Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has taken America by storm. With Asian and other nationalities consistently out performing American students in math tests and academic performance, and the increase of Asian inventors in the IT field, the lament seems to be that the no compromise, man the trenches approach to parenting that Chua describes in her book is what American parents should be doing.
American kids can be better, but the Asian model is not the answer
There is no doubt that American students should, and I believe can, do better academically, and that American schools and commercial institutions – and parents – need to take a more active role in enabling them to do so. But, having lived in Asian countries for nearly 20 years; including Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, and having had the opportunity to observe up close the mature result of Chua’s style of parenting, I would question whether her ‘concentration camp’ style of mothering is truly applicable to American culture.
Chinese mothers are in fact superior, as Chua claims, in a Chinese context. And, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in China, Japan, or Korea. The emphasis on strict discipline, obedience, and rote learning fits the cultural systems of these societies. In Asian classrooms, students are not allowed to think for themselves; they receive what the teacher puts out, and regurgitate it on demand during exams. Students who dare to question a teacher’s statement, or what’s in the approved textbook, are subject to disciplinary action, including expulsion. Once, when I was working as a U.S. consular officer in one of our consulates in China, a Chinese professor came in to apply for a student visa for his daughter. She’d been with him when he was an exchange scholar in the U.S. and had attended school there for her first six years. Now, as a teenager, she was unable to fit into the rigid Chinese classroom environment. She was an extremely bright child, but had an inquisitive mind, and this was anathema to Chinese teachers.
Tiger moms raise experts, but not whole persons
What of the adults raised in such an environment. Chua maintains that the harsh demands and often derogatory language she received from her parents did not damage her self esteem, and that she does the same to her daughters. I would take issue with her on that point. Often as I’ve worked with Asian adults who have been brought up in such environments, I’ve noted that they have issues with their self image, have difficulty accepting even positive criticism, and are unable to compromise. Things are either their way, or they consider themselves to have lost the game.
The Asian obsession with absolute mastery of a skill, to the exclusion of all else, does indeed produce prodigies. But, these are often one-dimensional creatures that are incapable of functioning in any other environment than the one they’ve spent their childhoods mastering. Having been brought up under a strict regime of father and mother know best, and your wishes count for nothing, they often become adults who take the same view to their jobs, including many in government. Ever wonder why Asian political disputes are so hard to mediate or settle? When all sides have an uncompromising view; when being number one is the only goal in life; it becomes hard to find the middle road.
This is not to say that American parents couldn’t introduce a little more discipline for their children. I’ve raised four to adulthood; not with the Tiger Mom approach, but also not with the lax approach that many American parents are accused of having. I grew up in rural east Texas in the 1940s and 1950s, and parents of my day were strict. You were required to work hard, be honest, and respect your elders. If you failed a subject in school, parents took it seriously and insisted you work harder. They did not, however, resort to excessive punishment or insults. It was recognized that some people in fact cannot do some things, and they should be encouraged to find what they’re good at. This is how I raised my kids, and they are now successful, well-adjusted adults, and can compete with the best Asian of their generation. They excel at their chosen professions, but they also have interests outside their fields, and they know how to compromise when compromise is called for.
If what you want is to raise automatons who are whizzes at the piano or violin, or who will invent the next generation computer, but who are ill at ease at a cocktail party, or who are unable to see another person’s point of view, or compromise in order to move things forward; then, by all means, be a tiger mom like Amy Chua. As for me, I’ll leave the tiger moms where they belong; in a zoo.