Thoughts on Tiger Mothering

Amy Chua and her daughters

Amy Chua and her daughters

As we’re battling jet-lag with 1:30 a.m. wake-up times, our interactions with the outside world has so far been pretty limited (a taxi driver said, “yī, èr, sān” [1, 2, 3] to us today in amazement at our three kids in a country where pretty much everyone, especially in an urban environment, is allowed to only have one child). So, since not much has happened yet, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about Chinese mothering, as expressed by Amy Chua:

En route to China, I read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. As we’re planning to send both Sophia and Dylan to Chinese kindergarten (usually ages 3-6) in Beijing, I thought it’d be smart to get a sense of at least one woman’s interpretation of what it means to be a Chinese mother. After all the predominantly bad press in the U.S. when the book was published, I wasn’t surprised when Chua was harsh and dominating in her drive to get her children to succeed in academics and music (getting her young girls to practice their instruments 3-4 hours a day, every day, even on vacation before any sightseeing is remarkable [no playdates or sleepovers allowed, ever], but clearly not how I wish to raise our children (not only is it difficult for the kids, but the parental involvement seems to entail even more effort to control and drive the children with awareness and skill than the children are putting in themselves).

The part of the book that surprised me, though, was the change and awareness that Chua herself underwent in the process of raising her über-successful children.  While most parents are in some ways impacted and changed by their children, Chua had a rather radical personal shift when her younger daughter, Louisa, was thirteen and wanted to quit violin amidst multiple displays of defiance (obedience to elders is essential in the Chinese familial model). Admitting that she had “lost” and allowing Louisa to stop lessons and her position in an orchestra went against everything she identified as the actions of a Chinese mother. And in the process she also reflected on and was able to see some holes in her own approach (especially as she’s raising daughters in the U.S. and not in China, where she would not feel isolated in her efforts). (If you’re interested in what her children think, her older daughter, Sophia, has a blog)

I’ve come away from the book having learned from Chua too. I’d never thought about how driving my children might actually be about giving them the inner confidence to succeed in whatever is in front of them. My only real personal experience with this is when I pushed Sophia to swim last summer. I knew she was very close to being able to swim on her own, and that she needed someone to not coddle her, but to be pushed to experience what I could already see that she could do (those summers as a swim teacher were good for something!). Manu was kind of surprised by how I coerced her to make it across the pool by herself, but once she did, it really enhanced her self-confidence and she suddenly was willing to try jumping off the edge alone, while before I’d have to promise her I’d keep my arms stretched towards her and that I wouldn’t back up even an inch.

So, could I envision applying such a method to our kids’ education and extra-curricular activities? Certainly not with Chua’s intensity, as I don’t even have that for myself (and I’m pretty sure that I’m happier for it!), but I do think there’s something to doing a little pushing and directing, as self-confidence stemming from success, especially when not achieved easily, cannot be undervalued.

I’m excited and curious to see what I encounter of Chinese mothering in kindergarten here in Beijing. I’ll definitely keep you all posted.



4 responses »

  1. This is a really interesting post. I think it’s a hard line because parents are often so busy these days (in either positive or negative pursuits) that they don’t focus on their kids’ lives enough. And maybe for Sophia, it was nice for her to have you REALLY focused on her, even if you were kind of in her face about it, because she got to have your full attention. I think the downside is that you really have to know your child as an individual before you start tiger mothering them. Otherwise they’ll catch on to you and see it as constant badgering, which it sounds like Chua’s daughter did.

    • That’s a good point, Duff. Although Chua’s yelling matches with her girls sounded like hell to me, I do think part of her argument is that you have to really know your children and understand how to psychologically push them for, ultimately, their own benefit. The amount of time, effort, and energy that she put into her girls’ music (and schoolwork) I find astounding (she attended every music lesson and would take her own notes and then write out practice notes for her daughters) and I do respect it. But most people just couldn’t operate that way with such intensity. For all the negative press she got and the argument from her daughters, at times, that it was more about her than them, I do think she was doing what she felt would ultimately help them to succeed (their success would of course reflect well on her too!).

  2. Pingback: Why Chinese Kindergarten? | Beijing Days

  3. Pingback: Life in a Chinese Kindergarten | Beijing Days

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