter Sophia, who published, in the “New York Post,” a (supportive) letter to her mom. Sophia writes, “I think your strict parenting forced me to be more independent. Early on, I decided to be an easy child to raise. Maybe I got it from Daddy — he taught me not to care what people think and to make my own choices — but I also decided to be who I want to be. I didn’t rebel, but I didn’t suffer all the slings and arrows of a Tiger Mom, either.”)
Let’s look at Chua’s pronouncements about what a Chinese parent does that works so well in raising successful kids. First, consider this business of a child who brings home a poor grade on a test. Chua contends, “If a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child.” This statement would be impossible to prove and I think really depends on the household. In my family, any single test score would have elicited no more of a response than a kid announcing he’d brushed his teeth. My parents wisely never cared how I did on an individual test as long as the final report card had an A. They voiced certain expectations (i.e., all As) but never stooped to micro-managing my education.
But wait, it gets worse: Chua goes on, “If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion.” Is this really true? Do these supposed Chinese parents actually have that little faith in their kids? Could it really be useful to create such a elaborate parenting structure that every test score must be reported? And when does this end: after high school, or does the kid have to continue reporting back every score when she’s away at college?
(When I was in college, I became exasperated at my French professor because of how he scored his quizzes. The quizzes were always worth 20 points, but given the complexity of the language, there were usually at least a hundred mistakes you could make. Each mistake cost you, arbitrarily, half a point. Thus, you could turn in a test that was 90% perfect and worthy of an A-, but would only earn a 15 out of 20—a solid C. The solution was to do flawless work, which I generally did, but after realizing how high my average must have been after seemingly endless quizzes, and having other priorities one evening, I didn’t bother studying for the next day’s quiz. I’d learn those irregular verbs later, and in the meantime, I could absorb a bad grade on a single quiz. I pulled like a D or an F on it, and the professor was shocked. He was even more shocked when I shrugged it off. Did my parents known about this? Certainly not, unless I told my mom about it to make her laugh.)
Chua also contends, “Nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” Really? Nothing? Um, Ms. Chua, have you ever heard of play? I happen to know something about fun things that you don’t have to be good at; in my blog post “In Defense of Fun” I describe how children live in the moment, cultivate fun, and defend their right to have it. In giving advice on how adults can keep having fun, I provide a list of my top twenty fun things to do, and only ten of them are things you have to be good at, or that require work. Could Chua’s daughters’ lives really be devoid of simple, unearned fun? Of course not, and I can prove it: Chua’s daughter Sophie writes about “blasting Daft Punk in the car with Lulu and forcing my boyfriend to watch ‘Lord of the Rings’ with me over and over.” Gosh, I hope she didn’t get in trouble for confessing this….
Some of my greatest delight is in watching my kids’ creative play. Here, Alexa has literally put her sister in the palm of her hand:
One afternoon my wife stumbled across a strange ritual seeming to involve feline idolatry, with several stuffies showing obeisance:
I’ve always loved how absorbed kids get in their play. Here, Lindsay completely ignores the cat and the photographer while somehow integrating an umbrella into a car ride:
These kids will have their whole adult lives to tirelessly fine-tune their skills and strive for glory. Is it truly wise to confine them to drilling themselves on schoolwork and learning an instrument instead of idly exploring their imaginations? What would Hayao Miyazaki have to say about this?
Chua goes on to say, “Children on their own never want to work.” To which I reply, “Says who?” I get the impression that Chua hasn’t given her kids the opportunity to try something on their own, without being monitored and hounded. Why not let hard work be the kid’s idea? Alexa takes her homework more seriously than I do; I often find myself assuring her it's not the end of the world if she turns it in a day late. Meanwhile, I keep finding scraps of paper with her self-initiated practice math problems on them. (From what I learned on Math Night I gather Alexa is pretty far ahead of the curve on lattice multiplication.)
Over the summer Alexa asked me to help her write a sonnet and for Christmas she asked Santa for a “Brain Quest” workbook. Both my daughters received the workbooks, and both plug away at them of their own strange volition. Of course I’ve had to pester my daughters to practice the piano, but not all the time; they’ll take it up on their own, too. (Alexa recently begged to be allowed to learn the clarinet, and although her playing so far sounds like a cat being tortured, who knows, maybe the clarinet will end up being her favorite instrument.)
By far the weirdest statement Chua makes is “Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.” Am I reading this right? If this policy is followed, how on Earth can a child surpass her parents in achievement? Such a child is necessarily limited by her parents’ imaginations. What if Philip Seymour Hoffman’s parents had shared Chua’s view of drama as relatively unimportant, and kept him too busy with schoolwork to discover acting? What would it mean for the
My brother Bryan, though he has loved both swimming and cycling, has not bent over backwards to encourage his son John's baseball playing. Bryan’s position is, “What value is all this athletics in our own kids’ lives? They’re not going to grow up to be über-athletes. They’ll just be has-beens. What good did all that swimming do Geoff and me?” Bryan never even bought his son a bat—John has to borrow. Though he’s right-handed, he bats left because as a kid he couldn’t get anyone to pitch to him as much as he wanted. But at least
Instead of decreeing the realms in which my kids may succeed, I say, “Surprise me.”
There’s also something to be said for a child learning to stick up for herself when her desires are being denied. I was raised by pretty strict parents, and one of my mom’s expressions would seem to be right out of a Tiger Mother’s phrasebook: “Because I said so!” I hated this expression as a kid, and vowed never to use it as a parent. And I don’t—I let my kids try to appeal my decisions, within bounds. For example, while I was out with my kids recently Alexa asked if we could stop by the video store on the way home. I said, “No, there’s no time—your mom and I have to get ready for our date. Besides, you’ve had enough videos this week already.” Alexa replied, “Please? It won’t take that long. It’ll be surgical. I know exactly what movie I want, we’ll be in and out of there in like two minutes. And besides, it’ll be easier for Grandma to babysit us if we have something to do.” This was a compelling argument, and I was flattered by her use of “surgical,” which she got from me. I relented, contingent on finding a handy parking spot.
Not only does the freedom to negotiate hone my kids’ rhetorical skills, but it actually reduces whining and other offensive behaviors. When Chua describes her effort to force her child to learn a difficult piano piece, she says, “Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed, and kicked.” Chua seems to tolerate these behaviors so long as she gets her way in the end. I will not. My kids know that their only hope at an appeal is to make it reasonable. If they whine about something, I explain, “Now that you’ve whined, there is no way you can get what you want, because then I would be rewarding your whining. So now, on principle, I have to say absolutely not.” This hasn’t eliminated all my kids’ offensive behaviors, but it has helped.
Chua cautions, “As a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up.” This is only true if your child’s self-esteem is caught up in the activity you advocate, and (particularly if you’re a Tiger parent) that’s a big “if.” I was on the swim team for years because my mom wouldn’t let me quit until I’d given it plenty of time and effort. The whole time I swam, I sucked, and I knew I sucked. But did finally quitting it damage my self-esteem? Of course not—I couldn’t have cared less how slow I was in the pool. Swimming was, and is, a stupid sport. By letting me quit, my mom gave me the opportunity to try another sport—cycling—that I cared about. And though I started off sucking in cycling, too, I gradually improved and made something of myself—with zero oversight from my parents. Cycling was my thing, I got good at it, and that built my self-esteem, from the ground up (instead of from the parents down).
Third premise - Asian-American kids achieve greater success
On a macro level, it’s widely acknowledged that American kids are scoring poorly on standardized tests, far below their Chinese counterparts. But I cannot see this as an indictment of the parenting philosophy Chua encounters among the Yale faculty mothers she has lunch with. I’m not saying we don’t have a problem; only that the mothers Chua encounters probably aren’t the ones dragging down the national average. An old dude I used to work with liked to say, “The average person has one testicle and one breast.” His point was that the word “average” is slippery. There probably aren’t many American students whose scores reflect our national average. You’ve got the top, and the bottom, and likely not much in between.
It bugs me that some parents in my community are going to be throwing up their hands over this book and saying, “Oh my god, I’m not strict enough! I’m not a good parent!” even though the kids in our town are thriving. It’s in the less fortunate communities, with greater social problems (e.g., mothers working two jobs with no husband around, and who are too busy to read parenting books), where kids are failing. The sad state of American schools is utterly relevant to society, but since the target audience of Chua’s article and book are parents who do care, and who have good schools available to their kids, the broader problem of American schools isn’t germane to her parenting argument.
Perhaps the real point Chua is trying to make is that among parents who are trying their best, the Chinese ones have a better track record with their kids. Her own kids have done well, but that’s a pretty small sample set. If we’re looking at the wider crème de la crème of parenting—the affluent, education-focused Asian-Americans vs. their Western American counterparts—maybe we should look beyond grades and musical prowess.
How about entrepreneurial success? I give you Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, both Westerners who dropped out of college. Major, society-changing innovations like the light bulb, the telephone, the birth control pill, the computers, and the Internet all came from the
A final bit of evidence I’ll file against Chua’s parenting doctrine is her willingness to backpedal when challenged about it. In a follow-up WSJ piece she writes, “I also know of people raised with ‘tough love’ who are not happy and who resent their parents. There is no easy formula for parenting, no right approach (I don’t believe, by the way, that Chinese parenting is superior—a splashy headline, but I didn’t choose it).” First off, shouldn’t she have more authorial control over her article? Second, her original article does match the spirit of this headline. It is nothing if not a formula for parenting.
Chua continues, “It doesn’t come through in the excerpt, but my actual book is not a how-to guide; it’s a memoir, the story of our family’s journey in two cultures, and my own eventual transformation as a mother. Much of the book is about my decision to retreat from the strict ‘Chinese’ approach, after my younger daughter rebelled at 13.” Now, if Chua’s excerpt is not true to the book, whose fault is that? And if she has truly retreated from the strict “Chinese” approach, why is she so vigorously touting it in her article (which, after all, came out after she wrote the book)? If Chua had really had a change of heart, her book would be an indictment, not a celebration, of this parenting style, and her WSJ article wouldn’t get the title “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.”
Another strange quote from Chua’s follow-up article: “I don’t believe that grades or achievement is ultimately what Chinese parenting (at least as I practice it) is really about. I think it’s about helping your children be the best they can be.” Give me a break! Isn’t this exactly the kind of mealy-mouthed, anything-goes, just-do-the-best-you-can approach Chua has dismissively associated with Western parents? It certainly doesn’t jibe with her unconditional directive, “Chinese parents demand perfect grades.” Look. Ms. Chua, you can either be touchy-feely or be the Terminator. You can’t be both.
I think Chua’s article, and I suspect her book as well, could have really benefitted from some deeper thought. Clearly her off-the-cuff, deliberately shocking style has generated enough buzz to sell a lot of books, but it didn’t convince me of anything but her own recklessness.
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, congratulations: you have a great attention span. If you think your parents deserve the credit, please thank them for me!
If I haven't convinced you that Amy Chua is wrong in her approach, that’s fine—after all, she’s the law professor with the successful kids. But you may want to check out my next post, which takes for granted that the “Tiger Mother” approach really works, while challenging the very goals Chua has for her kids in the first place.
A final note: Ms. Chua’s WSJ article has now spawned 7,740 responses. I’d be thrilled to get two or three reactions to this post. Post a comment below, or e-mail me.
amy chua battle hymn of the tiger mother dana albert blog