What the Tiger Mother reveals

Amy Chua is a tremendously successful academic, who has mothered two children to their teenage years. She’s also a Times best selling author. Her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has so captivated American readers, that its catchy title has entered the everyday vocabulary of our age. A tiger mother is fierce, strong, protective, knows what is best for her children, and makes it happen at any cost, even if the children themselves pay the price.

Her book is a captivating read. And in it, she tells us, vulnerably, everything she wants us to know. (Though perhaps not quite everything.) It is full of funny stories and her own witty, if cutting, sense of humor. We can’t help but admire her guts, her strength and her determination, even as we are appalled by her child rearing methods which include 4-8 hours of instrument practice a day and locking her 3 year old outside in the cold of winter when she refuses to obey. Yelling matches are par for the course as she intimidates her two daughters into becoming truly excellent musicians.

Chua looks, honestly, at the successes and failures of her mothering. The rebellion of her second daughter, in her early teens, forced her to reevaluate her methods and change her plans. But in the end, we are left with the impression that she still believes in what she did, even if she gave up her values for the sake of relationship with her daughter.

As a second-generation Asian-American, Chua shares with us the mindsets of Asian parents. In many ways, it is a beautiful perspective. The Asian parent, according to Chua, believes completely in the greatness of their child. Believes in their potential for true excellence. Because of this perspective, this vision, the Asian parent drives their children mercilessly. How well does this work? In many cases, astoundingly well. As Chua points out in her memoir, Asians are known globally for their success, especially in academics and music. The dark side, of course, is those who don’t measure up to be one of the greatest among so many great achievers. The suicide rate in China, following national exams, is extraordinarily high. And when success is measured, so narrowly, very few can attain a high level of success amongst their peers.

But her book, while educational on Asian parenting, even more interestingly invites us into a powerful view of what American parenting culture looks like to someone from the outside. Perhaps the author’s most important contribution to us is her powerful insight into our cultural shortcomings. For in the end, it all comes down to this, In Chua’s mind. Tiger Mother’s raise highly successful, if unhappy, children. In contrast, she says, American children are both unsuccessful and unhappy.

Ouch.

What really struck me as I read the book was how right Chua is. Not about how to parent. But about how not to. She has pushed her own standard of excellence on her children. But she has believed in their greatness. She has pushed them because of her own personal, culturally contrived passion. But she has realized that passion (even if it’s hers!) does lead to the development of true potential. It’s a good thing, skewed.

In many ways the American culture of parenting has pushed an agenda of safe mediocrity on children. We insist that they do well but doubt that they can be great. Because we do not really believe in their greatness, we push them into the rat race of education, university, career. We neither insisting on excellence nor give them the freedom to discover their own path. We are afraid of their passion. And so we buy in, instead to the culturally accepted norm for what makes someone successful. We train our children to be good at the “important” things like academics, sports and community service so that they can earn their way to salary. We continually reinforce to our children what we have already personally learned is false, that money leads to happiness. This ignores both their potential for greatness and their true passion. American children neither perform brilliantly nor feel fully alive. Instead they are hedged in on a path towards “safety” that lets them do just enough to meet their society’s expectations for success and happiness.

There is, of course, another way.

We could believe not only in our children’s greatness, but in their passions. We could believe, not that they are a blank slate which much knowledge and expertise must be forced onto, but that they are already-full pails just waiting to have their goodness tipped out into the world and swirled into something new and precious and beautiful and needed. We could believe that from start to finish they have what it takes, and know the path to get there. That unique children on unique paths towards unique vocations are not only happy but will be wildly successful in the ways our globe and the human race desperately need.

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