24 January 2011

My thoughts on Tiger Mothers, tigers in general

Amy Chua's book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother  has understandably raised a lot of criticism with her portrayal of Chinese-style parenting and her defense of tough love mothering. The mother of two daughters, now aged 18 and 15, Chua was a very strict parent who severely limited her daughters' free time and who had very high expectations for her kids. Among the things she mentions are some things that seem awfully close to abuse: threatening to destroy toys and stuffed animals, rejecting hand-drawn cards, forcing her two daughters to practice their instruments for hours a day, and demanding nothing less than top performance in every subject but drama and physical activity. This, understandably, has earned a lot of criticism, especially from the "western" parents she seems to denounce in the excerpts published on the Web as too permissive. Many mothers especially feel that Chua's parenting style is not only undesirable but downright abusive; however, there are a fair number of reviewers and bloggers that have responded with their own stories of "Tiger Mothers" and success.

Not having read the book yet, I can't really present a truly informed opinion. However, what I've gleaned from the reviews, interviews, blogs, and other responses to Chua's book, a lot of the debate about her parenting ignores the context in which certain actions took place as well as the cultural context that teaches about discipline in an entirely different manner. Many Asian-American students, especially those with parents who grew up in Asian cultural contexts, find their parents expectations almost suffocatingly high and the restrictions intolerable. And compared to many American peers, the life of an Asian student seems almost humorously restricted. The High Expectations Asian Father meme is a central example of this trend - in fact, Chua has herself spawned her own meme (the picture is a stock image, of course).

Humor aside, there are some important things to consider when evaluating a Tiger Mother. One is the effect of such upbringing on psychological development. Many psychologists believe that children need internal approval of their actions in order to mature; approval that is contingent upon factors like grades or competition can cause self esteem problems, claims Madeline Levine in the San Francisco Chronical.  Others point out that fear-based parenting is not as foreign to Americans as we'd like to think, as is provokingly acknowledged by Psychology Today. Note that many of the measures of self-esteem and psychological and psychosocial development that both articles treat as dogmatic are based upon Western ideas, specifically individualism and a rejection of the belief in filial piety and debt. Although by a Western model, Chua's parenting might seem to produce deficient children, I feel strongly that her kids are not deficient: her oldest daughter is a classical pianist who performed in Carnegie Hall before age 15 and is now attending an Ivy League University, and her younger daughter, who attends a prestigious program at Juilliard School of Music.

I also believe that the cultural context of achievement in China and other Asian countries is worth mentioning. Asian schools are highly competitive, with academic tracking occurring very early in the educational heirarchy and with test scores determining entrance into elite high schools. The admirable work ethic of Asian students, many of whom attend school before the sun rises and don't come home until dark - and only then to study, results in students that outperform American kids in math, science, and English. And Chua's kids are demonstrably successful. Her oldest, Sophia, has published an open letter to her mother that describes her experiences and tongue-in-cheek thanks her for pushing her to succeed despite herself. Compared with many American parents, Asian families often set high expectations for their kids and are critical when those expectations aren't met, but in many cases those expectations and pressures create kids with strong motivation for success and a drive for competition.

Although my mother wasn't a Tiger Mother, she was often very strict with me and my sister. She was demanding when it came to our grades and restricted our activities with friends. For example, we were rarely allowed to play with friends if we had homework, we practiced piano and other instruments and competed in local competitions, and had our report cards scrutinized. Compared to many of my friends, I wasn't allowed to do much, and I was often resentful of her demands and the pressure that I felt. However, as an (almost) adult, I look back and realize that my mother created a successful, strong individual. She pushed us to succeed in school; she also spent untold hours with us learning to read, poring over the same picture books until we had memorized them. She demanded that we practice and master piano; she also paid for lessons all through our schooling, drove us there and back and to every recital, every competition, purchased literally hundreds of music books. She was exacting in her requirements for tardiness, cleanliness, and behaviour; she also put up with the whining, crying, and resistance to all the many activities she helped us achieve. She criticized my weight, my diet, my physical activity, and the clothes I wore; she also spent our whole lives trying to teach us about healthy choices when we were constantly demanding junk food, sleeping instead of playing, and (in my case, anyway) shopping for inappropriate clothes that mostly didn't fit. Without her pressures, her demands, her criticism, and her brand of tough love, I know I wouldn't be the strong, successful, independent woman I am, and I know my sister wouldn't have made it through the demands of high school. I have to agree with the Chua family: if you don't have to work for it, it's not worth having, and this applies to success, achievement, and, in some cases, love.

1 comment:

  1. You look superduper Asian in your profile picture.