I owe Amy Chua a big thank you. Finally, someone’s a meaner mom than I am. In Chua’s recent Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, she details why Chinese mothers are superior to Western mothers. With that thesis, she started a battle. Even though most U.S. experts and parents have given her a paddling for poor parenting performance, I think she earns an “A.” Chua has delved into the psyche of Asian-American parents and the messy business of parenting in these times of only-brilliant children. In the process, she’s helped me out. I look positively angelic next to her.
Tiger Mother: Exceeding those Helicopter Parents
Before the release of the ferocious Tiger Mother, my 14-year-old son labeled me a “tyrant” and “typical Asian parent” (translation: I push). Since he was young, I’ve pushed him to do homework and study for the National Geography Bee (he went to States twice). I’ve pushed him to join extracurriculars, practice music and play sports. I’ve pushed him to—egad!—excel, regardless of his enthusiasm. I am confident that one day my son will thank me.
After school, I often ask how his test scores stack up to the rest of the class. Should his scores fall short of a top result, I’ll follow my initial question with an inquisition on what went wrong. His noncommittal grunts morph into “Mom, relax.” Relax? While he’s relaxing, the Chinese are walking to stadiums barefoot and drilling for calculus, as the former governor of Pennsylvania noted when an NFL football game was cancelled because of snow.
When he was younger, this hellacious process produced meltdowns (on both sides) but also success. Now, we’ve both mellowed with age. I’m less pushy; he’s more resigned. Homework always gets done. So I’m happy, right? Of course not: no self-respecting Tiger Mother wannabe would be. If Monday’s work is done, why not jump to next week’s tests, papers and clarinet lessons? I can’t help myself. (This is the less intense me.)
Chua argues that Chinese mothers are the best at haranguing their children to excel. I believe that we Indian mothers are no slackers. Need I say more than National Spelling Bee, where Indian-Americans have triumphed eight of the last 12 years?
I do my best to encourage overachievement, but it isn’t easy. My husband, though raised in India, isn’t on board. When our son qualified to take the SAT in middle school, he saw no value, even though it would open the door to accelerated summer courses. I caved. When our son qualified again the next year, I signed him up. I cajoled, I threw in a bribe of extra video game time and I finally wore down my child and ignored my husband. On the big day, he emerged from the test center dazed but alive. He did well enough to earn recognition. I felt vindicated. Chua would have been proud; my husband rolled his eyes.
The Tiger Mother Is Too Much
But here’s where I part ways with Chua. No play dates? That’s extreme in a world where social skills matter as much as higher math acumen. And Chua’s language—calling her kids “garbage”—is too harsh. I’ve never done that. I guess Chua would say I’ve succumbed to the self-esteem mafia of the West. So be it. Chua also takes great pride in the time she forced her youngest to practice a difficult piano piece, nonstop, with no bathroom or food breaks. I’m content with the occasional 10 minutes. I barely whimpered when my son dropped clarinet for two years.
He has it easy. Next to Tiger Mom, I’m all Kitty Cat. “She’s a lunatic,” he declared appreciatively, at last. “You’re not that bad.”
That is an understatement. What about those video games? I am chagrined to admit that he plays plenty, in light of Chua’s Iron Fist policies of no television or computer games. At least I extract something worthwhile, like debate club, in exchange for games that I tell him turn his brain to mush.
I just want my kid to be happy. And so does Chua, I’m sure. I guess it comes down to what leads to happiness: mediocrity or overachievement? And does pushing for the latter make you a bad mother? “Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches,” Chua writes. “Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result, they behave very differently.”
Some kids are driven; most aren’t. They need encouragement. That’s the balancing act for parents, and I think Chua’s approach is refreshingly honest. No kid really likes homework, but they still have to do it. So why not do it well? Accomplishing something of significance requires incredibly hard work. Kids don’t always know that, but their parents do. That’s why sometimes, moms just have to be mean.