Tiger Mothers and Extreme Parenting

In case you haven’t heard:  A book  describing one mother’s version of so-called “Chinese parenting,” and an advance excerpt of it in the Wall Street Journal, have created considerable media reaction, both in the US and the UK.  The author, Amy Chua, law professor at Yale, is described in the NY Times as holding the following:

Declare that the way Asian-American parents succeed in raising such successful children is by denying them play dates and sleepovers, and demanding that they bring home straight A’s.

Note that you once told your own hyper-successful Asian-American daughter that she was “garbage.” That you threatened to throw out your other daughter’s dollhouse and refused to let her go to the bathroom one evening until she mastered a difficult piano composition. That you threw the homemade birthday cards they gave you as 7- and 4-year-olds back in their faces, saying you expected more effort.

I know some people who have been brought up in approximately the same style; it is not just Chinese.  They were very seriously and deeply scarred.  However, as discussions occasionally point out, people can react very differently to such parenting, as indeed did Chua’s children. 

Here’s a video with some discussion of it:


14 thoughts on “Tiger Mothers and Extreme Parenting

  1. When I first read the media pieces of this book, I thought of myself. I’m recovered from debilitating perfectionism, which got *very* bad in grad school. The behaviors of the mother in this case remind me of my former internal monologue, which was extremely detrimental to my physical and mental health. I don’t know why I became that way. My parents didn’t act that way to me. Look up perfectionism and you’ll find that no one needs to call them ‘garbage’. They call themselves that. Maybe not ‘garbage’ in particular. But, in the case of any product that is not deemed ‘perfect’, they call themselves ‘failures’. They frequently deny themselves regular goods, like socialization, so they can study, or perfect that darn project. It can lead to success. But it can also lead to serious health problems, which is why it is sometimes listed on university counseling centers (http://www.counselingcenter.illinois.edu/?page_id=113).

  2. Remember: satisficers maximize! All I ever wanted for me was good-enough: an upper middle class life and non-boring job. And that’s all I’ve ever asked of my kids. Graduate from college and avoid secretarial work.

  3. It’s also a bit odd that a report ostensibly about parenting, comparing some putative ‘Chinese parenting model’ with a ‘Western model’, only ever mentions mothers. There’s lots of talk about reactions from Western Moms, strict Moms, being raised by a Chinese mother, that ‘Chua, like every other mother, is just trying to figure it [parenting] out’ and so on. Dads are not mentioned once. (And I think that might be also true of the original NYT article. I just skimmed it though.)

  4. The NY Times did raise a question about where chua’s husband was; apparently, he supported her.

  5. Person, thanks so much for the link; I’m going to send it to a friend of mine who can use it.

    I wish I knew about the various ways one can end up a perfectionist.

  6. I’m kind of curious to actually read the book. I heard Chua interviewed several times on NPR (twice within a couple of days!) and she was clear in stating that this is a memoir, not a parenting guide, and that she did eventually soften her style. As someone who has internalized a bit more perfectionism than I think is healthy, I am skeptical about this book. But it seems odd to me that there is so much “debate” about this book without many people having yet had the chance to actually read it.

  7. One way to end up a perfectionist and therefore low self-esteem is to have a father who only wanted to talk about the only non-A on the report card, i.e., the A minus. Unfortunately by the time I dealt with this perfectionism issue in my mid-40s, I’d already passed it along to my kids.

  8. Harriet: good enough to perfect to me! (Which reminds me of a self-help book on the issue “When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough.”)

    jj, feel free. If your friend is suffering, my best of luck. Apparently a lot of perfectionists resist help and argue they don’t have a problem at first.

  9. Jender, Thanks so much for the comment and links. I wished I had done more than put in the “so-called.”

    I am thinking I might be a bit more direct about this. I think I would have put the post up because posts here about parenting have provoked considerable interest. But one thing that her style might remind one of is the stories about military boot camps, and military fathers can be pretty awful, though I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that all are. If, then, one considers what happens when they get more unbalanced about controlling others – e.g., the captain against whom there was a mutiny in The Caine Mutiny – that’s approximately what I grew up with. So her descriptions fit the kind of parenting I experienced from my father, and it’s the only kind that has.

    Mind you, she says it’s around issues of excellent achievement, whereas the abusive, disturbed bully seems more interested in controlling every aspect of others lives. I just don’t know how mitigating it would be to have it focused on excellence.

    There might be some excuse for the father. Some parents, for whatever reason, manage to largely vacate the scene psychologically. Or perhaps he was ambivalent. If her standards for him were as high, he might have found it a relief to have others in the house failing too. Of course, I really have no evidence for any conclusion, except that he stayed through it.

    Should I add that the sort of childhood she describes can be utterly awful? It’s a wonder it doesn’t lead to more suicides. One reviewer of the book remarks that suicide is the second cause of death among young Chinese women, but one suspects that’s overdetermined. And, of course, we should question how typical Chua is.

  10. Janet Maslin has a review of Chua’s book in the NY Times. There are delicious ironies surrounding it. Maslin interprets Chua according to the Western fairly Freudian “deep desires are driving our actions” thesis. So Chua turns out to be a narcissist. Maslin remarks that Chua’s husband, both a law professor and a novelist, has finished a second novelist that brings in Freud confronting shell-shock. Maslin finds that telling, but equally telling is that Freud gave up the pleasure principle on confronting shell-shocked soldiers. That is, understanding shell-shock involves questioning Maslin’s interpretive hypothesis.

    If one has had really, really bad experiences and/or a childhood, then what strikes many therapists as deep truths start to seem very much the products of cultural settings. Once one sees that, the question of whether standard psycho-therapeutic assumptions are really constructions of a convenient story arises. And for me at least that came to seem true.

  11. This is BBC Radio 4’s ‘book of the week’ this week. It is available on the iplayer section of the BBC website. (For those unfamiliar with ‘book of the week’ it means one 15 minute reading from the book per day – first broadcase in the morning, not sure when, probably quarter to ten, repeated at half twelve.)

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