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Admiring the Tiger Mom

I have been sitting back in fascination for some weeks now watching the scathing reaction that has continued to out pour towards Amy Chua, aka the “Tiger Mom,” for some weeks now.

In case you missed the brouhaha, Chua is a Yale professor who recently released a memoir titled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom. The flames were first fanned with an excerpt of the book shared in the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ titled the article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” With a title like that, it’s no surprise really that the article received almost 8,000 online comments and spawned countless follow-on pieces in print and television.

While many of the excerpted anecdotes — calling her daughter “garbage,” or locking her out in the winter until she agreed to practice piano — did indeed make me react by covering my mouth in utter shock … I have to say that, in some ways, I can’t help but admire her mothering.

Well, maybe “admire” is too strong a word, but just consider the sheer energy it would take to be a Tiger Mom. After returning from a demanding day job, Chua would spend hours ensuring that homework and music lessons were completed to perfection. Literally HOURS. She notes, for example, what happens if a child returns with a “low” mark on a report card:

If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.

This raises all sorts of questions for me, like, “Do Chinese children never have a learning disability that might make an A an unrealistic prospect?” and “What are Chinese fathers doing while Chinese mothers are busting their butts as Tigers Moms?” But if you look beyond these kinds of questions, this sort of parental dedication to getting that A is pretty remarkable. The A is always considered possible — you just need to work hard enough to get it.

Now, I don’t know about you, but spending hours doing hundreds of practice tests sounds like a real nightmare. I’m tired after work and there is only so much time left in a day after dinner. Granted, I do have lower energy levels than most people I know. (Yes, I have gone to my doctor about this, with limited success.) But even if I imagine having more energy, I can’t imagine wanting to spend it on this. Which means that even if I did believe that this kind of practice would be helpful to my child’s development, I wouldn’t actually take it on. It is just too much work.

And Chua knows this about me. She writes:

All the same, even when Western parents think they’re being strict, they usually don’t come close to being Chinese mothers. For example, my Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments 30 minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It’s hours two and three that get tough.

But Chua isn’t afraid of the work. She’s ready to put in as many hours as it takes to get the results she feels are worthy. I can’t help but admire that kind of dedication. It’s pretty impressive, really.

Beyond the sheer energy and time that Chua puts into her mothering efforts, I have been giving quite a lot of thought to this statement (the bold is mine):

First, I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

I think there is a lot of truth in this statement. That’s why every kid gets a medal after a sports tournament these days — not just the winning team. And I also wonder how this statement applies to me, and my parenting. Have I been assuming fragility in my children, rather than strength? If I assumed strength, might I react to a particular situation differently?

So these two things — relentless dedication and an assumption of strength — have still got me thinking, and yes, even admiring the Tiger Mom.

What to you think about the whole “Tiger Mom” brouhaha? Have you Chua’s book yet? How do you feel about the way Chua categories Chinese and Western parents ….


  1. Are you ready for my question, this is one The Man and I have yet to find an answer to: Why do grades at that stage matter? (In high school it matters more, given.) So you got a A, so what?

    We have a “Do what’s assigned to the best of your abilities and don’t fail.” I can’t possibly see what doing hours upon hours of pre-tests is going to accomplish.

    • Well … sure, an A doesn`t actually matter until high school when they count for entrance into post-secondary, but how many people do you know that had poor grades in elementary yet straight As in high school. None that I can think of. (p.s. my keyboard is all strange and I can`t do question marks and quotes!)

  2. I struggle with this. I believe my children should work to the best of their abilities. As a teacher I know they work like crazy at school. So I feel they need SOME time to be kids. And I believe they need structure and routines, but fun and exercise are worthy things too. So, me no tiger mom. But I do assume strength. Not sure I want to read book.

    • Yeah, I`m definitely no Tiger Mom either. In fact, I think I lean more towards the 70s philosophy of benign neglect! I think free time and boredom are actually GOOD for kids. If you don`t have free time or boredom, you never get a chance to be creative. And creative pursuits bring a great deal of pleasure to my hubby and I, so naturally we`d like that for our children too.

  3. I am a bit of a lazy parent in a lot of ways. Today I had big ideas about doing a fun family outing, but 3 out of 4 of us here are still in our PJs and I see yet another low key weekend day continuing. I have often wondered about my energy levels too, and I have often thought that I just don’t have as much energy as others do. I would love to talk more about that with you offline some time.

    I really like your point about assuming that our kids are fragile rather than strong, and I will be keeping this in mind. They are a lot tougher than we give them credit for I think.

    Great post Julie.

    • I too had great ambitions for the day! But now, my biggest ambition is to get laundry done and the kids are now playing with crayons and paper that I picked up from the dollar store. No violin lessons here – haha! But, I do think there is merit in the notion of assuming strength … we really do alot of worrying and hand-wrenching over how a defeat might affect a child`s self-esteem in our society.

  4. The tiger-mom notion frankly, scares the bejesus out of me.I might have the time to do it but for what end? My son attends a school with many children who I suspect have tiger-moms. School, piano or violin and Kumon for math enrichment. Not math assistance, math enrichment. Because coming third in the nation-wide Kangaroo math competition isn’t quite good enough. Really?? Many of these children are stressed and lack empathy for other children. My experience with them is that they have very little emotional intelligence and extremely limited social skills. These children are 12 years old and cannot relate to their peers.
    I like to think we are balanced. We expect our children to do the best job they can. They are pushed to push themselves but not to the point of yelling/tears/name calling. Are we disappointed if they pull a C on a test? Yes if we know they had the ability to do better. We do organized activities that are driven by their desires, not ours. Music, acting, skiing and dance are what they are passionate about. We’ve let them sample activities and have run the gamut from hockey to martial arts to voice lessons.At almost 7 and 12 they have niched themselves and as a result they are motivated and happy.
    There is much they have to do in life that they don’t want to. There will always be people that are smarter/faster/stronger/better than them. They know they aren’t always first. And that sometimes they will be last. My job as their mother is to encourage them to be the best they can, support their decisions, do a little ass kicking when necessary and teach them the importance of being a caring happy person.

    And if that makes me a kitten-mom I’m good with that!

    • Yes, I think you`ve raised some major concerns here … and naturally, I felt many of the same things when reading the original article. What`s interesting, and makes me want to read the actual book, is that apparently Chua admits to many downfalls in her parenting method and does not actually consider it `superior` in all respects. For instance, I read that she has trouble `having fun` based on her own upbringing with a Tiger Mom. I think that in and of itself is very telling!

  5. I think I admire her energy and drive more than her tactics… And I think your keyboard is stuck on French, instead of English. Email me if you need help fixing it! Or else you could just try locking it out of the house until it cooperates… 😉

  6. Congratulations!

    I followed you over from Schmutzie.
    I”ve been going over your old posts, and have enjoyed your style very much.

    I’m trying to figure out how to subscribe to your blog, but I couldn’t find the follow/subscribe button.

    Can you help?

    Thank you!

    • Hi Alexandra! And Welcome! Sorry you couldn’t find the subscribe button … if you look to the right hand column, under my photo, you’ll see the RSS button beside a twitter bird holding a coffee :) Let me know if you run into any issues with it. Thanks! Julie

  7. I’ve been thinking about this post since I read it. I do want to read the book, though I don’t know if I’ll get around to it – that’s the non-Tiger Mom in me.

    I do love that she thinks of her children as inherently strong. That’s really what peaked my interest. I do my best NOT to compliment my children on a product, but more on the process they used to achieve it. However, I do believe that self-esteem comes from accomplishment (however small the accomplishment) and challenging oneself to grow.

    I don’t want to constantly tell my boys that they are smart and cute and funny (like I do now). I would prefer to expect excellence in a loving way.

    Oh my, parenthood is hard.

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