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.