In the Wall Street Journal excerpt of her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua claims that Chinese mothers are superior.
Why? Because of tough love. The “[Chinese] solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child.”
This behavior, she says, arms children with the “skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”
And Western parents? They’re too lazy, ignorant, or afraid to adopt the Tiger war cry.
The controversy of the Tiger Mom
Chua’s fundamental argument is based on the assumption that she’s the quintessential “Chinese mom.”
Except that she co-parents with a Jewish man, and agreed to raise their children in the Jewish faith. The stereotypical Chinese woman that Chua tries to emulate — would marry a traditional Chinese man (unless marrying a Westerner would truly please her parents).
So while it may appear that Chua’s cultural war cry is a testament to her conscious parenting, it doesn’t seem that she’s conscious of her concerted effort to brand herself as Chinese.
As The Last Psychiatrist explains, this branding gets in the way of cultural awareness:
“Amy Chua thinks she wrote an essay and published it. Wrong. The WSJ wanted this kind of an article and they chose one from the thousands available. They chose hers — a woman’s — because if this same article had been written by a man it would have been immediately revealed as an angry, abusive, patriarchal example of capitalism.
Which is where this comes full circle. Amy Chua thinks she’s raising her kids the Chinese way, but she is really raising them to be what the WSJ considers China to be: a pool of highly skilled labor that someone else will profit from. On second thought, that is the Chinese way.”
Political correctness isn’t the issue
Amy Chua’s (reported) parenting style is branded as “Chinese.”
That’s code for: You can’t judge it because then you’d be prejudiced against the Chinese culture.
And if it’s an ethnic issue, you’re obligated not to comment on how that parenting style is backward, wrong, or just cruel. Instead, you’re relegated to thinking such as, “Well, that’s not my style,” or “I live in a different culture.”
It’s not about culture here.
It’s about children.
And whether or not your parenting style involves child abuse.
Of course, the discussion about the Tiger Mom gets veered off to “culture,” instead of what Chua really suggests: excoriation and shame.
“Once when I was young — maybe more than once — when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me ‘garbage’ in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn’t damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I didn’t actually think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.”
– Amy Chua
If Chua really didn’t think she was worthless — if she really knew “how highly” her father thought of her — then why would she change her behavior as a direct result of hearing her father call her garbage?
It’s more likely that Chua did believe her father thought she was a piece of garbage — at least in that moment when she was acting up.
Or at the minimum, she was afraid that it would become true, that he would really believe that she was a piece of garbage — if she didn’t behave herself.
That’s how shaming works. Chua’s father only positively regarded her when she was acting in accordance with his standards. When she didn’t, he regarded her as subhuman (or at least he communicated that).
Chua wanted her father to stop calling her trash. The name calling did damage her self-esteem, and she changed her behavior so as to regain her father’s approval and restore her self-esteem.
It’s no wonder that Chua doesn’t for a moment consider the potential psychological effects of shaming her children (at least not in her Wall Street Journal article).
She won’t even acknowledge how being shamed by her parents affected her own childhood and development.
Chua prides herself on having called at least one of her daughters garbage — but also claims that she doesn’t really mean it. That’s cognitive dissonance. You can’t have both. You can’t pretend something is true one moment, and then not-true the next.
Or you can, in which case you have some serious wounds to heal, from your own past, and in your current relationships.
The myth of the Tiger Mom
Chua’s Jewish American husband has some dissenting views on her parenting philosophy, as she explains (while also jabbing at him):
“Well don’t worry, you don’t have to lift a finger. I’m willing to put in as long as it takes, and I’m happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games.”
This undoubtedly undermines some of her efforts.
But the parent dyad is not just part-American. Chua is a Chinese-American herself.
She can’t be a “true” Tiger Mom (if they exist), because she’s inundated with American culture.
The gift of cultural diversity
Chinese-Americans have a unique opportunity to pick and choose from both cultures.
To reassess their collectivist cultural upbringing and their individualistic Western perspective. To discard the dysfunctional programs of both cultures.
The brilliance of walking between two worlds is that you can select the best beliefs, practices, and behaviors — by your own standards.
Chinese, American, and other parenting styles usually have good intentions — “doing what’s best” for your children.
It’s in turning intent into action where parenting styles differs.
And without respect of “cultural correctness,” shaming your children, even if it does help them succeed by your own standards, has the unintended consequence of harming your relationship. That’s not so easy to see. Sometimes it takes years for the wounds to surface.
Emotional wounds aren’t always as tangible, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.
One of Chua’s daughters got accepted into Harvard, months after her mother’s book became a bestseller.
In the public eye, that accomplishment is supposed to validate all the years of excoriation and shame she probably endured.
A college degree may equal success for some people. For others, it might be job stability.
Or it might mean raising children without abusing them.
Or teaching your children to do what they want with their own life (whether or not college is in the picture). And showing them how to be resilient and carve their own path, with your support and love all along the way.
Success is a relative term.
But it usually has to do with healthy living, following one’s passions, and cultivating loving relationships. Money can’t buy quality relationships, and as social beings, relationships are the most valuable things we have.
Accomplishments don’t heal wounds. Conformity leads you away from your passions. Social status isn’t a substitute for healthy and fulfilling relationships.
The controversy of the Tiger Mom revolves around the assumption that success equals getting into a prestigious college. It excludes a real discussion of what success actually means — for you.
You’re the only person who can define success for yourself, regarding parenting, relationships, or life in general.
What do you think?
Feel free to share your thoughts below.
About the Author: Melissa Karnaze was raised by a Chinese-American mother, and both she and her mother agree that Chinese-American parents have a unique opportunity to break away from the dysfunctions of their upbringing, creating a new cycle for future generations.