May 17 2011

Declawing the Tiger Mother

by Tina Bejasa

Mothers reflected in the TV screen are closer than they appear. Author Amy Chua oversees her daughter’s violin practice.

A couple of months ago, Yale University law professor and parent provocateur Amy Chua set the internet ablaze with fury and contempt when the Wall Street Journal posted an excerpt from her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, entitled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” In it she concludes that her “Chinese” style of parenting (ie., only allowing her daughters to study piano or violin and forcing them to practice even on vacation; berating them for their imperfections; “rejecting” a hand-drawn birthday card; no television, sleepovers or play dates) is the formula for churning out successful child prodigies.

Though Chua makes it clear that Tiger Mother is a memoir and not a guide, she uses every opportunity to critique the coddling Western way of parenting. She writes: “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 differently.”

What turns intrigue into anxiety is her effort to connect her seemingly loveless brand of parenting to something explicitly cultural. The source of the Tiger Mother philosophy is the pride that Chua takes in her own upbringing, having been raised by strict Chinese immigrant parents whom she credits as “her greatest source of strength.” In her book, she recalls an instance when her father called her “garbage,” and uses it as an excuse to do the same to her daughter, because she claims that “Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable . . . to Westerners.”

Although she claims to use the term “Chinese mothers” loosely, she has written a book in which she describes her life as one, and in it constantly cites broad examples to define what makes one. While the “strict Asian parent” stereotype exists, Chua uses it as her flag to wave, parading around what sounds like her children’s painful privileged childhood. Some readers find this dangerous, and have taken to the blogs to vent.

“Haven’t we had enough of the over-pressured, guilt-ridden Asian-American college students committing suicide and acting out?” Journalism professor Betty Ming Liu wrote in a blog post entitled “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian-Americans like me are in therapy.”

Others find her methods to be borderline abusive, such as Joanne Bamberger, a contributor to Politics Daily, who calls Chua “a taskmaster and a bully.”

That said, some writers have suggested that what makes Americans most uncomfortable about Chua’s book is how her critique of Western parenting raises their own fears about the rise of China and the “tiger economies.” As US schools rank embarrassingly low internationally and even new jobs are being outsourced, the responsibility weighs ever more heavily on parents to raise their children to be focused, competitive and hard-working adults. It’s possible that Americans are just getting defensive about applauding their kids for second-rate achievements because Chua has taken a stand claiming Western standards of success are no longer good enough.

Her philosophy also comes at a time when our pop culture is obsessed with scrutinizing mothers for their child-rearing techniques—due to the media frenzy this book has provoked, Chua has now been admitted to the “Hall of Mothers We Judge” with the likes of Kate Gosselin and the “Octomom.” Or perhaps what it amounts to is that the book has come at a time when mothers are more interested in being in the spotlight, where they can cash in on being fearlessly unapologetic for doing things their way—whatever that may be.

SOTHEBY'S David Zwirner RossiRossi FAA Opera Gallery 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art IAAC7