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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

January 24, 2011

Written by C.N.

Thoughts on the ‘Tiger Mother’ Controversy

I presume that by now, all of you have heard about the debate and controversy over Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, her accompanying article in the Wall Street Journal provocatively titled, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” and the resultant backlash throughout American society and on the internet from Asian Americans and non-Asians alike.

Although I have not yet read her book, from her various public appearances lately and based on other people’s summaries of her points, I understand that her main arguments are that American parents tend to be too lax in their parenting styles, particularly when it comes to not emphasizing hard work, persistence, and total commitment to education and other tasks necessary for your child to be a high achiever in contemporary American and global societies. In her own words on the Wall Street Journal article, she writes:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

Tiger mother © Michael K. Nichols/National Geographic Society
  • 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 . . .

To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.

I’ve been meaning to comment on her points for a while and I also know that there are plenty of other writers and bloggers who have already weighed in on this subject. However, I’ve been occupied with preparing for the start of the new semester and have not been able to read many of their responses yet. Therefore, I apologize if I am restating points that others have already brought up.

As I describe in more detail below about the specific arguments Chua makes that I agree and disagree with, the main point that I want to emphasize is that parenting does not have to be an “either-or” proposition — there does not have to be a rigid line drawn between “rigorous” and “permissive” styles, nor does there have to be a complete separation of “Chinese” and “American” styles. As I have consistently emphasized throughout this blog, frequently there is an artificial division between these two identities that inevitably creates unnecessary barriers, misunderstandings, and tensions between all those involved.

Instead, I want to emphasize that it is possible to achieve a balance between these two identities. This is what Asian Americans have been doing for a while now — taking different elements of each culture to meld and synthesize them into their own style that includes the best of each. As I discuss below, I believe this applies to parenting styles and the drive for achievement and success as well.

In Defense of Chua

One of her points with which I agree is that for whatever reasons, it is very common and indeed beneficial for many (as in a large number, but certainly not all) Asian, Asian American, and immigrant parents to place a very strong and heavy emphasis on educational achievement and success. Many native-born American parents do so as well, but I am reminded of an article that I used for a previous course on racial/ethnic demography, “Test-Score Trends Along Racial Lines, 1971 to 1996: Popular Culture and Community Academic Standards,” written by Ronald F. Ferguson (a chapter in America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences, 2001). The article described data to show that when it comes to parental expectations of their children’s academic performance, Asian parents who were high school dropouts still had higher expectations of their children than White, Black, and Latino parents who had a college degree.

My point is, it is not necessarily a bad thing to expect your children to not just perform well, but to excel, academically or otherwise. Particularly in this age of globalization, the need for advanced educational and professional skills in order to stay competitive in the global marketplace is readily apparent and increasingly stressed by almost everyone from all backgrounds. We also know that, as it currently stands, the American educational system needs much improvement in terms of preparing our young people to meet the challenges of the 21st century. In other words, as a society, we as Americans should not and cannot settle for mediocrity if we expect to retain our standard of living.

As other sociological research as also shown, many Asian and Asian American parents also understand that as a racial minority in American society, almost by necessity, they need to push their children a little further to make sure that they are able to overcome some of the hurdles and barriers that stand in our way when it comes to socioeconomic success and full institutional integration into American society, especially in tough economic times when competition for jobs and other resources is even more intense and potentially filled with racial tension and hostility.

With this in mind, I also find it quite unfortunate that some of the criticism directed at Chua includes elements of racism that link her to China’s recent emergence to become the new “yellow peril” threat to the U.S. and even death threats against her personally. Time magazine’s recent article on this debate summed up the global context of this debate nicely:

The tiger mother’s cubs are being raised to rule the world, the book clearly implies, while the offspring of “weak-willed,” “indulgent” Westerners are growing up ill equipped to compete in a fierce global marketplace. . . .

These national identity crises are nothing new. . . . In the 1980s, we fretted that Japan was besting us with its technological wizardry and clever product design — the iPod of the ’80s was the Sony Walkman — and its investors’ acquisitions of American name-brand companies and prime parcels of real estate. . . . [Now] our rivalry with the Japanese has faded as another one has taken its place: last year, China surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy.

The U.S. is still No. 1 — but for how long? We’re rapidly reaching the limit on how much money the federal government can borrow — and our single biggest creditor is China. How long, for that matter, can the beleaguered U.S. education system keep pace with a rapidly evolving and increasingly demanding global marketplace?

Such fears about the U.S. losing its position as the unquestioned political, economic, and cultural superpower are real and valid. At the same time, it is one thing to criticize Chua for her parenting style, but it’s a different matter altogether to reinforce and perpetuate anti-Asian stereotypes and advocate committing violence towards her and others who are perceived to be threats to the “American” way of life. In fact, for many Asians and Asian Americans, such racism only confirms the ongoing challenges we face and the need to overachieve as a reaction to such racial hostility.

Criticisms for Chua

On the other hand, Chua’s style of parenting is certainly not for everybody and in many respects, has the danger of creating some very negative consequences. When it comes to Asian Americans and the model minority image, I’ve written many times before in this blog about the need to balance the drive for success with caution against excessive parental and societal pressure. As a community, unfortunately Asian Americans have experienced too many incidents in which too much parental pressure on their children has led to incidents of suicide and violence. In fact, it is well worth repeating that Asian American women between 15-24 years old have the highest suicide rates of any racial, ethnic, age, and gender group in the U.S.

More generally, I also feel that Chua unnecessarily and unfortunately reinforces this artificial distinction between “Chinese/Asian” and “American.” Beyond the inherent overgeneralizing that Chinese mothers do this while American mothers do that, Chua does not seem to give much credence to the possibility that many Chinese Americans and Asian American parents do both — that we combined the best elements of the different cultures with which we’re familiar. In fact, this is just another example of the kind of “transcultural” assimilation that Asian Americans have done ever since we first arrived in the U.S.

As this CBS News video shows, even parents in China are increasingly rethinking their “success at any cost” approach to parenting that Chua insists is “superior”:

As it relates to parenting, I also do not believe it is not a contradiction to instill a drive for achievement and excellence while also nurturing a sense of independence and an understanding that there is more to life than just material success. Toward that end, I personally do not feel that, in order to stress the importance of personal achievement, parents need to berate, criticize, or shame their child. Chua’s “tough as nails” methods may eventually instill a sense of confidence and achievement in her daughters but I am pretty sure there are less harsh and extreme ways to accomplish the same thing. They might include letting our children work out herself many of the interpersonal difficulties that they encounter everyday and explaining to the child the various individual and institutional challenges that lie ahead of her them and that if they expect to have a comfortable standard of living, they will need to accomplish and at times, master certain tasks toward that goal.

Perhaps I am being too idealistic to think that my daughter has the ability to truly understand these multi-level and long-term issues about what she needs to do now in order to have certain things later. But then again, isn’t that what Chua is basically telling her daughters as well?


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Thoughts on the ‘Tiger Mother’ Controversy" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2011/01/thoughts-tiger-mother-controversy/> ().

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