Thursday, February 3, 2011

Tiger Mothers and their cubs

Three weeks ago the Wall Street Journal published an essay written by Amy Chua, the daughter of Chinese immigrants and a law professor at Yale University, in which she presented her take on the question of why so many children of Chinese immigrants are high achievers in areas like music and math. According to Chua, the key element to the “success” of these children is the strict parenting they receive from their “Tiger Mothers” which she sets in sharp contrast to the permissive approach of “Western” parents. As it is part of a publicity campaign to sell her new memoir about parenting her own children, the essay, entitled ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,’ is written in a tone that is aggressive and intentionally bombastic. It has provoked all kinds of discussion across the internet and blogosphere, to the point where one website self-servingly labeled the essay “The Wall Street Journal’s Most Controversial Article Ever.”

In the essay, Chua lays out what she sees as three principle differences in parenting styles between “Tiger” parents and “Western” parents.

- First, typical Western parents are too concerned with a child’s self-esteem to set high standards and hold the child to them. They accept B’s and C’s on report cards whereas Tiger mothers go ballistic over anything less than A’s.

- Second, Western parents do not teach their children to respect and honor their parents. Tiger mothers demand obedience because they believe their children owe their parents everything.

- Third, Western parents allow their children to think for themselves, to have their own interests, and to have their own friends. Tiger mothers know what activities are best for their children and do not permit them to be distracted by any extracurricular endeavors.

While these three points are the intellectual meat of the essay’s argument, the real hook comes from a fourth proposition that Chua interlaces throughout the text: Tiger cubs succeed because Tiger Mothers are hard on them in ways that Western parents will not or cannot follow. To hammer home this final point, Chua concludes the essay with a story about how she browbeat her younger daughter into successfully learning a particularly difficult piece of music. She relates how she forced her daughter, Louisa, to practice her violin for hours on end – using insults and withholding food at times to keep her from quitting – until Louisa finally managed to master the piece. At the end, Chua depicts Louisa as happy and full of pride at what she was able to accomplish.

While this vignette is supposed to shock and titillate, I find it amusing that it so neatly fits into a narrative that is very familiar to anyone who follows or is involved in sports. The story of the overbearing coach who through vitriol and abuse pushes players (those that are not driven off) to greatness is a regular feature of many sporting seasons. The names are easy to come by in the major sports leagues of the US: Bobby Knight, former basketball coach at the University of Indiana and Texas Tech University; Mike Dikta, former head coach of the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints football teams; Bob Huggins, former basketball coach at the University of Cincinnati and current coach at West Virginia University; Bill Parcells, former coach of the New York Giants, New York Jets, New England Patriots, and Dallas Cowboys football teams. All these men used their position of power as coach to frighten, humiliate, and intimidate – essentially to bully - players into doing whatever was demanded of them. Those players who would not comply were run off, traded, or otherwise ostracized.

The violence of the bullying coach carries with it a strange sort of charisma. Many people, especially those who do not experience its full glare, love it. They see nothing wrong with the piles of insults, the mind games, and even the physical abuse exacted on players. They passionately defend the actions of the coach in much the same way that Amy Chua defends hers: they argue that these trials push players to do more than they ever would on their own and in the process they make them immune to the pressure that comes with performing difficult tasks in big moments.

At the same time, there are many other people who view this violence with disgust. They see a coach who is wrapped up in a messianic vision of himself that permits all in the pursuit of victory. They see a person who employs dictatorial violence to create an atmosphere of persistent insecurity and then uses this insecurity to justify and maintain their own authority. They believe that in the process these coaches wind up manipulating and goading players in cruel, unnecessary, and ultimately counterproductive ways (The parallels between these coaches and the personalities involved in promoting the use of torture by the US military and intelligence services are not coincidental).

I am one of these latter people and my answer to the supporters of coaches like Bobby Knight is that the person many consider to be the greatest coach of all time employed a motivational strategy that was the polar opposite of Knight’s bullying violence. John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach of the University of California at Los Angeles, never dipped into the pot of meanness and degradation when dealing with his players (or anyone else). He motivated his players by treating them with respect and intelligence, still demanding the necessary sacrifices of time and energy, but doing so quietly and with obvious purpose. As a result players respected him, not because he demanded it but because he earned it. And for players like Hall of Famer Bill Walton, that respect ultimately became an outright love that lasted far beyond their years playing basketball.

My point here is that I believe the kind of meanness that Amy Chua revels in and celebrates in her WSJ essay as fundamentally important to the success of Tiger cubs is really a self-aggrandizing contingency which is more about maintaining her own power over her children than about facilitating her children’s success. The threats, insults, and abuse she employed – “coercion, Chinese-style” as she puts it – are the blunt instruments of one who does not have the knowledge or confidence to motivate her children in other ways. In my opinion, not only are these tactics counterproductive over the long term – something Chua seems to have encountered with her second child – but they also perpetuate an acceptance of banal violence in society writ large. Violence at this everyday level begets violence at other levels and we become caught in a vicious spiral where dogs eat dogs and “by any means necessary” becomes the only logic anyone understands.

What I find particularly unfortunate about Chua’s gleeful recounting of her insults and abuses is that they overshadow the other significant elements at work in her parenting style. Take a look at these three quotes from her WSJ essay:

- “Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children.”

- “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.”

- “And it's true that Chinese mothers get in the trenches, putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids.”

In Amy Chua’s characterization, the Tiger Mother spends a tremendous amount of time working with and for her children. It is extremely important to recognize this time because it – as opposed to the insults - is the necessary condition for making children successful. For example, holding kids to high standards in school is one thing, but it doesn’t really change anything until someone takes the time to get the practice tests and work through them with a child who is struggling. To take another example, banning television and video games is another ‘strict’ tactic Chua employs. What she doesn’t say is that this choice also requires extra parental time. Not only does it require the parent to avoid the TV (at least while the kids are awake) but it also means there is more time during which the parent will need to engage a child in something else. Those extra half-hours spent reading together, playing games, working on a musical instrument, or just talking add up quickly.

Ultimately, the larger argument that Chua is making in her WSJ article is one that I agree with: the prominence of Tiger cubs in areas like the performance of classical music is not a result of biology or genetics. It is also not the result of some specific cultural aptitude or advantage conveyed by some linguistic difference. This prominence is the product of very focused and determined work which is driven by focused and determined parents.

I also agree with Chua that this reflects a significant difference between Euro-American culture and many other cultures in their dominant notions of what childhood is and should be. In the US, we tend to conceptualize childhood as a time of innocence and play, a time before worry, a time of joy that should be free from the responsibilities and pressures of adulthood. “Play is a child’s work” is the mantra of many a preschool teacher. Kids who don’t get this time, who have to “grow up early,” because a parent dies or a sibling needs extra care are often treated with a kind of sympathy for the presumed bliss they were forced to give up.

As Amy Chua shows, this notion of childhood innocence is not universal. It is the product of a specific set of historical and geographical patterns (largely 19th and 20th century European thought). Recognizing these patterns is not to pass judgment on the wrongness (or rightness) of the ideas themselves. Instead, it merely brings to the fore the fact that there are other ways of thinking about childhood, what children should be doing during this time, and even what constitutes a child.


  1. Amy Chua has pointed out that the tone and title of the article are as much the doing of the editing of the WSJ as much as what she wrote. News Corp is well aware that drama and controversy sell papers or page views. I would take anything Opinion in any News Corp paper or organ with a big bag of salt. The articles by and about her in the NYTImes are far more moderate and thoughtful.

    That said this is also the technique used by Military Drill Instructors. Basic training is romanticized like nothing else.

    The basic point you make that what this represents is the investment of time has not been noted before. Perhaps for parenting quantity is more important that quality as regards to time.

  2. I'd be interested in seeing someone connect the Chua article to the Sarah Palin discourse of "Grizzly Mom." How are we situating moms when they must be an anthropomorphized predator?

  3. This is one of the best analyses of the article I've come across. I find your point about time interesting - it makes me think that I can become a "Tiger Mom" in that way, even if I don't have the agressiveness in me, I do have the time and ability to spend the time necessary to achieve some good outcomes.