Magazine | February 7, 2011, Issue

Maternity and Tyranny

Should American mothers emulate the Chinese tiger mom?

Amy Chua, who is a law professor at Yale University, has a new book out: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The book describes the parenting methods Professor Chua employed when raising her two daughters, now aged 18 and 14. An extract published in the January 8 Wall Street Journal caused a small sensation. Within a week, the online version of the extract had generated over 6,000 comments and was the talk of the nation.

Professor Chua’s prescriptions are, to put it very mildly indeed, at odds with current American notions of wise parenting. Determined “not to raise a soft, entitled child,” she makes her daughters’ childhood sound like Marine Corps boot camp minus the rest breaks. This, she argues, with some supporting statistics, is the Chinese way. (Professor Chua is of Chinese ancestry.) “Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.”

Professor Chua relentlessly harassed, bullied, and insulted her daughters to do the best they could do in schoolwork and music practice. They were forbidden all “frivolous” activities, with the word “frivolous” encompassing well nigh anything non-academic, including most forms of peer-group socialization. Her daughters, she tells us, were never allowed to have sleepovers, or to be in a school play, or to watch TV, or to get any grade less than an A, or to “not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama,” or to play any instrument other than the piano or violin. When the younger daughter, then seven, was unable to master a difficult piano piece, Tiger Mom took the girl’s treasured dollhouse to the car with a threat to donate it to the Salvation Army. Then she kept the child at the piano “through dinner into the night,” even refusing to let her go to the bathroom.

Professor Chua’s article was a bracing rebuttal to the sappy-clappy “we’re all special” sentimentality that is too prevalent in American child-raising. Her methods worked, too, at least in meeting her own goals: Her daughters are straight-A students, and one has played piano at Carnegie Hall. Probably we American parents should practice more tough love with our kids and fuss less about their self-esteem. Few of us would disagree with her observation: “Nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work.” And assuming “strength, not fragility” concurs with current scientific understanding of the child’s psyche. They are indeed tough little critters.

There are, however, things to be noted. One is that the Chua kids are very smart, as the offspring of two Ivy League professors are likely to be. (Professor Chua’s husband, Jed Rubenfeld, is also a Yale law professor. Her father was a professor of computer science at Berkeley.) Most features of personality, including intelligence and conscientiousness, are considerably heritable. They appear very early in life and are stable thereafter.

Some of these traits occur at different frequencies in different ethnic populations. Daniel Freedman, a developmental psychologist, conducted a study in the 1970s of the behavior of newborns in San Francisco, working with his wife, Nina Chinn, who is Chinese. They found significant differences between Chinese and Caucasian babies: “Caucasian babies cried more easily, and once started, they were harder to console. Chinese babies adapted to almost any position in which they were placed,” etc., etc. The babies were less than 48 hours old.

#page#It is also worth noting that there are severe logical problems inherent in the idea of a school full of children whose tiger moms demand they be the No. 1 student in all academic subjects, and that the intense parental investment displayed by Professor Chua is problematic in families larger than hers — begs, in fact, for a “one-child policy.” Even the most determined tiger mom might find her zeal flagging at child No. 3 or No. 4.

Furthermore, most people are not very academically inclined. If a child’s natural bent is towards some other kind of excellence — social, mechanical, athletic, creative — Chua-style parenting will only misdirect him. Children need some nagging and supervision, but they also need freedom to explore, to discover their own interests and aptitudes. We may, in our current child-raising practices, have over-emphasized self-esteem and self-discovery, but that does not make these notions nugatory. Children are entitled to a childhood, with frequent spells of play, idleness, and freedom from hovering adults.

That is certainly the case made by the Anglo-American literary classics on boyhood: Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Booth Tarkington’s Penrod, and Richmal Crompton’s William books. All emphasize liberty, mischief, adventure, and disdain for adult authority. Reading Professor Chua’s extract, I found myself thinking: “No boy of spirit would put up with that.” Was Professor Chua’s task made easier by the fact of her children’s being female? Perhaps not: In a follow-up interview with the New York Times, she tells us that her younger daughter staged bitter rebellions: “Lulu,” the Times  writes, “then 13, begins smashing glasses in a Moscow restaurant and yelling at her mother, ‘I HATE my life, I HATE you.’”

There is too the matter of national culture and our ideas about what kind of fellow-citizens we wish to live among. The U.S.A. is not a bookish nation. Milton Friedman’s great essay “The Role of Government in Education” barely mentions academic excellence. Its focus is on liberty. If parents want their kids to study basket-weaving or social dancing, let them exercise their free choice, says Friedman. “That is their business.” The bookish grind is not a hero to Americans, unless he is a successful entrepreneur. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard. Robert Weissberg, in his recent book Bad Students, Not Bad Schools, notes the president of an American college who declared his ambition to be that his school develop an academic program the football team could be proud of. That’s the American way.

We might also, with no particular offense intended towards Professor Chua’s ancestors, ask what China has reaped from the methods of tiger moms. The social order in imperial China was encapsulated in the phrase shi nong gong shang. At the top were the shi, the scholar-bureaucrats who had passed the imperial examinations, thereby acquiring a ticket to government employment. Then came nong, the farmers, then gong, the craftsmen. Last of all were the shang, the despised merchants.

American society has never been like that. The history of imperial China suggests that this is something we should be grateful for. Nor does modern China, with its vast inequality, its endemic corruption, and its thuggish, lawless government, offer an attractive advertisement for Chinese mommery.

We are not, at least not yet, a nation of arrogant credentialed mandarins tax-farming a cowed, sullen peasantry. We are a commercial republic of free citizens under impartial laws: a nation of tinkerers and inventors, of entrepreneurs and prospectors, pioneers and adventurers, barn-raisers and welcome wagons, preachers and politicians. Our kids should be raised appropriately, free to seek out and build upon their own enthusiasms, which will not often include Advanced Placement calculus or classical piano.

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