Tiger Moms Don’t Dance

January 11, 2011

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a ballerina. More than anything, I wanted to be a ballerina. And so I asked to take ballet classes and I donned pink tights and black leotards and pranced my way through class after class after class. I practiced plies at home, and spent hours standing in front of the mirror, holding my arms aloft, trying to achieve the perfect arc. I read books, and listened to Tchaikovsky, and imagined that I was Margot Fonteyn or Suzanne Farrell or Karen Kain. For years I did this, dreaming of the day that I’d be able to put on toe shoes and do pirouettes and leap across a stage.

That day never came. By the time I was 12 or 13 my interests in musical theater (ask me some day about the time that I directed and starred in my own production of Annie) and writing had overtaken my interest in ballet and I hung up my dance slippers. I forgot, for the most part, about my early dream to be a ballerina until I decided to take classes again in university, at which point I discovered that I sucked at ballet. Badly. I mentioned this to my mother. She raised an eyebrow at me.

“I always knew that, honey.”

“But you let me take classes for years!”

“I know. But you loved it so much, and you worked so hard, and once or twice I told you that the school had closed, but you would get upset and insist on taking ballet somewhere else, so I just kept enrolling you in different schools at the same level. You never advanced. You danced your heart out, but you never advanced.”


“And that’s why your father and I encouraged your love for music and theater and writing. You were actually good at those things. We knew that your passion would pull you fully into those things eventually, if we kept encouraging you. And it did.”

My mom was not a Tiger Mom.

A Tiger Mom – as anyone who has read, at the Wall Street Journal, the excerpt from the book ‘Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mom’ will know – would not have tolerated my ongoing failure. She would have demanded that I work harder, that I study more, that I devote more hours of practice. She would have insisted upon my success. She would have not been afraid to call me names in order to motivate me to do so. That’s assuming, of course, that she deemed ballet an acceptable enterprise, like violin study, and not something downmarket and ignoble, like sport or theater. If she were not a particularly aggressive Tiger Mom – is there such a thing? – she might have acknowledged my limitations v.v. following choreography and moving in a straight line and decisively removed me from ballet, despite my protestations, because what are childish protestations, anyway, but childish protestations? Children do not know what is good for them.

My mom was not a Tiger Mom. She was, maybe, more of a Bobcat Mom. Or a Mountain Lion Mom. She could be demanding. She was demanding. She (and my father) demanded that my sister and I do our very best at whatever it was that we set out to do. She demanded that we commit ourselves – that we commit our time and our energies and our talents – to school and to extra-curricular learning, but also to being to good people, and to having fun. She demanded that we work hard, and play hard, and laugh hard. She expressed disappointment in us when we failed at something because of laziness or inattention. She praised us when we tried something, and applied ourselves in the effort, and failed, ebecaus how else, she and my father would ask us, rhetorically, are you going find out what you can do, what you’re capable of, what you love? When you try, try hard, and don’t be afraid to fail. From failure, you learn.

We learned a lot.

The problem with Amy Chua’s piece in the Wall Street Journal is not that it champions extreme discipline and emotional and verbal abuse (and if you doubt that what she describes is or borders on abuse, ask yourself whether, if a man wrote an article describing how he calls his wife ‘garbage’ so that she’ll be motivated to be a better woman, we wouldn’t all be posting the names and addresses of women’s shelters.) That abuse is troubling is obvious; that discipline can be taken to extremes is obvious. That calling your children names, as a matter of parental practice, is disturbing is, I think, obvious. But the article does raise interesting questions about the assumptions, biases and prejudices of Western parents (and I use ‘Western’ loosely, as Chua does), and demonstrates and problematizes the fact that there are certain tropes about parenting and motherhood that are themselves, for Western parents, just ‘obvious’ (not least among these: that the so-called Good Mother is always gentle and accommodating.) It reminds us, in the harshest terms, that there are other modes of parenting; there are other ways of doing things; there are other models of ‘the Good Mother.’ We do well to remember this when we turn our judgments toward each other.

But therein resides the problem of the Chua’s representation of the Tiger Mom: she presents her – she presents herself – as the superior mother, the true Good Mother, the Best Mother. It is parenting presented as extreme sport: this is balls out parenting, this is parenting without fear! THIS is how you parent if you really fucking mean it! NO GUTS NO GLORY! It ups the ante, and then puts a rocket under that ante and blasts it into space. All you other mothers, thinking that you’re such good mothers? All you other mothers, lording your hand-milled organic baby food and your crafted-by-Tibetan-monks silk sling and your Latin edition of The Cat In The Hat and your baby on the boob at age two over all the other mothers? YOU ARE AMATEURS. YOU ARE BABIES. SHE LAUGHS AT YOUR PATHETICNESS.

It’s tempting to sit back and regard this as the final, apocalyptic expression of the idea of the Good Mother, which, along with the idea of the Bad Mother, is, after all, an idea that has persisted for as long as there have been mothers (poor Eve messed up by getting herself pregnant in the first place, and then, yikes, her boys, running wild and committing fraticide and all! What Amy Chua could have taught her!) It’s tempting to laugh at the whole thing (did you, like me, think that that article could have appeared in the Onion? Did you wonder if it was satire? Did you laugh awkwardly, a lot?) and tell one’s self that, yes, finally, this is it. We have reached the event horizon of absurdity in parenting debates and are crossing over into nothingness. There is nothing more to discuss. We can finally turn to each other and say: it’s settled. This is where the discussion leads us. To discursive annihilation. Now let’s get a drink!

Sadly, however, that won’t be true. We’ll debate this, the Extreme Good Mother (soon to be a series on the Discovery Channel: Extreme Mothers! They do it without parachutes! They do it without fear!) – I’ll debate this; I’m debating it right now; don’t think I don’t know that – and we’ll wring our hands and we’ll wonder, what does it mean for us? Where does it fit? - and she’ll go on the Today Show, if she hasn’t already, and Jezebel will snicker because lo, the mommy bloggers are pitching fits again! and the wheel will turn, around and around, and even though it dizzies us, we’ll stay on.

When, really, we need to make the decision to jump off. We need to be able to look at something like these and roll our eyes – after, maybe, pulling out an insight or two that serves us in some constructive way – and set it aside and then turn back to our children. And watch them dance, and enjoy it, regardless of whether they do it well or badly.

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    Sarah January 11, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Very well said. You’ve done an excellent job of capturing many of my feelings on the subject.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..Grownups need more snow days! =-.

    hokgardner January 11, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    So well said. I read the article, rolled my eyes, felt bad for the children growing up in that home, and then moved on to doing the best I can with my kids.

    Kate January 11, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    This is the best response I’ve read to her piece. Thank you.

    Suzy January 11, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    The timing of this is impeccable. I am now standing at a precipice where I feel as though I have let my kids down. My kids are bright, curious, creative. I’ve let them choose their own paths. At ages 6 and 8 now, it is plain that they have not been pushed (I have never made them to do things they don’t want to do). They give up at the drop of a hat. They are okay with not having success. I had a painful realization not too long ago my kids seem not to care whether they achieve their dreams; they give up on even their highest hopes when the going gets tough (and consequently I gave up too, thinking that “this just isn’t their thing” or whatever). How sad it is to see a bright kid decide he doesn’t want to work to find the answer to a question. How sad it is when I’ve told myself it’s okay that he’s not working hard, that it’s just who he is. When plainly, the joy of learning is written all over his face when he achieves something.

    So I’m starting a different path. I’m not a Tiger Mom, that much is sure. But I’m pushing them. It’s hard and it’s scary, but they have responded so positively. They love accomplishing their goals. I’m still scared, I’m afraid it will get too hard and I will be the one to give up, and the taste of success and the joy of achievement will vanish. I am the child of a parent who opted not to push me (not a Bobcat Mom, more of a Hamster Mom- “Eat, run, follow your bliss”), and I’m sad that I still struggle with getting my own goals met; that I give up when the going gets tough.

    My kids are not “A” students and they totally can be. My kids deserve to discover the world and revel in it. They can have choices in life that I didn’t, even if it’s the choice to work hard for allowance to buy a toy. This is their foundation and I feel terribly guilty for frittering it away, even as young as they are now. Even your Bobcat Mom kept enrolling you in ballet despite your lack of advancement. You kept at it and transitioned to something else.

    I don’t have to be a Tiger. But my kids deserve more than a Hamster.

    Eliza January 11, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    @Suzy, agreed! both my parents had the Hamster thing going, they where like that i think because they were frequently overwhelmed. So sometimes they were bob cats and sometimes they were hamsters and you can totally tell which of us four kids got which.

    Suzy January 11, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    @Eliza, I’m totally that kind of parent, Hamster via Overwhelmed. I don’t want to vacillate between being Hamster and Bobcat, I want to be steady. Here’s hoping!

    Beth January 11, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    @Suzy, my husband and I discovered the same thing with our son (age 5). He gives up easily and if he’s challenged in the slightest way he decides that he can’t do something and won’t do it.

    I know that for both of us our parenting style is a result of being pushed, oftentimes way too hard, by our well-intentioned parents. I never want my kid to vomit into a trash can and cause a teacher to feel she has to comfort him (and then call us) because he got a C in gym (this happened to me in 8th grade). I never want my kid to hate us the way my husband hates his parents (though there is a lot more to that hatred than simply pushing him).

    The irony is that pushing me the way my parents did gave me a huge fear of failure. Such a huge fear that it’s often better to me to not try than to try and fail. I’m almost 42 years old and I’m still struggling to get over that fear of failure. Wish me luck!

    Suzy January 11, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    @Beth, Good luck! We should hope to find the balance in all this, yes? Push, but not too hard?

    Her Bad Mother January 11, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    I think that this is the potentially valuable takeaway from her piece, once you look past the extreme stuff – that there’s some value in being demanding parents, in ASKING of our children their best. Not all of our children are capable of being straight A students – I’m a former university teacher, I know this for a fact – but they should all be expected to comport themselves as if, work as hard as if, they were. They should all be expected to TRY.

    Suzy January 11, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    @Her Bad Mother, Bingo. You said it perfectly.

    KathyM January 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    @Her Bad Mother, Exactly!!! When I read her piece, I felt like she was making a very valuable point, but that our family would be adapting it to our own style.

    Catherine January 13, 2011 at 10:14 am

    @Suzy, yes, I agree, totally, but still: if you were a Hamster Mom, would you get one of those cool wheels? I would very much like one of those wheels.

    Jenna McCarthy January 11, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    A-to-the-MEN sister! I blogged about the WSJ piece too (for iVillage; should post shortly). I was equal parts horrified and intrigued by it, and LOVE the way you put your thoughts. You are clearly nicer than I am. :)

    Her Bad Mother January 11, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    Leave the link here when it’s up, will you? I imagine that many of us here would like to read it.

    Backpacking Dad January 11, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    I’ve renamed Chau’s “Chinese Mother” philosophy.

    It is henceforth known as “Stockholm Syndrome Parenting: They’ll love you for it, in the end.”
    .-= Backpacking Dad´s last blog ..Blog Post Endings =-.

    Karen L January 11, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    @Backpacking Dad, genius.

    Julie @ The Mom Slant January 11, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    @Backpacking Dad, Stockholm Syndrome was Kyle’s first reaction upon reading the piece as well.
    .-= Julie @ The Mom Slant´s last blog ..What we didn’t learn in kindergarten =-.

    Her Bad Mother January 11, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    “I hit you cuz I love you baby!”

    Karen L January 11, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    I am also very disturbed by the glorification of the very harmful model minority myth.

    Resistance doesn’t mince words about it. Her post (http://resistracism.wordpress.com/2011/01/09/p-s-you-suck/#more-6375) is quoted on Racialicious here(http://www.racialicious.com/2011/01/10/the-wall-street-journal-explains-why-chinese-mothers-are-superior/), which also covers the racial and ethnic dynamics.

    Her Bad Mother January 11, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    so interesting – going to read these right now!

    Issa January 11, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Great post Catherine. I am so with you. I wrote about this too.

    Superior mother, I am not.
    .-= Issa´s last blog ..This part is called counting my blessings =-.

    Rene January 11, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    I was appalled when I read the piece in the WSJ and even more so when I saw this woman on The Today Show. I did get a sense that, due to the ration of well-deserved shit she seems to be getting, she softened her tone a bit. Too late. Thank GOD I’m imperfect. At least my kids will be able to adapt when things don’t go the way they want them to.
    Would you allow me to place a link to my own piece that I wrote on it? The five things my slacker kids will learn from their Good Enough Mother.


    Her Bad Mother January 11, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    Link away! (Self promotion is always welcome here ;) )

    Rene January 12, 2011 at 10:34 am

    @Her Bad Mother,
    Thank you and vice-versa!Feel free to do the same on http://www.goodenoughmother.com

    kelly @kellynaturally January 11, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    When you tweeted the Chua article yesterday, I read it & kept waiting for the reveal. WHEN was she going to say, I’m just kidding; isn’t this funny, and stereotypical, and haha, I like to write tongue-in-cheek. But she didn’t. She was serious, and in light of that, I felt betrayed and wanted those 5 minutes of my life back.

    “Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, “Hey fatty—lose some weight.” By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of “health” and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image”

    “Can” and “Have to”? Really? Yes, anyone CAN say anything to anyone. There are certain things, though, having absolutely NOTHING to do with parenting and absolutely everything to do with common decency and humanity and empathy, that you don’t have to say to anyone. There are times when having an inner monologue is virtue.
    .-= kelly @kellynaturally´s last blog ..Nine Parenting Truths =-.

    Catherine January 13, 2011 at 10:15 am

    @kelly @kellynaturally, I had the same reaction. I actually told a reporter the other day that I was convinced, at first, that it was satire. I really was. I mean, calling your child ‘garbage’? That had to be a joke. I thought.

    Julie @ The Mom Slant January 11, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    My parents were wannabe Asian parents, including name-calling. I spent yesterday in a daze, reading accounts of APA children and realizing the parallels between their childhood and mine, right down to my recent estrangement from my parents thanks to their never-ending dissatisfaction with me.
    .-= Julie @ The Mom Slant´s last blog ..What we didn’t learn in kindergarten =-.

    Catherine January 13, 2011 at 10:16 am

    @Julie @ The Mom Slant, you’re absolutely right that it’s not culturally specific. Catholic parents (many of them) have their own unique methods of tigerosity (wd?). So do many Jewish parents. It’s not culturally unique to Asians.

    Emily WK January 11, 2011 at 2:00 pm
    Kim January 11, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    I did not interpret the WSJ article as Ms. Chau’s parenting advice, but rather a documentation of what is a “good mother” in her culture. While I don’t agree with many of her actions, it does put certain things in perspective. When American schoolchildren do so poorly on standardized testing in comparison to other countries, we often look to their education system for ways to improve. We need to realize that it is more than just longer school days/years. The huge focus on rote learning emphasized by an entire society will obviously result in higher test scores. I for one am glad to have a peek into what lies behind some of these minority success stories — it makes me less envious.

    Shmuel January 11, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    @Kim, agreed!

    While I think it’s unfortunate that an unknown WSJ copyeditor attached the misleading headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” to the piece, I think the key bit of the original article is this:

    There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids’ true interests. For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.

    Catherine January 11, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    @Kim, it wasn’t presented as parenting advice, but it WAS presented in terms of it being a *better* way for raise successful children. It (and other excerpts from the larger work that I’ve read) was full of condescending remarks about lazy, indulgent ‘Western’ approaches to parenting.

    Tina C. January 11, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    thanks for keeping in front of the issues! they were debating this on my local mommy list-serv, and since i’m so out of it and haven’t read the original article, i had to check with you first, and of course you have already posted something! personally, i’m not even going to read the WSJ article, or the book, since i’m pretty sure the topic will set my blood aboil; also, i’ve read enough books by chinese-americans to know this is a non-issue and that tiger moms do damage to their american kids.

    WestendMom January 11, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    I think the thing I can take away from the article is that “western parenting” has created a generation of kids who think because they want to, they can do anything. Now, of course if you dream it, you can be it, BUT and here is the kicker, it takes work, dedication, practice, failure, minor success, followed by more failure, and then more work to make dreams a reality. Would I employ the “extreme” tactics discussed in the article? No way, however, I have a daughter who loves to dance, she spends many hours at the studio and I pay some hefty bills to allow her to do so. She has talent and she loves it. But if she EVER started taking it for granted, not practicing, not pushing herself, I would sit her down and say shape up, or you can go back to rec classes, I will finally be able to afford furniture, and you can just have “fun”.

    Clearly the author has gone to extremes to “gasp” sell books and you are correct that the mommysphere will reel and recoil and rehash and rejoin. I do think though, those that dismiss this as utter bunk, are missing the point. We parents and our kids have the power to create anything we want for ourselves in our lives, but are we teaching our children the discipline and the mental energy required to make it happen? Personally, I would give myself a solid 4 out of 10 on that one. I can chalk it up to being too busy, too lazy, and too afraid to make my kids hate me.

    zwei January 11, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    My impression is that this post is based on a false premise, viz., that Chua is trying to say that Asian mothers are superior. That may have been what the headline writer wrote, but it wasn’t what her article was about. Moreover, if you look at the subtitle for her book on Amazon it explicitly contradicts that interpretation:

    “This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs,” the book’s cover declares. “This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”

    I guess I will just have to look at it to see for myself.

    Catherine January 11, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    @zwei, she didn’t write the headline, no. But the whole work (all of the excerpts that I’ve read, that is) is a defense of this mode of parenting as, yes, superior in producing successful children. As I noted in another comment above, the excerpts are full of condescending remarks about lazy, indulgent ‘Western’ approaches to parenting. It may be, indeed, that she concludes, in the book, that her model is not superior. But that’s not the message to be drawn from the excerpts, which make more or less explicit claims to superiority. (Not least as a defense for being borderline abusive. It’s okay, she tells us, because it works. It’s BETTER than what ‘Western’ moms do! She wouldn’t do it if it weren’t BETTER!)

    zwei January 12, 2011 at 10:19 am

    @Catherine, I think there is some confusion in the response to her article because what she presents as “better” is derivative from a certain set of cultural expectations. In other words, most Western parents are less concerned with their children being “high achievers” if they are “personally fulfilled” (which fulfillment is taken to be unrelated to “high achievement” in the way that Chua understands it). So Chua’s method is “better” if you think that a certain set of cultural expectations are better. The “Western” method is better if you accept a different set of cultural expectations. So I think that the root of the issue is less “how should we treat our children” than “what do we want for our children/ourselves”. I suspect that many people respond so strongly to her article because they are defending their own life choices and the expectations which they have their children, rather than because of the methods of her parenting. And that is why the subtitle of her book seems to be important.

    ReadTheBook! January 11, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    The article was cobbled together from the most sensationalistic parts of the book. Not sure who was behind this masterpiece, but clearly it got the ample press coverage it was perhaps aiming for.

    Firstly, her 2 daughters had shown signs of musical talent from a young age. It didn’t come from nowhere. If I had to hazard a guess as to what she would have done in your case, she would have pre-empted your attempts at ballet and would gone straight to music, theater and writing, despite your protests. This is the major difference. She would have spotted your strengths and then would have poured all her energies out to give you the best chances in the areas you excelled in, so that you could be the best at it.

    Which approach is better? Who’s to say? But read the book, and she would tell you that her extreme method of parenting (her words, not mine) didn’t work the same with her two daughters.

    Jonathan Warner January 11, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    I appreciate that when you write, you write with wisdom and grace.

    Thank you for this.

    Planet Mom January 11, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    Your words, like a salve, delivered instant relief. You reminded me that my vastly deficient parenting skills in the grand scheme of things are somehow okay. And I know that they are…really, I do. It’s just that having read about Tiger Mom and the litany of things she’s doing to prepare her children for the real world made me feel slightly horrible…and ashamed..and certainly unworthy of anyone’s respect–least of all my own.

    But thanks to you, I feel markedly better now. Well enough, in fact, to tuck my progenies in tonight and whisper in their ears something about loving how a certain someone’s clarinet squeaks and accepting that another certain someone isn’t overly fond of long division.

    With any luck, they’ll hear “I’ll love you, always and forever.”
    .-= Planet Mom´s last blog ..You Can’t Take it with You =-.

    Postpartum Progress January 12, 2011 at 12:24 am

    When I saw the piece on WSJ, I immediately envisioned the editorial meeting in which the participants were rubbing their hands together and drooling copiously over the reaction the article would cause. I don’t know Amy Chua and I haven’t read her book, but either her parenting philosophy is one of the worst ever (and it was she wrote the piece, after all, according to the byline), or she received one of the worst editing jobs ever. Either way, somebody already knew how we’d all feel about this, and they liked it that way.
    .-= Postpartum Progress´s last blog ..Mom Recounts How Childbirth Trauma Led to Her Postpartum PTSD =-.

    Lou January 12, 2011 at 12:54 am

    The WSJ article brought out the Mama Bear in me. I have seen youngsters deeply damaged (the word I want to use is “destroyed,” but I am trying to avoid the hyperbole) by excessive pressure to achieve perfection. My own son just brought home his report card from the first semester of first grade. His lowest grade was a high A: and this follows months of encouraging him (and at times bribing him) to not seek perfection in his schoolwork. I shudder to think what his anxiety level would be if I allowed someone to push him in the manner Chua describes.

    Resist being the Tiger Mom (your child’s level of achievement is not the measuring stick you should use for your parenting) and, yes, resist being the Hamster Mom. Take stock of what your particular child needs, and do what is in your power to give them that.

    And by the way? I frequently marvel at how many situations I run into, in adulthood, that require skills learned via small roles in elementary school plays. Speaking to groups without undue nerves, projecting my voice, memorizing large blocks of texts quickly, getting a point across orally to a group (and how that differs from getting the same point across in writing or in intimate company), how to excel at your part even when it is small and how to stick with a project when portions are tedious: these are all skills I use in making my living.

    Catherine January 12, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    @Lou, what you said about school plays? SO TRUE. there’s a whole post there.

    Pam Dillon January 12, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Pity the child unable to achieve the A.
    “Recent studies indicate that high academic achievement of students from Confucian Asian countries is accompanied by higher levels of anxiety and self-doubt.”–> http://bit.ly/evBnaO

    An upbringing by tiger mom doesn’t necessarily lead to functional adulthood or the ability to contribute to and live well in society.

    Catherine January 12, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    @Pam Dillon, I used to teach university. I saw these kinds of students cry, vomit, freak out about getting A’s. No one will ever be able to tell me that they had a healthy attitude toward learning.

    Pam January 13, 2011 at 9:53 am


    I agree.I think it’s dysfunctional and counterproductive. Kids wind up stuffing in information, vomiting it out for tests, then forgetting it. But the anxiety persists. I want to share the love of learning with my children — for a lifetime.

    Sincerely @writewrds

    Envy January 13, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    @Catherine, I saw the same things myself (one student jumped out of his seat ran out of an exam ten minutes in to vomit into a trash can). But many of the students who freaked out over grades weren’t from high expectation families. There was another, very common, type also: entitled students. Students who had been told they were super-special all their lives and as a consequence couldn’t accept anything under As either. They were also totally incapable of learning because they couldn’t accept that they had anything to learn. You either recognized how special they were, like they were used to, or you were the enemy. These were all “Western” kids. My guess us that Chua has seen her fair share of thus type. Probably my own kids are more likely to be that type. But I can see why “tiger mothers” might look down on that.

    Envy January 13, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    @Envy, Apologies for iPhone induced typos (not a good enough excuse for a tiger mom, I know).

    Envy Is a B*tch January 12, 2011 at 10:58 am

    I think that jealousy and some kind of awe explains some of the negative reactions to Chua. After all, she has had an amazing career and has equally accomplished sisters (one of whom has downs syndrome) and has done all of this while raising two prodigiously accomplished children, and besides being a Yale professor (and one whose academic record outdoes even that of many Yale professors) with another Yale Law professor (and part-time best-selling novelist!) for a husband, with whom she has had two children who have accomplished things most adults never dream of, and she still looks gorgeous on top of it all.

    The “superiority” issue here isn’t really just about culture or protecting children or whatever. It’s that this is a phenomenally successful woman whose very existence makes other people feel inadequate. We want her to be, at least, apologetic not about so much about her parenting but about her whole life. Instead, she says: I worked for it, and I worked for it because my whole family did, and I’ve made my children work the same way, and this is the product of our work. She’s not just an amazing woman, she’s assertive and unapologetic about it, and that’s what kills people. She’s not crushing her children’s dreams – just the dreams of a lot of adults.

    All that said: would I raise my children just like Chua does? No way! (Probably just because I’m too soft and lazy.) But I sure as hell would want them to look up to someone like that. And understand that those sorts of achievements (and even pale shadows of them) won’t come without the kind of discipline and ruthlessness that she talks about. So: a model parent? Maybe not. But still: a role model for children.

    Catherine January 12, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    @Envy Is a B*tch, I think that you’re totally right – even those of us who don’t want Chua’s life (I gave up an academic career and stepped off the path to Chua-like achievements when I realized that it wasn’t for me) and who don’t hold Chua-like ambitions for their children (I’d prefer that mine love reading and the outdoors than that they become concert violinists) have to cop to SOME niggling feeling of envy in considering her life. If only because of her hair ;)

    vegas January 12, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    @Envy Is a B*tch, Ummmm, NO.
    This is not to say that I am so secure in myself and my parenting that I don’t envy other mothers…but Amy Chua? Not a chance.

    Envy Is A B*tch January 13, 2011 at 10:15 am

    @vegas, good for you. But she still has remarkable accomplishments and a remarkable family, so much so that it will influence many people’s reactions to her. And even if one doesn’t want all of her specific achievements for oneself (as I don’t), it seems to me more than a bit strange not be able to admit that they are rather admirable. (Do I want to teach at Yale Law? Not really, but I can see why it’s significant. Do I want to play at Carnegie Hall? No, but I’m impressed by those who have. Etc.)

    Catherine January 13, 2011 at 11:53 am

    @Envy Is A B*tch, this is an important point, I think. We don’t need to WANT what she has to be impressed by her. I don’t want what she has. But I’m impressed by it. And I think that it is worth considering whether ‘being impressed’ colors our reactions. (If I’m being TOTALLY frank, I’d have to admit that my loathing of Gwyneth Paltrow might be colored in this way ;) )

    vegas January 13, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    @Envy Is A B*tch, I can see envying her academic and career successes but the book and article is about why she is a superior parent. I don’t think she is parenting successfully when she completely ignores the emotional and social development of her daughters. She is free to parent as she will but I do not respect nor envy her for her parenting.
    .-= vegas´s last blog ..A Facebook Story =-.

    Backpacking Dad January 12, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    Do you know how many Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford etc….professors were raised by Chinese Mothers? I don’t. But I’d imagine that the numbers are not in the majority. If they aren’t in the majority, then how is it that really brilliant, accomplished people seem to have these positions and careers WITHOUT being raised by a Chinese Mother? I’m not envious of her, because I don’t see her as unusual in her accomplishments in a way that is EXPLAINED by her upbringing when it’s opposed to the upbringings of her colleagues.
    .-= Backpacking Dad´s last blog ..How to Fix Twitter Lists =-.

    Catherine January 12, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    @Backpacking Dad, I am actually totally jealous of her hair. And I’m CERTAIN that she has that hair because she was raised by a Tiger Mom.

    Envy Is A B*tch January 13, 2011 at 10:10 am

    @Backpacking Dad, you’ve missed my point entirely. I wasn’t claiming that one has to be raised the way she was to have the achievements of her and her family – I was just saying that those achievements are a factor in the reaction to her. Obviously, most parents with “tiger mothers” do not have track records like Chua’s. She and her whole family are exceptional even by those standards. On the other hand, as I would expect that you know, Chinese American children do in fact do a lot better in academia than the general population. Chinese Americans are way too small a part of the population to make up the majority of Ivy League faculty – but their representation is still wildly disproportionate to their numbers (as with, to a lesser extent, Jews). So maybe that is related to the style of parenting. Or maybe not. But either way, that wasn’t the point of my comment, which was just about the reaction to her success: us Western types want her to be more apologetic about it. Instead, she flaunts it.

    Backpacking Dad January 14, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    @Envy Is A B*tch,

    Hmmm….no, you’ve missed my point, while I got yours. You’ve linked the bad reactions to Chau’s piece to jealousy. I undermined that claim, with at least one example. You propose, I undermine.

    There are many more reasons to dislike Chau’s piece/philosophy than jealousy. I doubt it’s even the main reason for the bad reaction. Ending the conversation at envy is just lazy.
    .-= Backpacking Dad´s last blog ..Stop Lurking- Lurkers =-.

    Envy January 14, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    @Backpacking Dad, no, you still missed the point, and you missed the point of my second comment also. And I don’t understand your attempt at restating it either: you say “at least one example” – but your comment does not contain one single example.

    What your comment does have is a generalized claim or suggestion, namely, that since the “the majority” of professors at “Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford etc” were not raised by Chinese mothers we can infer that Chua’s accomplishments are not “EXPLAINED by her upbringing”.

    But your general claim or suggestion which you are making is vulnerable to an obvious, empirically-grounded objection, which I’ve already stated, but which you’ve ignored: namely, that, although Chinese Americans are way too small a part of the American population to make up the majority of Ivy League faculty, nonetheless, their representation on such faculties is still wildly disproportionate to their numbers within the general population. The fact that the children of Chinese immigrants do much better in academia all across North America than children from “Western” families is a well-established and widely known fact.

    Now, whether or not the superior academic performance of Chinese Americans should be attributed to a particular parenting style is debatable. But it is simply a fact that their performance is superior, and so it shouldn’t surprise anyone if “tiger mothers” take some credit for it. That being said, even if their academic performance is a consequence of the parenting style, one might still decide that the parenting methods are not worthwhile.

    Anyway, all of this is beside my original point, but nevertheless, if you want to claim that there is no link between the parenting styles of Chinese Americans and their dramatically superior academic achievements, then you need to at least start by acknowledging the fact of those achievements.

    Backpacking Dad January 15, 2011 at 2:40 am


    I’m sorry. I think I was unclear. I’m the example: At least one person not reacting badly to Chau out of jealousy. I have other reasons to react badly to Chau’s piece than jealousy. And there are, apparently, more people than myself who aren’t jealous of her and still react badly to her.

    You are stressing a link between her accomplishments and the negative reaction to her parenting philosophy and I am denying it. It’s not about whether children raised by Chinese Mothers perform at a certain level, but whether you’ve revealed an important feature of the negative reactions. I don’t think you have. I think it’s uninteresting to end the conversation with “People who react badly to Chau’s piece are just jealous of her accomplishments.” I think it’s an illegitimate attempt to undermine the criticism leveled against her. And I think it’s useless psychologizing.
    .-= Backpacking Dad´s last blog ..Stop Lurking- Lurkers =-.

    kittenpie January 13, 2011 at 11:25 am

    @Backpacking Dad, @envy – or, alternately, this kind of pressure-filled child-rearing, which many people consider borderline abusive, is totally not restricted to asian mothers. Ask around ivy league schools, and I bet you find plenty of old money New Englanders who lived under all kinds of pressure to follow in approved footsteps or pursue only approved paths and to achieve at high levels.

    This isn’t a new story, right? We’ve read plenty of books about this before, but a Western view often sees it as something to be overcome if it chafes, while an asian view holds it as honourable to make your family proud and do what your elders tell you. Meaning that western narratives about this (like Dead Poet’s Society, for example)often focus on suicide, on rebelling and making your parents see the real you, or on suffering quietly, while Chua does not address the idea that there is suffering or that any suffering that might exist should matter in comparison to the greater goal.

    So while yes, the results of her upbringing are enviable, I still think that people are reacting to her tone and to the fact that we’ve been taught to think that too much pressure will almost inevitably lead to a snap of some sort, while she rejects that notion as weak. Who wants to be called weak?

    Envy January 13, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    @kittenpie, Yeah I think you’re exactly right about the dynamic. But the fact that it makes us uncomfortable is just why we should seriously consider her point I think.

    Parenting for the Craft Impaired January 13, 2011 at 10:31 am

    @Envy Is a B*tch,

    Uh no. You do realize there is a higher suicide rate among youth and depression. When you set the bar so high, it can foster destructive feelings of inadequacy.

    I work with teens who can’t read and can’t do basic math due to dyslexia and dyscalculia.

    I grieve for similar kids in Asia. We can’t even help them here and we try, I wonder what is done under Chua’s interpretation of Chinese parenting.

    I think Chua got lucky. Her kids are neurotypical and able to withstand her parenting. If she’d had a kid with severe dyslexia or autism, she would be singing a totally different tune.

    No jealousy here. Actually happiness that I am nothing like Chua. I know she would have destroyed my psyche if I had been her kid.

    .-= Parenting for the Craft Impaired´s last blog ..Christmas Shopping Ideas- Preschool Math Toys and Games =-.

    Envy Is A B*tch January 13, 2011 at 10:56 am

    @Parenting for the Craft Impaired, apparently everyone of her sisters (one with down syndrome who has gone on to win medals at the special olympics – thus casting doubt on your suggestion that “tiger mothers” wouldn’t know how to deal with children with disabilities; apparently, they make super-successes out of those children just like they do with the others) got lucky and both of her children all got lucky. That’s a hell of a lot of luck. Seriously though, to some extent of course there’s a chance element involved. And you’re just proving my point because what I said above is that what we want her to say is something like “I just got lucky”. We don’t want her to take credit. That is the Western way. Instead, she says: no, we *worked* for this. No apologies. Infuriating to us. So, like I said above, what you have said is just what we want Chua to say. We don’t want her to take credit. We want to believe it’s just luck. As for whether or not her style of parenting is really better, that’s a different question. I already said that it’s not something I could do, although I can see the case for it, to some extent. But that’s a whole other subject.

    Parenting for the Craft Impaired January 13, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    @Envy Is A B*tch,
    Kids have their own personalities and capabilities independent of their parents. Chua was lucky as she got kids who could handle the expectations and the tools with which they were enforced. That is pure luck.

    I work with a student who is intelligent but has memory issues. We could do 5×5=25 all day long and it would not matter. What prevented Chua from having that kid? Luck. Genetics. Factors she has zero control over, factors no parent has control over. Her parenting methods as described would be abuse of my student.

    Down’s Syndrome is a distinct experience that I would not diminish nor extrapolate from to infer things about other different abilities. There is also a spectrum of ability with DS and the Chuas were, again, fortunate to have a child that could function within the family’s expectations.

    Further, achievements do not equate with fully functioning healthy happy people. Charlie Sheen is quite accomplished both in the arts as well as drug abuse and p0rn star hook ups. You can save the world and still be damaged goods–how? From the inputs, parents, people, placesm experiences that formed you.

    I’m happy for Chua that her life worked. Happy that her kids are accomplished, but I wonder at what cost to their psyche? And I think she gives herself too much credit. Because the fact is this parenting style yields a higher suicide rate in Asia as well as depression; it is not ubiquitously successful. There is a price and Chua got off cheap.

    She got lucky.


    Sarah January 13, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    @Envy Is a B*tch, I don’t mean to sound inflammatory, but I was raised by a similar parent. I don’t feel envious of her accomplishments; I feel sad for her children. She is not a role model. She is a person who is setting her children up for limited success in a few areas, and failure in many others. Is a successful school record or even a career more fulfilling than connections/relationships with others? I, personally, have come to find out that it is not.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..My open letter to the Tiger Mother =-.

    Envy January 13, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    @Sarah, your point is important and true for many people. It would also be presumptuous to assume that it’s true for everyone, say, to assume that Chua is really emotionally stunted or socially inept or whatever. That may be comforting to believe, but it may not be true. It may also be that she genuinely believes that certain trade offs are worthwhile. And there is the rub: we and Chua are implicitly deciding for our children that certain trade offs are worthwhile. Face it, if you want to have young kids playing at Carnegie Hall you’re probably going to have to drill them more like Chua did. For some people and maybe some cultures the belief is that the trade offs involved are worth it. We don’t believe that. But I think it’s good to be reflective and honest about the trade offs involved, which Chua helps with. And again: I don’t personally want to live like her. But I do think there’s something admirable about her determination and het parent’s drive and what that has produced and I’d like my children to be able to understand that.

    Parenting for the Craft Impaired January 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm


    If you have to push that hard, I don’t think it’s good. Kids who end up at Carnegie Hall should be the ones that can’t stay away from the piano, who have the true passion to sustain a career.

    If Chua habitually had to strong arm her child to master the piano, I fear she’ll create an adult who has a talent without passion.

    My true passion was not fostered by my family and I regret it to this day as it’s not the kind of thing I can start working toward now. And I would have been fantastic at my passion if I’d had the support of my family who actively discouraged me. I have not read the entire book so perhaps the piano battle Chua shared was a one off thing, perhaps music was Lulu’s true passion, but as it reads now, it doesn’t sound like it to me.

    Manufactured achievement just because you can and not because it is what is in your heart, is empty.


    vegas January 13, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    “to assume that Chua is really emotionally stunted or socially inept or whatever”

    I think that she’s proven herself to be emotionally stunted or whatever by publicizing her claim of superiority as well as her own stories of her emotionally abusive treatment of her daughters.
    .-= vegas´s last blog ..A Facebook Story =-.

    Pam January 13, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    @Envy Is a B*tch,

    While I had a hard time with the tone of the Chua article, I was curious about the mindset and rooted out this U of California study at http://bit.ly/eOSY1U. If you go to the 7th page (1117), bottom of the left column, top of the right, it gives an idea of the cultural basis for the thinking: the responsibility of mothers to train, discipline and “govern” the children. (Some of the next page is pretty interesting too…)
    To me, Chua crosses the line from tough love to tyrannical, possibly even self-glorifying motherhood. Not sure about that. However, she and her girls are certainly very successful and, in an era of many absentee parents (in mind and heart, if not in body, the woman is certainly devoted. (Great hair too.)

    Nina Badzin January 12, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Can’t tell you how much I love this post. The title is perfect and I loved your mom’s wisdom, too.

    Renee January 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    My God – I think I may be having an aneurysm while I type…I am SEETHING from that article. Your child has to be THE best in every class except gym and drama? What if we all had that mentality? By definition, only one kid can be first – so all the other children and parents are failures? (Maybe my kid can at least get ahead of hers in drama because I – Gasp! – let him attend drama camp.) The language she uses to her children is sickening and honestly borders on child abuse. And, while arguably less important as he is an adult, I really wonder about her husband and how he manages to sleep in the same bed as that A*$hole. Doesn’t he get any say in the parenting philosophy – poor weak-kneed Westerner probably doesn’t have a chance! Yes – it’s true – I guess you can’t really argue with her results – her daughters are obviously very “successful” in terms of academic success, playing at Carnegie Hall, etc. Maybe (probably?) my children will never do that, but there is a way to balance high expectations with a softer touch and an acknowledgement that not all children can be the best at everything, at least not at a cost that is worth paying…(Now excuse me while I seek medical attention…)

    Amanda January 12, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    I’m kind of exhausted by all the finger pointing online these days, whether it’s politics, parenting or whatever. I appreciate this post and the thread for the trails of reflection I see. Anything that makes us question and retool, for better or worse, what we are doing, is a good thing. Auto-pilot is as bad as any other extreme.

    I do wonder if the way we are operating as a society demands that people not just tout extremist views, but actually carry them out to prove their outrageous and unique mettle just for the sake of standing out.
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..And then I didn’t fail =-.

    Sarah January 13, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    @Amanda, I think you may have a valid point!
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..My open letter to the Tiger Mother =-.

    Alexicographer January 12, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    I read (and enjoyed) your post, and I read Chua’s article, and I saw some others about Chua’s article and I mulled it over a bit. And I’ve realized what I think bugs me most about what Chua is doing, is this: she’s written, and publicized, and created (predictably) vast controversy over, this while her daughters are, what?, I think 14 and 17. Now, our memories grow increasingly shorter and our controversies increasingly more frequent and perhaps this will fall off the radar. But my personal suspicion is that from now forward, every moment of Chua’s daughters’ lives as teenagers, young adults, and perhaps even more mature adults will now be shaped with them being judged as the products of a “tiger mother” and the question of whether the paths they pursue and the accomplishments they achieve (as well as those they don’t) are worthy, as well as of whether they prove or disprove Chua’s hypothesis.

    And regardless of whether I’m a hamster or a tiger, I would go to great ends to avoid doing that to my children. Quaint in this information age, perhaps, but nonetheless.

    Suzanne Noble January 19, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Haha. That ballet story really brought back memories. I studied ballet when I was six or seven and had ZERO hand to eye coordination. At the same time I was studying piano and tap dancing. When I wanted to take up the flute, my mother said that I was doing too much and I’d have to give up something and ballet was the thing that went. So ballet went and many, many years later I asked my mother why I hadn’t continued with it. ‘Because you were awful,’ she said (actually she used a very un-PC word but you get the idea). I laughed. She was not a Tiger Mom but she was very sensible. It took me 40 years to gain the hand/eye coordination I lacked as a kid when I actually took a course to teach Exercise to Music that I passed with flying colours.
    .-= Suzanne Noble´s last blog ..LazyTown Huge Success in Mexico! =-.

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