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A Postmortem on the “Tiger Mom” Brouhaha--It’s All About Her

By Rick Hess — January 28, 2011 3 min read
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I was fortunate to have been away during much of the recent “tiger mom” craze. Sadly, the chatter, interviews, and excerpts have lingered, leading me to think a brief postmortem is in order.

For all the claims that this is about supporting her kids, it strikes me that “tiger mom” author Amy Chua is in the throes of the same “it’s-all-about-me” zeitgeist as those lax parents who are just so eager for their kids to like them. Chua explains that this isn’t really about her: “Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.” Sounds to me like Chua puts herself front-and-center in every moment of her daughters’ lives, ensuring that their interests and nascent friendships were as much about her as about them. I’m not sure how much this ultimately differs from “it’s-all-about-me” New Age parenting.

Chua proudly related, “Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece...I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen little evidence over the years that tantrums and empty threats are a promising way to raise responsible, hard-working, smart, self-reliant kids. Truth is, where I grew up, we had a phrase for Chua’s behavior: it’s not “tiger mom,” but “drama queen.” Strikes me that Chua is a hypercompetitive Yale law professor with a serious need for attention. That’s cool, as far as it goes, it’s just peculiar that anyone would look to her as a fount of parenting advice.

Chua also explained, “If a Chinese child gets a B--which would never happen--there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.” Normally, if it weren’t claiming the cover of Time magazine, this kind of sweeping “speak-for-a-race” stereotyping would be decried as simple-minded and potentially racist. But when we get caught up in our manias, these kinds of overheated claims seem to get treated with a seriousness they don’t really deserve.

The whole imbroglio reminded me of the furor raised by Carol Gilligan’s famous book In a Different Voice, published a couple decades ago. Gilligan famously suggested that women have a distinctive course of moral development. Right or wrong, though, the funny thing was that Gilligan’s grand theory was based on interviews with a couple dozen privileged girls at an elite New England boarding school. Skeptics suggested that maybe Gilligan’s sweeping claims weren’t quite as generalizable as she’d suggested. I may be wrong, but I’d bet a pretty substantial sum that Chua’s drama queen antics aren’t nearly as generalizable in Chinese culture as she casually suggested. I’d love to see some data on this.

What we actually have here, it seems to me, is the Yale law professor version of Octomom or the Kardashian sisters--one more narcissist eager for her fifteen minutes. The problem is that this kind of cultural debate driven by the Chuas and Octomoms of the world doesn’t leave a lot of space for sensible reflection. Meanwhile, it primarily rewards folks for cooking up increasingly outlandish and attention-getting shticks... like being a “tiger mom.”

So, parents just got treated to a month of hearing via television, major newspapers, and the cover of weekly newsmagazines that good parenting entails becoming a manipulative drama queen eager to dictate every moment of a child’s life.

Of course, at the same time, the hysterical documentary Race to Nowhere--one more entry in the familiar corpus of “our kids are overworked” agitprop--informs us that too much homework and too many demands are crushing our children’s spirit. All the hysteria leaves little room for calm, thoughtful guidance as to how parents can raise responsible children without making it all about mommy (or daddy). Where in the popular media is a parent to turn for that kind of sensible counsel? It scary to think that Dr. Phil might be a parent’s best bet.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.