January 19, 2011

Amy Chua's Hubris- Where the "Tiger Mother" Fails

SuperMommy and her Super Sisters as small children
 There are many different ways to raise children.  The standards are constantly changing, from the recommendations for breast feedings to the methods for potty training.  Every once in a while, a book on parenting comes along and there is a giant shift in the process people use to raise their children.  The public tends to trust the so-called experts when it comes to the nearly universally terrifying task of turning babies into productive human beings.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger MotherBy now, most of you have probably heard all about Amy Chua and, "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."  My friends and beloved bloggers have been both up in arms about her techniques and eager to go for the same results.  I am neither.

You see, Amy Chua's parenting style is aimed, as she says, at "raising such stereotypically successful kids."  Right there, there is the flaw.  "Stereotypically successful."

What sort of success is that?  Kids that get straight A's and perform at Carnegie Hall?

I have a different measure of success.  Happiness, and the ability to lead a normal, emotionally healthy life.

My family 15 years ago, including DD's namesake
My grandmother, who DD is named for, was sort of the Midwestern American version of the Tiger Mother.  My father was reading before he could walk, and his childhood was spent as a Child Prodigy, alienated and under constant pressure.  The argument could be made that it obviously worked, that he went on to achieve his Ph.D. from an extremely prestigious institution and become a leader in his field.  However, after having three children with similar intellectual ability, he made the very conscious choice not to raise his children in the same way.

My father in high school
Why?  Because, "stereotypically successful kids" are not actually geniuses.  They're normal children who have been pushed to succeed to the best of their ability, and the best of their ability is very impressive.  The best of anybody's ability is fairly staggering.  But only about half of the children out there are "normal."  The rest are outliers for some reason or other.

My older sister was not a normal child.  She is, beyond any doubt, absolutely brilliant.  She is by far the most intelligent person I have ever known.  A decade ago, she wrote a 'zine about her life.  It was witty, moving, beautiful... every word chosen perfectly.  A heartbreaking work of staggering genius.  But as it is said, there's fine line between brilliance and insanity.  While she might not be insane, she is genuinely troubled.  Her emotional and intellectual needs have never, not for one minute of her life, been "normal."  A Tiger Mother approach to parenting would probably have resulted in her running away from home at the age of ten, never to be seen again.  God only knows if she would have survived.

My older sister, taken by my younger sister
Now I don't generally like to say this, but I am very very smart.  In addition, the Tiger Mother approach wouldn't have made a damn bit of difference in my childhood.  I had my older sister to motivate me, to inspire me to perform as well as I could.  I got straight A's, at five years old I begged my parents to get me piano lessons, I began attending college full time before I was fifteen.

None of that was particularly normal.  However, under the Tiger Mother's tutelage, my childhood would have been filled with much more heartbreak.  Under her rules, I never would have been allowed to quit the piano.  Until I was eleven, I never had the desire to quit the piano.  I had fallen in love with the instrument after hearing my grandfather play "The Moonlight Sonata."  I spent six years practicing, albeit reluctantly on occasion, knowing that someday I would be able to play that amazing piece of music.  At eleven my teacher reluctantly agreed to help me with the piece, and it was then that my heart broke... my hands were not, and would never be, large enough to play it correctly.  I can't make the octave-one stretch.
Learning from my aunt, a concert violinist

Would the Tiger Mother have taken the medieval approach of breaking my thumbs to give my hands better reach?  If that was the only way to succeed?

Had I been raised by a Tiger Mother, I might have become more studious.  I might have actually achieved a degree in my twelve years of college education, and I might be a little more diligent about editing this blog for simple typos.  I, like M, am a dedicated under achiever.  For both of us, this is one of the coping mechanisms we developed for being alienated by being somehow not normal.

My younger sister becomes Aunt Geonocide
My younger sister was perhaps the most normal of us.  She moved through her social groups well, she was certainly smart enough to get straight A's without too much effort (although she didn't always put in ANY effort), and she had few of the emotional problems from which I and our sister suffered.  Perhaps the Tiger Mother could have kept her more in line as a teenager and made her put in that extra mile to do well in grade school, but even without the extreme rigidity of that parenting style, she finished her Master's Degree in Genocide Studies in record time.  She has made herself invaluable to her current employer, and has very exciting job prospects in her field.  (None of which actually include genocide.)  Ten years ago, the Tiger Mother would probably have looked over her body of academic achievement and her derelict appearance and considered her a total failure.

Most parents have the good sense to hope for a normal child.  A normal child can be pushed around, and you know how they will react.  Normally.  Amy Chua's children, while obviously smart and talented, are just as obviously NORMAL.  And this is vital to her success.

Me and Aunt Genocide in middle school
I am sure that she would say that the Tiger Mother model is not intended for children with severe disabilities, with low functioning Autism or Down's Syndrome, but I would argue that it is also not to be used for children who might otherwise be abnormal.  Who might be outliers for other reasons.

As a mother, I have some very strong ideas about how to raise my own children.  I always planned that they would learn instruments very young, at least as young as I was.  I've already decided to start SI on the recorder (she's quite remarkable on the flutaphone considering she's 15 months old) and DD on the piano when they're three or four.  I always planned to encourage them to succeed academically.  I always planned to push them, but only enough to motivate them to push themselves.  I will let them choose their own extra-curricular activities, to follow their own dreams and ambitions.  I never wanted to be the mother that ruined my children's live by making them unlivable.  Or by making them what I always wanted my own life to be.

Poppa reading to DD and SI
I watch my children grow and learn, and I constantly look for danger signs that they might be outliers.  I worry so hard for them, knowing how isolating it can be to be not normal.  And I remember how my own genius-sister had more influence on my academic life than my parents ever could, how siblings hold so much more sway on how a child develops than any meddling and well-meaning parent can hope for.

David Brooks of the New York Times poses another interesting point in his opinion piece about Amy Chua.  He says that by keeping her daughters so focused on their academic and musical successes she neglected their social education.  He argues that learning to navigate the social world of a teenage girl is a much more difficult task than completing 2,000 math problems a night.  In many ways, he is right.  Those social lessons are vital to survival in a social world, and they are not teachable by any way other than trial and error.  That these social skills translate to real world achievement as well as general well being.  If so, I have no doubt that the Tiger Mother would find a way to create a regimen of social exercises.  Perhaps with the children of other Tiger Mothers.  I wish them luck.

Me and my older sister

Amy Chua is no doubt a fine mother, but what works for her cannot and will not work for all families.  I would remind you of my first General Rule of Parenting- whatever makes you a happier, saner person is good parenting.  If inflicting the rigors and hardships of a Tiger Mother style on your child would make you less happy, less functional, it becomes bad parenting.  And I posit a new General Rule of Parenting- remember always that your child is not you, and that they are an individual that requires an awareness of and respect for their own individuality.

Tiger Mothering cannot work for me, it did not work for my father, and I urge all of you who might be considering it to first consider your child, and then consider this.

Do you want your children to be "stereotypically successful?"  Wouldn't you rather that they were un-stereotypically successful?  Or even better, went on to lead happy, meaningful lives?  Are either of Amy Chua's daughters engaged in meaningful social relationships?  Do they have friends and lovers and a support network that might not include their parents?  Are they autonomous adults who can maintain balance and harmony in their own lives?   What you might consider success for yourself could translate to a life of misery for another person.  And that other person might be your child.

Isn't that a little more important that memories of playing Carnegie Hall?
Me at age 6 with my new kitten, the happiest of memories


  1. I said it in person, and I'll say it on the internet: yer dad was a STUD! ;)

    I love this entry to pieces, hooray!

  2. A great analysis of Tiger Mom. You. Are. The. Best.

  3. Hi!

    I was wondering if you accept guest posts? I have a few articles that I think would fit the theme of your site. Please let me know and I can send one along for you to review.

    Thank you,
    Emily Patterson



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