Roar of the Tiger Mom
Amy Chua’s book about pushing her children toward perfection raised eyebrows—and the blood pressure of parents who worried she might be onto something.
Illustration by Jon Reinfurt
It's 1:30 in the afternoon on a Saturday. Children at the Contra Costa Chinese School take turns running up to a chalkboard to arrange flash cards bearing Mandarin words according to their teacher’s instructions. The vast majority of the students in this classroom are Chinese American, and as they excitedly raise their hands to go to the board, they are connecting with the culture of their Chinese ancestors. At the same time, they are learning a language that is sure to become more and more valuable professionally, as well as priming their malleable young brains to pick up other languages as needed. Given that it’s a Saturday, these children are also learning that they are going to work a little harder than their non-Asian friends, who are generally off playing sports, having play dates, playing video games, or simply lying sprawled out in front of the television.
The scene at the Chinese school, which comes to life on Saturdays during the school year in classrooms at Diablo Valley College, seems like more proof that “Western-style” parents are slacking off—while Asian parents are busily preparing their children to eat everybody’s lunch. It’s enough to make non-Asian parents, between heart palpitations over college admissions, ratchet up their own brand of parental pressure.
That kind of anxiety—and the feeling that your child might be left behind—is the lifeblood of a recent book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua. Soon after the book came out, everybody started talking about it, the book’s sales shot into the stratosphere, and nearly every parent possessing a keyboard wrote a heartfelt reaction to it. The book even spawned a rap song and a cartoon of a boxing match in which a Chinese mother went after a Caucasian mother with an iron skillet.
Most parents in this area already know that Chua, a Chinese American Yale Law School professor, tells the story of pushing her two daughters to be musical prodigies through any and all means, including constantly threatening and insulting them. She calls her parenting style being a Chinese mother. I read the book and found that Chua’s nagging presence floats off the pages like toxic fumes, depressing readers at least partly because in her ridiculously narrow definition of success, life for 99.9 percent of us seems like one big picnic for losers.
Let’s see, will anyone in my family attend Juilliard? Highly unlikely. How about appearing at Carnegie Hall? Uh, no. Be top of the class in math? Probably not. At this point, it’s probably worth noting that some of my happiest moments as a mother were when I was bathing my infant daughter and she would lean back against her baby bathtub pillow, put her thumb in her mouth, and—I kid you not—cross one foot over the other so she could take some time to soak and relax. I figured that whatever else she had inherited, at least she knew how to enjoy herself.
No one really wants to live in Chua’s hell, not her high-achieving daughters and, interestingly, not even Chua herself. Maybe the way she busted out of her lonely little jail cell of achievement was by writing this book about her system’s ugly excesses. Hmm, telling the whole world she manipulated her children with emotional abuse? Unless Yale Law School wants to print in its catalog that it has Mommie Dearest on the faculty, this book was not exactly a career move. In fact, Chua takes pains to point out in the book at least once that she’s very compassionate with her students—that she’s not about to open up a can of Tiger Mom whup-ass on them.
So why did she write this book? It could very well be Chua’s rebellion, especially since her parenting method, by her own account, nearly destroyed her younger daughter. It could be that she wanted to find her own voice after so many years of doing what she was told and being pushed to excel by her own father. The dutiful student who was unable to explain to her husband’s colleagues why she wanted to be a professor—she says she felt like a stroke victim trying to find the words—relates that the book poured out of her, even though she’s a chronic sufferer of writer’s block. Interesting. All this could explain why in the many interviews she has granted since the book was published, she both lays claim to her Tiger Parenting and disowns it. This is a memoir, she says, not a how-to, except when it isn’t a memoir and she’s just exaggerating. Huh?
In any case, Chua has painted Chinese parents with a broad brush, and some people in our local Chinese American community have been left shaking their heads. At the same time, Chua hit a nerve among many local parents. Isn’t parenting style at least partly responsible for the high achievement scores in heavily Asian high schools in our area, even in less affluent districts? And what about the fact that approximately 40 percent of undergrads accepted to UC Berkeley are Asian, more than triple the percentage of Asians in the state population? Does being pushed hard to excel have anything to do with that?
We’ve all heard the stories around here about the Chinese middle schooler who gets driven to Campolindo High not only to take high school–level classes, but to start racking up Advanced Placement credits. Or the Chinese girl in high school who was in trouble with her parents because one of the grades on her report card was not an A. Or the high schools at which nearly every academic club office is filled by an Asian student.
Then, there’s the other side of reality, beyond the tossed-around tales, where many Chinese parents in our area, like nearly all parents, are trying to help their children achieve—without going overboard.
Ying Chang Compestine, who grew up in China and is the author of 17 books, says she never wanted her 17-year-old son, Vinson, to be “one of those [overly studious] Chinese boys who can’t look an adult in the eye. I want him to enjoy life,” she says. “He is a happy kid.”
At an age when lots of kids struggle to relate to others, Vinson has such a quick smile and winning personality that Compestine’s girlfriends in China jokingly claim that he’s their son, and I can see why. When we visit the Compestine home in Lafayette, Vinson entertains my daughter, Annikka, who’s nine, with no fewer than four board games, and then suggests they bake a rice cake. She is in heaven and decides it’s the best thing she’s ever eaten. It is delicious, but I suspect she would have felt the same way if Vinson had suggested they make liver and lima beans.
Still, Vinson has not devoted all his time to learning the social graces. He started piano at three and a half and plays beautifully. He began learning Mandarin very early, and after years of study, he’s fluent. He also speaks Spanish and got a 2230 on his SATs. His grade point average is above 4.0 because of the Advanced Placement classes he’s taken. He is also coauthoring a book for middle-grade readers with his mother. And lest anyone thinks he’s inside studying all the time, he runs the fastest half-mile on his track team.
Despite his busy schedule, Vinson has had his share of fun. He went on playdates when he was little, and now that he’s older, he texts and gets together with friends. Three times a week, he and his teammates go running before school, and then Vinson makes breakfast. He is on Facebook. He spends two or three hours each weeknight on homework and only practices piano a couple times a week, although when his mother suggested he stop taking lessons, he objected. It’s evident that part of the reason he has done so well at so many different things is he’s a quick study.
The Compestines do not watch television, only the occasional DVD, and there has always been a structure to Vinson’s upbringing, a sense that he should use his time productively. That meant Mandarin lessons every day at home and later at school on Saturdays, and piano lessons on Tuesday evenings, in addition to the understanding that he would study hard at school. Compestine says he didn’t complain. That’s just the way it was.
Another Chinese mom in our community, Meng Lu, came to this country from China to get a Ph.D. in medieval philosophy. She sends her daughter, Hannah, to the same school Annikka goes to, the Meher School in Lafayette. It’s definitely not a place where kids are pushed relentlessly or kept in their seats all day to complete worksheet after worksheet. Unlike the elementary school Lu attended, where you couldn’t go home until you finished your work and rote learning prevailed, her daughter’s school devotes class time to all kinds of art, music, and drama projects that correspond with the curriculum. It also gets kids up and moving, and teaches them how to get along with friends. From my standpoint, the school tries to make learning as irresistible as beautiful blossoms are to hummingbirds. Yet sending your child there can require a leap of faith, where you ask yourself whether your child will flit over and learn without being coerced. It is definitely not a Tiger Mom’s first choice.
“It’s overall learning,” Lu says. “It’s social; it’s friends. I think that’s maybe more important.” But before anyone starts thinking that Lu is content to let things unfold as they will, she makes a statement that shows she’s thinking about the social skills her daughter is learning in very practical terms: “How do you get research funding if people don’t like you?”
Lu’s father, a scholar, didn’t push her too hard, but the self-discipline he showed by, for instance, writing in his journal every day since he was 14 made him a strong role model. At home in Beijing, Lu practiced calligraphy every day as a child and learned to recite passages of Asian literature before she even knew what they meant. She says she accepted that early training and doesn’t agree with parents’ throwing their hands up and saying, “I just want my kids to be happy.” “That’s an empty sentence,” she says. “If he doesn’t know how to survive or how to function in the world, he won’t be happy.”
Another Western bromide that strikes her as odd is, “I love you for what you are.” “What you do is what you are,” she says. Hannah, who is also nine, attends Chinese school on Saturdays, and she takes lessons outside of school, from painting to piano.
Importantly, though, Lu, who left her Ph.D. program and now works in computers, says she believes children can be directed only according to their natures, a belief she says she took from none other than Confucius, the father of Chinese philosophy. “Confucius says you have to look at the wood and see what it will become.”
Perhaps for this reason, 14-year-old Aaron Yih of Alamo is becoming an accomplished student, not because of external pressure, he says, but because of his own internal motivation.
Aaron is the son of Cathy Yih, who grew up in San Francisco taking ballet and piano, being punished for grades lower than an A, and getting up at 5 a.m. to be driven in the dark to her before-school ice-skating practice—all the while wishing more than anything that she could “be like other kids.”
Yih has been in a strained relationship with her Chinese-born mother for 10 years because of the pressure placed upon her. She and her husband, who is also first-generation Chinese American, took a decidedly different approach with Aaron, teaching him to feel the satisfaction of simply trying his best at whatever he does.
“I don’t feel pressure from my parents,” says Aaron, who is a freshman at the academically challenging College Preparatory School. “It just feels good to do well.”
Just the same, although Yih gave up what she refers to as the Tiger Mom model set by her mother, she worries that maybe she’s gone too far, mentioning that she sometimes fears she is too lax with Aaron about tennis, which he plays competitively. “I know from skating that you don’t always accomplish the goals people want for you, but if I don’t push him to be the best that he can be, am I doing my job as a parent?”
Judy and John Chen have put a lot of thought into how to raise and educate children. John is the principal of the Contra Costa Chinese School, and Judy has been a teacher there for 20 years. They are also the parents of three children, the youngest of whom is in college.
They think that the Tiger Mom book took off because raising kids is a complicated business, and some people, wishing it weren’t, are looking for an instruction manual. “People are looking for fast food, a quick solution,” says Judy, “but with raising kids, there’s no one size fits all.”
“No one can generate a formula,” says John.
John has been known to tell the true story of a Chinese American boy in Seattle who, after being accepted to an Ivy League school, committed suicide, leaving a note to his parents that said, “I did everything you told me to.” That story gets passed around the Chinese American community in this area, a cautionary tale for parents who might push too hard. Similar stories, and studies showing that young Asian American women ages 15 to 24 have the highest suicide rate compared to other young women of different racial and ethnic groups, came up repeatedly in the uproar following the release of Chua’s book. Chua even included a scary moment when her younger daughter reacted to her mother’s relentless pressure by giving herself a Britney-goes-bonkers haircut, carelessly hacking off her beautiful, wavy tresses on one side, and then acting as though nothing had happened.
The Chens say that balance is always the ideal and that—unlike Chua, who says mother knows best, period—the way to achieve that balance is by really knowing your child. “The most important mission of the family and the school is to know a child’s strengths, interests, and potential,” John says. “Amy Chua probably won’t even know her daughters’ true strengths and interests.”
Both engineers, and born and raised in Taiwan, where parenting was relatively authoritarian, the Chens seem to enjoy embracing a more flexible philosophy. When they talk about their youngest child, who made it into Stanford, they explain that he’s in a new interdisciplinary major combining science, technology, business management, and sociology. Judy says, “We’re a little nervous because it’s a new field, but he wants to do it, so we’re letting him.” Both parents smile broadly.
“I hope people realize not all Chinese are Tiger Moms,” Judy says. “We’re just parents, loving our kids.”
The Chens’ commitment to respecting their children’s wishes flies in the face of the Tiger Parenting model, as does the time each of them spent over the years trying to understand who their children were. Yet they acknowledge that Asian parents in general give their kids more direction and demand more respect. “In our culture, respect is absolutely important,” Judy says. She adds, “You have to push your children a little bit because human beings are naturally lazy. If you outlawed tests, you wouldn’t get kids to work hard to learn their subjects.”
Judy points out that Chua’s book started a great conversation. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re Western or Eastern parents, Chua brought up interesting issues.”
For example, should you feel comfortable demanding a certain level of achievement from your child? Is it my responsibility as a parent to make sure Annikka goes through her science practice test once more so she knows it backward and forward, even if she feels she has studied enough? Am I undermining her confidence by suggesting another run-through? Will I make her hate science and the wonderful world of inquiry it represents by pressuring her? According to Chua, these are the questions of the wimpy Westerner, but they are a reflection of who I am and how I was raised, and I want to take them into account as I consider how to proceed on a typically harried weeknight at home. Still, I do want Annikka to be in the habit of doing her best.
The issue quickly gets even more complicated when you realize that before you demand achievement, you need to know your child’s potential, as John Chen points out.
Maybe Chua, whatever her psychological and personal motivation was, connected to the Tiger Mom in all of us, the parenting beast that’s always roaring to get out. The desire to give your kids every opportunity, to impart something of value like a solid education—and, ahem, to have them do you proud—can be a strong one.
The trick is to keep that desire from devouring who your child really is. ■
East Bay writer and editor Michaela Jarvis is trying to talk her daughter into Chinese school on Saturdays. So far, Annikka is against it, but her mother hasn’t given up yet.