Franckly speaking: Tiger mom pounces on American parents

By March 4, 2011


The 15 minutes of fame seized by Yale Law professor Amy Chua have ended — but what has she left in her wake?

Something that disturbs me.

Chua’s story first broke in the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 8 with an article she wrote provocatively titled, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.”  It was an excerpt from her new book, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” and after it ran, Chua became inescapable.

For three weeks she appeared nonstop everywhere, from the New York Times to the “Colbert Report.” Trucks drove up to Chua’s stately mansion in New Haven, Conn. to dump huge loads of money. (I made that up, but her book skyrocketed in the sales charts.)

Chua’s book is about raising successful children. I haven’t read it, but people who have say it encourages parents to push (some say “abuse”) their children toward academic and musical triumph by using a full-on parenting style Chua calls “tiger mom.”

In the Chinese system of zodiac signs, Chua, born in 1962, is a tiger. The cub of parents as stern as herself, Chua believes that it is fine to forbid TV, participation in school plays, sleepovers, play dates and other pleasures in order to stand over your children as they practice music, math and every other academic subject to the point of perfection or, at least, best in the class.

Examples of her behavior — “I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have ‘The Little White Donkey’ perfect by the next day” — make me shudder. But Chua says that a tiger mom doesn’t mind being hated: her goal is for her children to excel. Western moms are pussies.

For me, the controversy about Chinese tiger moms is personal because my marriage is the inverse of Chua’s.

She is an American-born Chinese woman married to a Jewish-American man. I am a half-Jewish American woman married to an American-born Chinese man.

Because my situation looks like hers, with the sexes reversed, last month my marriage and my children suddenly became the object of questions.

People asked me if my kids were raised tiger style. They assumed Bob was a tiger dad and they wondered if he prevailed.

Even people who know me seem to think that my home life must have been different than they imagined, the evidence being the fact that my children played musical instruments — although not the piano or violin — and did well in school.

In answer, I give you the image of a hawk, my husband’s idea when he looked at my draft of this column. He says we circled above our children, the way a hawk makes circles in the sky, watching closely, caring what happened, intervening once in a while. Chua was a hawk, too, but close to the ground, hovering barely above her children, beady eyes piercing them, talons sinking in.

What bothers me about this whole dust up is that although she claims to talk only about parenting, Chua encourages stereotyping. Thanks to her, people think they have finally found the answer to the success of Asian students: demanding, invasive parents.

Reality is much more complicated. You can’t break into a random Chinese home and find a mean mother standing over striving children. Some might be like that. Many not.

Class differences originating in China are one source of variation. My husband’s mother, for example, grew up in rural, impoverished China where she was exceptional because she learned to read and write. I’m not sure how she accomplished that.

She came to America at age 21. When her own children were old enough for school, she barely understood how school functioned. She never got involved, except to say “no” to things that cost money, like Boy Scouts because you had to buy a uniform.

My husband’s father came to America as a child, but he attended school only until third grade when his father died. He could read and write, but he knew little about how his own children were being educated. Unable to offer practical help, he simply talked up education.

This was apparently enough to inspire them, because all three graduated from college. None became tiger moms or dads, but their kids graduated, too. I love spending time with my husband’s family because for the most part they’re a happy crew.

How do Chua’s teenage daughters feel inside? Reportedly successful (so far), are they happy? Does success lead directly to happiness?

These is a huge issue, but not the one I linger on.

What I don’t like about the Chua uproar is the way it makes all Chinese people seem alike, as if they are a group of hyperkinetic over-achievers who use powerful, unorthodox tools to compete with “real Americans.” Chinese immigrants, even immigrants whose families have been here since the 19th century, are being re-examined, as if they were different and weird.

This leads me to make a plea familiar to anyone who is touched by issues of diversity.

Yes, cultural traditions and similarities of people within a culture exist, but so do enormous differences. Make no assumptions about the children you see before you. Or their parents. Or me.

Marion Franck

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