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Moms Talk: Tiger Mom 101

This week we discuss Tiger Moms, a name given to the Chinese way of extremely strict, tough love mothering that focuses exclusively on academic perfection and success.

My son and I were having lunch beside the floor-to-ceiling windows in IKEA earlier this week when the man at the table next to us struck up a conversation.

He had a heavy Chinese accent, and he was taken by my boy. “You look like a character in Disney,” he said to Jack.

During the course of the conversation, where we learned he was bringing his college-aged daughter to Atlanta for a three-month internship with Cartoon Network, he asked if I work outside the home. I told him I was a photographer and a freelancer for Patch. I told him I write a weekly column about issues pertaining to mothers, and he asked me if I knew about Tiger Moms. No, I didn’t — and he proceeded to enlighten me.

Tiger Mom is a designation given to Chinese mothers who raise stereotypically successful children by being strict parents. By focusing exclusively on their children's academic perfection, these mothers hope to produce children who are able to achieve better performance in academic excellence, musical mastery and professional success. In other words, they’ll kick your Western-reared kid’s butt at the school awards night.

I explained to the gentleman that my kids consider their upbringing to be pretty strict, but I was given to understand that we’re not even playing in the same ballpark as the Tiger Moms. He said these women control their child’s every move. The mother chooses the extracurricular activities, they harshly criticize and punish for less-than-perfect performances, and they don’t allow such frivolity as playdates and movies.

“You should write that,” he said, nodding. I agreed.

When I got home, I did a quick Google search and found the woman who is apparently the American spokesperson for Tiger Mothering: Amy Chua.

Chua is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and is now a professor at Yale Law School and the author of two best-selling "big-think" books on free-market democracy and the fall of empires. When Chua married, she and her husband agreed that their children would be reared "the Chinese way," in which punishingly hard work — enforced by parents — yields excellence.

Chua is the author of a memoir of her approach to parenting titled “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”.

Chua also wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”, that has American moms reacting very strongly.

The Chinese, she says, don't believe people are born with innate talents. They believe success is a result of hard work.

With that philosophy in mind, Chua made sure her daughters worked. And worked and worked and worked. She strictly enforced studying, success and practicing. She accepted nothing less than perfection.

She writes about the time she told her younger daughter that if she didn't play a piano piece perfectly, she would take all her stuffed animals and burn them.

Chua has said that if her methods seem extreme, it’s mainly because Americans praise their children for completing the simplest of tasks and treat them with kid gloves out of fear they'll damage their self-esteem. Chua said, "The Chinese approach might be better at promoting self-esteem than the more coddling, Western approach."

In her controversial article, Chua says her daughters were never allowed to:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an “A”
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin

Chua’s daughters had to practice their instruments at least three hours per day, even while on vacation. Chua said that when her family traveled she called ahead and made arrangements for her daughter to practice the piano in hotel lobby bars and basement storage rooms.

Intense, right? But it bears mentioning that the piano-playing daughter of Chua performed at Carnegie Hall when she was just 14 years old. There seems to be a method to her mother’s madness, eh?

Chua goes on to explain another facet of Tiger Mothering: criticism.

“Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable — even legally actionable — to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, "Hey fatty — lose some weight." By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of "health" and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. ... 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.”

She makes good points, and her children are undeniably successful. However, it makes me really, really sad to think of all the joys of childhood these hyper-excellent products of Tiger Mothering missed out on.

Some people think Chua’s completely off her rocker, and some people think that, while extreme, she’s proven that her methods work.

I think there’s plenty of room for excellence without missing out on fun. There needs to be fun, too. Valuable life skills are learned while kids play, and I shudder to think of kids who feel like they're being raised by a dictator rather than a nurturing advocate.

What’s your take on Tiger Moms? Is there a lesson to be learned here? Are we too easy on our children? Do we expect too little? Is Amy Chua totally nuts? Please share your comments!

Gail Lane June 01, 2012 at 08:48 PM
I'm constantly amazed that people think there is only one correct way to raise a child - and I suppose if you are looking for a specific outcome, then there is a particular child-rearing book about THAT type of parenting, right? I do agree that we tend to over praise our children for the most minimal things and maybe that's why the lack of personal responsibility is pretty prevalent these days. However, there needs to be a little balance in there, doncha think? It's sad that some of childhood's favorite past times - let's label these "relationship building exercises" - are forfeited in the name of "excellence" and doctorates.
Crystal Huskey June 01, 2012 at 09:05 PM
"...if you are looking for a specific outcome..." Gail, I think that sums it up. To the Tiger Mother, extreme success and being the best of the best is the projected outcome. Perfection and excellence. The focus is on what you do, not who you are. In the States, we tend to want the outcome to be happiness. Just happiness. Interestingly enough, Chua's daughters seem very happy. (You can follow them on Facebook (; )
Michelle Gilliland June 02, 2012 at 02:59 PM
(Okay, second time. I want to know the statistic on people who attempt to post comments and fail.) When I was working in Hawaii, I had a Chinese friend who was a Tiger Mom. She was indeed very demanding of her children, but they adored her as adults. I didn't know them as children as they are my age, so I can't say one way or the other if they had a rotten childhood. I'm not an advocate at all for that nonsense, but I can tell you that she was not a crazy person. Her parenting styles might have been crazy, but she was genuinely nice. She once gave me a "compliment"- I had just come in to work and she said (just like she said, I'm not poking fun!) "Oh, you like fresh flower, so fat and young. You even have pimple." She was dead sincere and not trying to be mean at all. Incidentally, I was 24 and did still get the occasional pimple, and I was a size 6 then. Ha. So, what I'm saying is that while they are crazy, they're not. :)
Raven Nichols June 02, 2012 at 06:07 PM
I may never get over that, Michelle.
Cheryl Miller June 03, 2012 at 01:09 AM
Well, that explains whey there aren't more accomplished Chinese actors, I suppose. What do they have against drama, anyway?
Raven Nichols June 03, 2012 at 01:58 AM
I wish Patch had a like button. :)
J Patrick Ware MD June 03, 2012 at 04:49 PM
I concur. I sent a fairly elaborate comment on Saturday and apparently it was unacceptable. J Patrick Ware MD (Child Psychiatrist for over 30 years).
Gail Lane June 03, 2012 at 04:53 PM
Michelle and Dr. Ware - We encourage comments on our blogs and unless there is profanity involved, they are not, as a rule, "unacceptable." If there is some way to provide a screen capture, a copy of your text or even if you received some sort of message after submitting your post, can you please let us know so we can fix any glitch that might be causing this?
Jenn Syx June 05, 2012 at 12:04 AM
Well, I am sure that these Tiger Moms are good mothers that care about their children and I am sure their kids can grow up to be happy people. My only issue is being considered weak or inferior as a "Western Mother" because I do not believe in this parenting philosophy. Frankly I just do not function in that way and never could. I am a strict parent and I expect a lot from my kids but if they are not top of their class or the best of the best, well that is ok too. Being the best has never been important to me and frankly it feels like an impossible standard to live by. I know plenty of successful people whose personal lives are total wrecks. I prefer my way for me although I can certainly see the benefits of other parenting processes. I just cannot live them.

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