Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Battle Hymn of an Average Mother (of Average Children)

Amy Chua’s new book has raised a lot of attention lately. An excerpt from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother ran in the Wall Street Journal recently, titled "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior."

I’m guessing most readers of this blog subscribe to an authoritative parenting style. I do my best to be authoritative with my kids and do not consider myself an indulgent or authoritarian parent. Everything I’ve read about the book indicates that Amy Chua (aka, Tiger Mother) subscribes to an authoritarian parenting style.

A quick review of these three popular parenting styles:

Parents generally fall into one of three categories: authoritarian (telling their children exactly what to do), indulgent (allowing their children to do whatever they wish), or authoritative (providing rules and guidance without being overbearing)*

*Taken from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parenting_styles

Here are some insights about Amy Chua’s book from Po Bronson, co-author of Nurture Shock:

“I just couldn't endorse the book… Not because Amy Chua admits to insulting and guilting her daughters constantly ... and not because Amy Chua deprives her kids of playdates and sleepovers ... and not because Amy disses athletics and drama. Rather, I couldn't endorse it because too much of the book felt like braggadocio about how great her daughters were at piano and violin. Hey, we all do it ... we take immense pride when our kids do well ... some of that pride slips out now and then, absolutely ... but a whole book predicated on children's superiority made me uncomfortable.”

When I read Po Bronson’s and other’s reviews of Tiger Mother I couldn’t help but wonder what percentage of the school age population this book applies to.

In my opinion, Tiger Mother is preaching to an elite group of parents, giving advice to a minute percentage of the population who are wealthy and highly educated, like her own family (I’m guessing, look at the picture above).

As long as parents know she is giving advice to this small, select group, that’s fine. And, yes, her strict tactics will work and her children will become accomplished at tasks they practice 3-4 hours per day. But I worry when her elite standard becomes the standard for the majority of the school age population.

Of the approximately 63 million school-aged children in the US how many have the same advantages (wealth & education) that the Chuas have? How many are above average intellectually? How many are average? How many are below average?

I’m guessing the majority of those 63 million students fall into the intellectually “average” category. As measured by standardized tests, I am intellectually average, as are my children and (I’m still guessing) most of the students at my children’s schools.

Yet, I see many U.S. suburban and urban public schools setting standards for the majority of their students that are attainable to a select few. Look at what is now required to enroll in a University of California school, for example. Teenagers must have a full resume to even consider applying to a UC school – a high GPA combined with many extra curricular and community service activities. (Listen to a recent NPR interview here about stressed high school kids on Tell Me More.)

It’s perfectly fine and necessary to set high goals and standards for ourselves and for our children. That will keep us on the path to life long learning. But, if we are always looking at the outcome or performance, we will miss the process and the journey.

It is also perfectly fine to accept ourselves as we are, and realize that sometimes good (or average) is good enough.

Or, as Claire Dederer says in Poser : “It might be nice to take incredible off the menu for a while and just enjoy ordinary.”


  1. I was once asked to reflect on what goals I wanted to set for my children. Years later the goal stays the same: I want my child to be happy. Happiness comes from many things, but balance is an important piece as well as respecting one's child for being who he or she is. I have a child who is usually happy, and I'll take that any day over "incredible". So I wonder . . . are her girls really happy?

  2. Good post, Kerry. Interestingly, the response I read by Po Bronson was quite different than the one you quoted. Here's his from New York magazine: www.nymag.com/news/intelligencer/70838/

  3. I actually agree with with many of Chua's criticisms of certain parenting styles. However, I do not agree with her extreme solutions. There is a middle ground.

    Thank you Sara for the article link. I happen to know children that have performed at Carnegie Hall, win prestigious awards, break athletic records, get into Yale and other top schools etc, who have parents who practice authoritative parenting, had sleepovers, and were never humiliated.

    We can raise children that are both happy and successful in what ever they choose to put their time and effort into. Yes, children want to be good at what they do, but being able to do something well and not have your happiness or sense of self worth on the line if you are not number one is important too.

  4. Time Magazine published an interesting analysis of the book, including statistics about China's global competitiveness. The irony here is that China wants to become more like the U.S. and less authoritarian in their education (which, ironically, produces the best scores worldwide). Combine the ideas presented in the Time piece with the suicide rates in China's Foxconn company (they build Apple's I-pods and I-pads), and one sees an excellent cautionary tale warning against Chinese mothers' methods. I will not buy Chua's book because I don't want to support her or her methods. The psychological damage she has inflicted will surface, eventually. Then what will she write about?
    A local teacher...

  5. I believe that Tiger Mother's goals for her children are very different from mine. I want my children to grow into adults that are compassionate and care about others. I do not want my children to think they are "the best". My hope is that they do not feel superior nor inferior to anyone. Success to this type of mother is NOT success to me and I am sure that my success would not be hers. We are talking about a parenting style that is to the extreme. It may be right for a few but not for most. Certainly not right for my family.
    ~a mom of 2 children who is a teacher and has a masters degree. My husband also has a masters degree +.

  6. I have had direct contact with this parenting style. My conclusion was to remove my daughter from this destructive lifestyle ASAP. Many of her Asian friends lived in what Americans would call dysfunctional homes. I remember one vivid description of punishment for middle schoolers that included being thrown out of the house to wander the neighborhood
    at night and be let back into the home after midnight. (Remember these are Asian kids who knew few neighbors and did not feel comfortable asking for help.) Some high school students were afraid to go home and would often spend the night at a friends house, simply showing up with a knock at the door and then sleeping on the sofa. Yes, many of them were high achievers eventually getting in to Ivy leagues and UC's. But their homelife was difficult. One young man went to U of Penn and did not come back at all during the first year. He was so happy to leave home.

    To me, it seems that success in life must be measured by more than what school
    you got into.