Monday, January 24, 2011

Tiger Mom Roaring

I have been intrigued by the almost rabid discussion that has taken place since the release of Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I first read about the Tiger Mom in the Life and Culture section of the December 21 issue of The Wall Street Journal. Since then, the topic has been discussed on radio, television and all over the blogosphere.

Today, I read an excellent article by Annie Murphy Paul in Time, “The Roar of the Tiger Mom." In the article, she discusses the book, and a variety of reasons for the uproar.

This subject appeals to me on a variety of levels.

1) As the daughter of a Tiger Mom (kind of) – Though my Japanese-American mother was not quite as “ferocious” as Amy Chua describes herself, there were many times in my upbringing that I compared myself to my friends, and felt my mother was too strict, even unfair or cruel. (But then, what teenage daughter doesn’t think that of her mother at one time or another?) Though I did not know my maternal grandmother, my obasan, I understand from stories my mother has told me that she, too, was a Tiger Mom. These traits have been passed from one generation to the next, and I often wonder what parenting style my own children will have.

I remember many “Tiger Mom” episodes in my upbringing, but one that was very similar to those described by Chua was the time I was proud of the four A’s on my report card, only to hear my mother ask, “What happened in history? Why did you get a ‘B’?” Though I was crushed, I did everything in my power to bring that grade up the following semester.

2) As a mother – Ms. Chua was raised by her very strict Chinese father, and made the decision to raise her children as strictly. However, I made the decision NOT to be quite so strict as my mother. (Though you’d have to confirm that with my daughter and son.) When I had my children, I believed my upbringing was too strict, too filled with responsibilities, and therefore I “went easier” on my children. Though I expected the best of them in school, they did not have as many chores, were allowed to watch more television, to play, to be children and have fun. After reading about this Tiger Mom and reflecting on my own childhood, I wondered if I made the right decision. I think so, as I am very proud of both of my children and their accomplishments.

As mothers often do, I question what I might have done differently. Curiously, it would not have been to be more of a Tiger Mom. If I could do it over again, I would have played with my children more, and set a better example of charity. Where Tiger Mom methods develop ambition and learning skills, I also think it’s important to develop the skills that make us human, too—imagination, cooperation, empathy.

3) As an American - The book’s release coincides with America’s economic slowdown. I think the fear, even the perceived helplessness surrounding this slowdown contributed to much of the uproar over the book. According to the Time article, America’s growth is “anemic” at 2.6%, whereas China’s is 10%.

The article also discussed Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, which showed that in recent testing, students in Shanghai “blew everyone else away.” American students were 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math. We can defend our Western teaching methods until we’re blue in the face. Obviously, something needs to change.

4) As a writer -Yesterday, I watched an interview with Ms. Chua’s husband, Jed Rubenfeld, who is also a Yale Law School professor, and an author in his own right. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of him or any of his books, and I wondered what he thought of his wife’s sudden infamy. Then, I considered the reasons for it.

According to a blog by Gil Asakawa, Media Stuff, as well as the Time article, The Wall Street Journal excerpt misled readers to believe the book was a “bossy parenting handbook.” However, in actuality, it was a memoir, written “not as an exercise in maternal bravado but as an earnest attempt to understand her daughters, her parents and herself.”

Still, by Chua’s own admission, some of her stories may have been “slightly exaggerated for effect.” And, what an effect it had, which, as a writer, is interesting to me. It is the very emotional firestorm brought on by the Wall Street Journal excerpt that catapulted the sales of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Lastly, in my novel, Broken Dolls, Sachiko Kimura’s mother is a Tiger Mom, and I found many similarities between Ms. Chua and Mrs. Kimura, proving that there is a part of our true selves, even in fiction. Sachiko is a little bit of me, a little bit of my mother. Mrs. Kimura is a bit of my obasan and my mother. Okay, I’ll admit there’s even a little bit of me in Sachiko’s Tiger Mom.

The discussion about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, reflections on my childhood and my parenthood, and the creation of my characters in Broken Dolls has led me to one conclusion. It is important for parents to guide their children through the high expectations they have of their children. But children must also sometimes fail to make the adjustments necessary for accomplishment the next time. Pushing them toward excellence should be done with enough tenderness that children excel for a sense of pride in their own accomplishment, and not out of fear of failure in their parents’ eyes.


  1. I like the photo of you and Andrea. Or is that Adam? Anyhow, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that children are different. A tough and resilient child might thrive under "tiger mothering," whereas a more sensitive child might be crushed. Parenting by prescription probably does not allow sufficient feedback to fine tune the endeavor.

  2. I agree with ed. We raised two children. One has more confidence and self-esteem than the other. The job of a parent is to train a child to become self-sufficient in an ever-changing world. Not an easy task. Unfortunately, parents don't get their report cards until a few years after cub has left the safety and security of the den.

  3. This is off topic, but OK because I'm apologizing first. I want you to propose a contest. We all know how hard it is to write titles. Well, here's how Dashiell Hammett solved the problem. He used the first line of the story as the title: "So I Shot Him."

    Unknown Hammett Story Sees the Light of Day

    I now throw down the gauntlet. (There it lies on the floor, damaged, but not mortally.) Your task is to finish the story using Hammett's title and first line.