The tiger mom debate: to roar or not to roar?

 Recently, a Chinese American mother of two (not to mention fancy law professor and author of two other books on globalization and free market democracy) has caused major controversy with her new Memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In this book she details her strict philosophy with her daughters: no sleep overs, no play dates, no other grades but As, no second place. Oh, and many hours practicing either the violin or the piano, and woe to them if they made a mistake.

The debate so far as it goes, is if she is right  means that the rest of us (westerners) are too soft on our kids. Or if she is wrong, then social services should be called for child abuse. Here is a list of articles you can read to get an idea of the issue without actually having to read the book:

Time magazine: Tiger mom: Is Tough Parenting Really the Answer?
Wall Street Journal: Why Chinese Mothers are Superior

Now, my only interest in this is that I have been wondering lately if I’m too soft with my kids. The worst is, I think I might be. There are a couple of parts in the Wall street journal article (written by the Tiger Mom herself) that, when I read them, felt like I threw a ball up in the air, didn’t pay enough  attention to it and ended up being hit in the face when it came back down.

For example, when she talks about the “Little white donkey incident” where she makes her youngest daughter spend a day practicing a piano piece she just can’t get right, ignoring her daughter’s screams, tears, not letting her go to the bathroom, eat dinner, etc., she says:

“But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.”

 This, of course, hits home. Because that is exactly what I let my daughters do in the same situation. I let them give up. Oh I fought it, as evidenced in these posts. But in the end, it became too miserable and I capitulated.

As I write this, I am breaking all the Tiger Mom’s rules. My daughter is just finishing up her 12th birthday right now. She had two friends sleep over. They stayed up until 1A.M. watching movies, eating junk food and talking. They woke up and ate more junk food and watched more TV. Yesterday morning I helped my daughter correct her reading evaluation. It wasn’t perfect. I nagged her about her grammar, but didn’t press the case.

I break my own rule about no TV during the week almost every day, mainly because I’m tired and can’t get myself to do anything else. I don’t check my daughter’s homework. I let them play video games and watch TV in order to get my own work done.

However, I try not to praise them when they don’t deserve it. I do try to tell them that nothing is easy at the beginning, that they have to practice at it.

My problem is the follow through.

As I write this, I realize that this is my big failing. My parenting style reflects my own personal defects: avoiding confrontation, giving up when it gets hard, wanting my children to be happy with me instead of pushing my point and doing what is good for them.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to be a Tiger Mom. There are many things I don’t believe enough in to push with my children, the number one thing being school grades. The Tiger Mom wants her daughters to be successful within a deeply flawed structure, one that doesn’t value anything but one kind of learning. She  is grooming her children to climb to the top of the financial and class pyramid, a hike I don’t necessarily wish for my own.

What I do want for them is to find something they love, something they are passionate about, and know how to work hard enough to be good at it. I want them to have the self-esteem to know that if they put in the hours, they can do anything, an end-goal, I think, that could use a little more of the Tiger Mom…

So where do I stand? To be honest, I think a little more roar is due and a little less pussyfooting around. Now let’s see if I can keep it up.

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10 Responses to The tiger mom debate: to roar or not to roar?

  1. Tom Weston says:

    I heard an interview with that Tiger Mom.

    Not a nice lady.

    I wonder what sort of old folks home she'll end up at.

    I'm imaging one where she is tied to a piano all day.

  2. No, nice is not an adjective I think I would use for her. She bandies about the term “loser” a little too cavalierly for my taste.

  3. Tom Weston says:

    Well, I don't think any of you Gordaneers are 'losers'.

    I also found Tiger Mom a little too focused on one aspect of success – the one that doesn't value individuality or risk. Just money and being smarter and better off than the other kids. Too much of the “i'm right and the rest of you are wrong” style attitude.

    It paints a picture of a childhood filled with math problems all summer long and 1 and a half hour piano practise sessions…. wait… that's my childhood!

    Ouch.

  4. Tom Weston says:

    But it wasn't that bad for me.

    I managed to cheat my way out of long piano practise.

  5. dianemb says:

    I very fleetingly felt a little guilty, too, for not being stricter about grades, etc., that I knew they could achieve. I felt a little unsure at the time, too, but continued on in the parenting path I felt most comfortable with.
    Looking back now, the guilt passed quickly when I realised that my kids were all involved in activities they felt passionate about. Self-esteem couldn't have been too much of a problem as they did things like organise the school's Christmas hamper fund-raising, doing solos at festivals and making speeches off the cuff at cadet parent days. Also, when my kids got to college and university, they all did exceptionally well in their CHOSEN areas of study. They are all kind, compassionate and independent young adults who are following their own, very different paths.
    I guess it depends on your definition of success. I am extremely proud of my children (and my niece) not because they make more money than others, but because they are doing what they love and at the same time are good people.
    I still believe that parents need to be parents, but also that children should be encouraged to be who they are and not some automaton that is a parent's idea of perfection.

  6. Carrie says:

    It seems like the scary Chinese mom has bought into the idea that there is such a thing as “happily ever after”, or that her children have already achieved success and so their story is over.

    It's the smug that scares me. This woman is so full of self-righteous smug that she has blinded herself to the idea of getting to know her own children. She's decided who her children are — and who they are going to be.

    I'm still wondering about how denying your child access to dealing with normal biological functions (thirst, needing to pee) is seen as a great parenting skill. The image of Lulu sitting in her own shit and/or piss while on the piano bench (Wall Street Journal piece) just so mama can accept some random compliment at a piano recital? PRICELESS!

  7. Tom Weston says:

    Piano recitals are BORING.

    If you put your kids into rock school, at least you can enjoy the final product and there is far more money in rock n' roll and punk and singing on the youtube than in joining an orchestra.

    The only big name I can think of in classical music is Yo Yo Ma and Phillip Glass (does he even count?)

    Tiger Mom seems to have a very dull and narrow world view.

    I still think C would do well with the drum set.

  8. You wrote, “The debate so far as it goes, is if she is right means that the rest of us (westerners) are too soft on our kids.”

    I wouldn't go so far as to say the rest of us Westerners. I'm a Caucasian and a Westerner and I practiced Tough Love along with my wife (who is Chinese) to raise our daughter. On a scale of one to ten with Amy Chua being an eight or nine (believe me, I've known tougher parents than she is—I taught in the public schools for thirty years and met a few that were tougher), my wife and I would be at least a six.

    The soft, average American parent would be a zero on the Tough Love scale.

    I've been following the debate and keeping track of the numbers and it appears that there may be more Tough Love parents out there than soft ones. Tough Love doesn't mean the parent has to be exactly as demanding as Chua “was”, since I read her memoir and discovered that she learned from her youngest daughter Lulu that she had to back off a bit from being an eight or nine on the Tough Love scale. She's probably a seven now.

    Studies say the average American parent is soft or what I call a SAP (the self-esteem arm of political correctness) and the numbers add up to show that average population is about 40% to 45% of all Americans.

    That leaves room for parents on either side of average, which is still a large number.

  9. Thanks very much for your comment, Lloyd. My post was a little bit all over the place as I was trying to hash out my thoughts on what I have read of the debate (I haven't read the book yet, which makes your opinion way more informed than mine).

    I realized that all the places where I am failing in discipline with my children are the places that I am failing in my own life.Tiger Mom obviously does not let herself off the hook in her search for excellence – I think that is a very important point. For if we are not striving for excellence ourselves, how can we ask our children to take up the pursuit?

    I have no opinion about the Chinese-ness of Tiger Mom. I am sure there must be some cultural reasons for the differences in parenting style, however I think she even makes the point that there are tiger moms in every culture.

  10. wire monkey mama,

    You're right. There are Tiger Moms and Tiger Parents in every culture. In the US, we would probably find “MOST” of the Tigers among fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, Mormons, conservative Jewish families and Jehovah Witnesses.

    I had a close friend that said he was a conservative Jew (sad to say he died due to complications linked to the leukemia he was fighting–he was also a former US Marine and a good friend) and his son became a doctor and daughter a lawyer. This good friend was also a teacher, which is where I got to know him since he was the mentor teacher at the public school where I first taught in 1977.

    You made an excellent point when you said, “For if we are not striving for excellence ourselves, how can we ask our children to take up the pursuit?”

    I agree. How could I ask my daughter to meet certain standards unless I was willing to do so? We did without a lot of TV while she was attending public school but now that she's at Stanford, her mother and I watch movies on DVDs every night.

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