Taming the Tiger Mother in me

Claire McCarthy,MD

“I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling.”

This is how Amy Chua, a Yale Law professor, got her 7-year-old daughter to learn a complicated piano piece. It’s from an essay on WSJ.com titled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” an essay that has gotten a lot of attention in the media. Apparently, Chinese mothers are superior (and have more successful children) because they expect excellence from their children—and are willing to go to any lengths to get that excellence out of them.

The “any lengths” Amy Chua describes (it’s an excerpt from her book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”) include not just tactics like these, but hours and hours of homework and practicing instruments, forbidding playdates, sleepovers and TV, and not allowing her daughters to choose their activities (or instruments). Oh—and calling them “garbage” if they misbehave.

I love this chick.

She makes me look so good.

The thing is, I’m a bit of a Tiger Mother myself. Like Chua, I expect A’s. I expect hard work. While I let them pick the sport, I expect that my five children will be physically active (whether they like it or not). Everyone has played an instrument (Liam, 5, hasn’t yet, but he will), because I think learning music is important. I insist that everyone do chores, and be polite and respectful (we have plenty of house rules). I am very strict about curfews and about needing to know exactly where everyone is and what they’re doing. For years, my kids have been saying that I expect too much and that I’m stricter than the other moms.

I had all my kids read Amy Chua’s essay (well, not Liam, he’s still learning to read). They were horrified. “She needs help,” said 13-year-old Elsa. While they weren’t willing to retreat completely from their position on my parenting, they did say that maybe I wasn’t so bad after all.

I so love this chick. You don’t often get this gift of perspective.

Amy Chua's book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," has set off a firestorm of controversy about strict parenting.

See, while I am a Tiger Mother, I draw the line differently than Chua. I expect A’s, but I know that each of my children has different strengths, and sometimes a B is something to be celebrated. While Chua derides Western parents for urging children to do Their Best, as opposed to The Best, Their Best works fine for me. There is leeway within my expectations; sometimes a swim practice is skipped, a piano practice cut short, a little bit of extra TV thrown in. And I would never, ever, call one of my children “garbage.”

It’s true that Chinese children outscore U.S. children on standardized tests. But in part that’s true because the Chinese education system stresses rote learning and memorization; it’s weaker when it comes to critical analysis and creative thinking. China also has a high suicide rate among young women; I don’t pretend to know why, but stressing excellence at all cost can’t be helping things.

I guess it’s a matter of defining your goal for your children. If the goal is for your child to get all A’s, and perform at Carnegie Hall (as Chua’s daughter did), then Chua’s method might be the way to go. I say her method, and not the Chinese method, for a reason; I’m sure there’s lots of variability among Chinese mothers. And to be fair to Chua, apparently she writes in her book that she softened her stance after Lulu rebelled at 13 (about time!).

That’s not my goal. I’m a Tiger Mother because I want my children to have choices. I don’t want anyone to say to them: no, you can’t be a doctor or lawyer or whatever, because you didn’t meet the requirements, you don’t have what it takes. I don’t care if they’re doctors or lawyers; they will choose their own road. But I want the choices to be theirs, not somebody else’s.

I am a Tiger Mother, too, because I want my children to learn that they’re part of a bigger whole. I need them to understand that it matters how they treat each other. Being kind, respectful and helpful are not optional—they are crucial. Life should involve service, even if the service is simply being a good parent or a good friend. Our world needs this.

I am determined to give and teach my children these things. I will go to any lengths to do it. If that makes me a Tiger Mother, then I am proud to be one.

23 thoughts on “Taming the Tiger Mother in me

  1. Ummm…. Why are we even calling this a debate about parenting styles, as if Amy Chua’s actions are a valid lifestyle choice? Withholding hydration and toileting is physical child abuse, pure and simple. Chua is not a tiger mom, she is an abusive parent.

  2. While I can appreciate parents wanting their kids to excel and have the best of opportunities in life, I was disappointed by the overall positive portrayal of Amy Chua in Time magazine. Isn’t it wrong to prevent your child from socializing with others? Or to prevent your child from going to the bathroom or eating or drinking just to play a piano piece? Those don’t seem like things we should let slide when discussing the book… they seem pretty abusive to me.

  3. I find it amazing that there is any discussion to be had around this woman’s story. And, that she got a huge advance for the book sickens me. If you do not allow a child to use the toilet, or take meals and hydration, or even threaten them with the destruction of things they hold dear (their possessions) in order to get them to bend to your will….then you are tyrannical and yes — abusive. I am sickened that someone with so much education and means feels comfortable in treating a child this way.

  4. Wait until the “tail wags the tiger” and Little Lulu is in charge of her elderly mother. Perhaps she will withhold food, keep her in the same adult diaper for a day or so and break the things she holds dear. As the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young once sang, “Teach your children well”

  5. Dr. McCarthy, I love your blog and read it all the time when I am procrastinating from work (yes, at CHB). I just want to make the comment that Amy Chua’s goal is to give her children the opportunity to make whatever choices they want in life. The point of getting straight-A’s and performing at Carnegie Hall is to build discipline–the discipline you need to study for medical school or law school so that no one will deny you those opportunities. I wanted to clarify because it sounded like you thought you and she differed on this point, when in fact you are very much the same. To Ms. Chua’s detractors, I too was raised by a Tiger Mother (albeit one who resembles Dr. McCarthy slightly more than Ms. Chua…but then again, I am spending my last few minutes at work for the day reading blogs). I never doubted that she loved me, and that everything she did was out of love for me. I’m not proud to have been raised by a Tiger Mother…I’m grateful.

  6. Amy Chua is a sickening excuse for a parent. She isn’t educating her kids, she’s abusing them. Period. There is a REASON that suicide rates in China are so high … and teaching your child that they must succeed at any cost does not adequately prepare them for life. It does, however, prepare them for a lifetime of feeling like they will never measure up. It also takes away their ability to be resilient, and to know how to handle defeat when it happens.

    I don’t think it is an adequate comparison for the author of this article to call herself a “Tiger Mother” because she expects good grades and manners from her children. I expect the same from mine … but again, I have stressed over and over to my kids that as long as I know they tried their hardest, I’m okay with the end results. It’s when I know that they’re NOT trying that they need to watch out. (They are fully aware of this.) I suppose I could be called a strict parent by some, but I would never EVER choose to define myself as a “Tiger Mother” if Amy Chua is supposed to be the shining example of what that means. And “proud” is the LAST thing I would be if someone else were to call me that.

    1. While you’re allowed to have your own opinion on Amy Chua, it’s personally upsetting when you equate her parenting style with that of all Chinese parents and further blame Chinese parents for China’s “high” suicide rate. Before you level accusations like that, even if it’s in passing, really think about what stereotypes, prejudices, etc you’re advancing. It’s the decent and smart thing to do.

      1. Emily, you’re right, and I didn’t mean for my comment to come off sounding like that. I do think that China *as a whole* stresses perfection in its citizens, and that this rigid mold hurts many of the girls growing up there. I also think that this kind of thinking starts at the government level, is indoctrinated into its citizens, and is endemic throughout the country as a whole. I’m not trying to blame the parents, more the system as a whole, but you’re right … my comment didn’t sound like that’s what I meant.

        Mea cupla, and thanks for pointing that out.

  7. “But in part that’s true because the Chinese education system stresses rote learning and memorization; it’s weaker when it comes to critical analysis and creative thinking.” Gross generalization and unfair statement unless you’ve been part of both educational systems. I would say that perhaps some of the reasons the Chinese excel is that they recognize the need for early learning and dedication like introducing children from preschool to English and math. Do you see Americans learning Chinese in preschool as a standard part of the educational system? Perhaps the emphasis on education and the minimization of other distractions make them excel. For Western cultures to pass judgement on how other cultures choose to raise their children is as offensive as the reverse. I think the one thing the Chinese do right is that they presume strength in children rather than presume they have a fragile self image. THAT is something to learn.

  8. too obvious is how much money chua will make from her “extremism,” and in that sense she has aptly tapped into the American Mother bandwagon market. She is a product of her own conditioning, and is now sifting through talkshow offers to shamelessly self-promote under the faux pretenses of sharing a parent(thetical) breakthrough.

  9. Striving for A’s Hum,I have 4 children 3 boys and 1 girl,and many many neices and nephews,while some got all A’s easily and some struggled for a C,they are all wonderful people,and all A’s doesn’t mean a thing,I have met many all A people who don’t have a lick of common sense,personally I will take common sense any day!

  10. I think the difference here in the 2 types of tiger mothering is that Chua is an abusive parent. If DCFS walked into the home of a low-income family using these methods, the child would be removed and placed in foster care. I too expect a lot from my children, especially academically, but I too see that each child has different strengths and each child is human and might have a bad day and need to skip a practice. Heck, I didn’t participate in a single extracurricular activity and lo’ and behold I had a full scholarship to an excellent college. Amazing, right? I agree with another poster that her making money off telling a story of abuse is sickening. If this mother were a low-income Hispanic woman living in government housing attempting to push her child to its limits to ensure its ability to have a better life, the child would be removed from the home.

  11. What a well written article and I totally agree with Dr. McCarthy as I too encourage A’s, being involved in sports and an instrument. This is just trying to raise a well rounded child and building their confidence and giving them future opportunities in the competitive world. The difference between us and someone likt “Tiger Mom” is that it is abusive to call your kids garbage. Also forcing a child to practice her instrument for 3 hours is just crazy unless it is the childs choice. My daughter takes violin and I never have to force her to practice and she loves to play and it’s her choice.
    What kids need is Love, Support, encouragement and discipline and the chance to grow by making some choices on their own.

  12. Happymommyx4 noted that the reaction to Chua’s abuse might be different if she were a low income parent. I wonder what we would think if this story had been about a father withholding hydration and toileting, and screaming himself hoarse at his child for hours. If a man acted like this, wouldn’t we call it abuse? Is Chua getting a free pass because she is a woman?

  13. Why not stress a concept from Positive Psychology known as “flow”. If you can achieve “flow” that’s where you need to be. Another interesting concept from high performing athletes is “open focus”, where you are aware as you are functioning at your peak. It’s funny that the top coaches emphasize relaxation as a means of achieving peak performance. Top music teachers also emphasize relaxation. They don’t emphasize tension. These concepts inherently involve some sense of struggle but also a sense of personal integration and becoming all that you can be. We can’t ask children to be more than that.

  14. is horrible what she does with her ​​children is bad enough that a child socialize? or eat, which is hydrated?, it is normal that a mother wants a good future for their children, and it is true that a child learns to play a musical instrument and that your sport will improve your quality of life and let you discover a new world, but the simple fact choose not to let the instrument displays and the tyrannical and insensitive to the mother, and playing an instrument that you like and do not required at that time would not be a martyr or play a game that actually not want to play, even worse that force you to continue playing a piano or feet violin etc while you have to meet that demand Meneses then your body, the mother has no common sense is disgusting what they do with their children She is simply an abuser.

  15. I checked Asian. I had heard it was harder to apply as an Asian, so as a point of pride, I had to say I was Asian. http://jadeluckclub.com/true-picture-asian-americans/
    In almost every list, pride (Latin, superbia), or hubris (Greek), is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and the source of the others. It is identified as a desire to be more important or attractive than others, failing to acknowledge the good work of others, and excessive love of self (especially holding self out of proper position toward God). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_deadly_sins#Pride
    1) Tiger Sophia, you may have checked Asian which does have a “tax,” however you also got big bonus points for being a legacy many times over. The upshot is that you had help getting in unlike these Asian Americans below who live at the poverty line and don’t have Ivy League parents with deep pockets.2) By checking Asian when, actually, you are of mixed race, you have taken a spot away from those who don’t have the benefit of applying to a less competitive race slot. Thanks to you, someone who[se] life could be completely changed did not get a spot. http://jadeluckclub.com/true-picture-asian-americans/For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Matthew 25:29
    Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, the daughter of a mother of mixed Asian ethnicity of no known religious involvement and a secular — whatever that means — American Jewish father has, ostensibly been raised as a Jewess in an atheistic family positing itself as . . . ? When she applied for admission to Harvard she descended into a pride of Asianness to avail herself of an ethnic quota advantage.
    This duplicitous young woman is, indeed, her mother’s daughter! http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=230907266920263&set=o.134679449938486&type=1&theater__________________________
    André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)Formerly Bass TrombonistThe Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.

  16. There is a recurring theme without solid core that continues to recycle on the question of Amy Chua and her style as a mother. J.G. (unfortunately anonymous, as are most of the endorsements of Professor Chua) has written
    I think it’s easy to take cheap shots at Chua, but it’s hard to argue that the average American child needs less discipline, less direction or less respect for others.
    It might seem amusing to mock her (her “cushy job” and “hottie husband”), but harder to actually consider the points being made in a non-defensive way, without trying to paint yourself as the “cool mom” who prefers three martini playdates?
    p.s. It seems ironic that an Asian-American female who went to Williams (fulfilling a fantasy of Chinese parents everywhere) would paint her parents as laissez-faire and herself as moderately motivated.Posted by: J.G. | January 18, 2011 at 02:31 PM http://thecareerist.typepad.com/thecareerist/2011/01/chinese-moms.html
    I, for one, have no interest whatsoever in her “cushy job” and “hottie husband.” Nor do I have any objection to her having become a millionaire from the sales of her book and that she will be well on her way to becoming a multimillionare once the planned translations of it into thirteen of the world’s languages have been completed. My uncompromising objections to Professor Chua are two-fold: her abuses of young children pursued to further her own narcissistic urgencies and her deep commitment of abuse of the art of music – of which she seemingly has no knowledge whatsoever – for reasons having nothing to do with that art. My shots at her are far from what J.G. calls “cheap shots.” They do in fact go to the heart of the problems with her that remain my chief concerns.
    J.G. and most of his fellow travelers in their tepid defenses of Professor Chua continue to focus on her inherited emphasis of the sorry state of public education in The United States. What else is new?
    As with most of the ringing endorsements of Amy Chua, those from J.G. are clearly from a mind not wholly engaged. He has written ” it’s hard to argue that the average American child needs less discipline, less direction or less respect for others. In his tangled syntax I’m quite sure he means – at least I’m hoping he means – it’s hard to argue that the average American child does not need more discipline, more direction or more respect for others.
    J.G. has written further, “p.s. It seems ironic that an Asian-American female who went to Williams (fulfilling a fantasy of Chinese parents everywhere) . . . “ Again, but this time TWO thoughts from nowhere! What has Williams College to do with Amy Chua (Harvard, A.B. ’84)? And since when has Williams even been on the “fantasy” palate “of Chinese parents everywhere?”
    Professor Chua usually receives the quality of defense she deserves.____________________
    André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)Formerly Bass TrombonistThe Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.

  17. Q: You insisted your girls also have hobbies so they wouldn’t become “weird Asian automatons.” So you chose classical music. You didn’t want them doing crafts which “go nowhere” or playing drums which “lead to drugs.”

    A: For me classical music symbolized refinement and hard work and delicacy, and a certain depth. Both the piano and the violin are capable of producing such beauty, something more meaningful than watching TV or doing Facebook for 10 hours. http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/01/13/amy-chua-on-high-stakes-parenting/

    The most extraordinary feature — among many extraordinary features — of the Amy Chua debacle is that no one in authority in New Haven has yet to pull her aside to tell her that she being a Professor of Law at Yale simply isn’t working well for the good of the University.

    This woman is a COMPLETE moron! That she has been able in her book to unite any music instrument whatsoever with deleterious external behavior harkens back to at least somewhere in the nineteenth century when it could be said openly and quite sincerely that Negroes have an innate sense for rhythm and most Italians pass their days in song. Just from what source(s) this half-baked Professor has discovered a relationship between drums and drugs is unstated; and I’m quite sure will so remain.
    Also, this buffoon refers to crafts that “go nowhere” thereby ensuring that her two daughters will have had no experience designing and building to completion with their hands any project of their choice. Her blanket statement about crafts discretely omits details about what she believes any of these cul-de-sac pursuits are.
    But, moving back to the smoke heads and autoharpoonists with which Professor Chua believes the field of percussion music is suffused . . . She who advocates classical music concerts (which she is not known to attend), Mandarin language (which she does not speak, read, or write), and an aggressive pursuit of piano and violin (while being unable to play either) has chosen as her target, from the full palate of the world’s instruments the innocent drum. She can tell it to Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartok, Kodaly, Copland, Khatachurian, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Ives, Janacek, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Sibelius, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, and her beloved Mozart and Haydn.

    You might want to set aside a few minutes to see how the staff junkie in this performance has kept everyone else intact. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8po7FZonP-I But for us, taking the Professor in her stride let’s look at some of the world’s examples she may have a dread fear one of her daughters may emulate.

    Boston Symphony Orchestra http://www.bso.org/brands/bso/about-us/musicians/bso-musicians/percussion.aspx

    Dallas Symphony http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfFqJGehovg

    Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra School of Timpani http://www.nickwoud.com/page7.htm

    HHS Winter Percussion-Dublin 2-12-11 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXWSS4w15dw

    Swiss Top Secret Drum Corps http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7k6VYGtm8g

    New York Philharmonic Orchestra http://nyphil.org/meet/orchestra/index.cfm?page=section&sectionNum=16

    London Symphony Orchestra http://www.neilpercy.com/

    Berlin Philharmonic http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dHOhpRr_Vc

    Bolshoi Theater Percussion Ensemble http://www.allmusic.com/artist/bolshoi-theater-percussion-ensemble-q93538

    Shanghai Percussion Ensemble http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&aq=htsf&oq=&ie=UTF-8&rlz=1T4GGLJ_enUS344US352&q=Shanghai+Percussion+Ensemble

    Paris Percussion Festival http://speakeasy.jazzcorner.com/speakeasy/showthread.php?t=2968

    Los Angeles Percussion Quartet http://www.lapercussionquartet.com/

    Chicago Symphony Orchestra http://cso.org/About/Performers/Performers.aspx?hid=779&cpid=780&cid=83&nid=826

    Charles Owen, The United States Marine Band and The Philadelphia Orchestra http://www.pas.org/experience/halloffame/OwenCharles.aspx

    Evelyn Glennie (deaf since the age of twelve!) http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&aq=3&oq=%22evelyn+glennie%22&ie=UTF-8&rlz=1T4GGLJ_enUS344US352&q=evelyn+glennie+youtube&gs_upl=0l0l8l151344lllllllllll0&aqi=g5

    Elayne Jones http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82HKMGGqfhg

    Max Roach http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Roach

    Gene Krupa http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&aq=2&oq=%22gene+krupa%22&ie=UTF-8&rlz=1T4GGLJ_enUS344US352&q=gene+krupa+youtube&gs_upl=0l0l12l31079lllllllllll0&aqi=g5

    Saul Goodman (Long may his memory endure!) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4JbVS5-Z3w

    Gerald Carlyss (student of Saul Goodman at Juilliard) http://www.indiana.edu/~deanfac/bios/2007/Carlyss07.pdf

    Victor Firth (student of Saul Goodman at Juilliard) http://www.vicfirth.com/education/percussion101-timpani.php

    Fred Begun (student of Saul Goodman at Juilliard) http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/fred-begun-former-national-symphony-orchestra-timpanist-embarks-on-new-ventures/2011/09/21/gIQA1nlrAL_story.html

    Howard van Hyning (student of Saul Goodman at Juilliard), conductor of The New York Tympani Choir http://www.pas.org/news/InMemoriam.aspx

    Phil Kraus (student of Saul Goodman at Juilliard) http://www.pas.org/news/InMemoriam.aspx

    Richard Motylinski http://www.ncsymphony.org/about/index.cfm?subsec=people&peoplecat=musicians&catid=19&person=23

    Danny Villanueva http://www.dannyv.zoomshare.com/1.html


    With time and space I easily could list one-hundred more, but these few will prove the point. Got the message, Professor? On any matter dealing with the fine arts you are, to put it discretely, outclassed.


    André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)Formerly Bass TrombonistThe Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.

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