Readers Learn Their Lesson About The Tiger Mother

A round-up of some of this week's best reader-lead conversations.

By Channing Kennedy Jan 22, 2011

During our writer Julianne Hing’s recent guestblogging stint at the Atlantic, she discussed the "pseudo-controversy" around a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Amy Chua, in which Chua seemed to crow about the advantages of ‘Asian-style’ parenting that bordered on the psychologically abusive. That op-ed, we now know, was a series of cherrypicked excerpts from her forthcoming book; the book itself, as Julianne reports this week, is far more nuanced and reflective than the linkbait WSJ first laid in front of us.

Julianne used both of her pieces to frame the political in the personal, discussing her own upbringing, as well as the immigrant families she knows whose best efforts and university degrees still don’t qualify them for the American dream. And, as Amy Chua appears on Dateline and the cover of Time, smart conversations around the issues continue. Here’s a sampling of recent highlights from our readers.

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Reader skatter says the problem is both systemic and interpersonal, and not always in the ways we’d think.

The first thing to remember is that not all Chinese-American kids are high academic achievers. And, no, I’m not talking about "thoroughly Americanized" third or fourth generation kids. I’m talking about the children of "fresh-off-the-boat" immigrants. The ones who supposedly do so well in our education system. I’ve known many Chinese, and other Asian, immigrant kids who have run into trouble because their teachers expected them to be some sort of super achiever when they were just normal kids with normal abilities.

Yes, there is a large percentage of Chinese-American children who do do well in our schools, but so did other immigrant children in past generations. The difference being that legal discrimination no longer exists and, most importantly in the last 30 to 40 years, the only way out now is through academic achievement since this country’s manufacturing base- with it’s decent paying, mostly unionized, jobs – has largely disappeared.

And contributor Michelle Chen chimes in too, reposting her comment on Julianne’s original TNC post.

I just looked at the original WSJ excerpt and was kind of amused when I realized that I have the exact same photo of the piano recital hall in my bedroom, except it’s me on the bench, playing Mozart’s variations, and not Chua’s daughter. While I’m mildly embarrassed by the cookie-cutter parallels between my childhood musical ventures and Sophia’s, what really intrigues me is the fact that I grew up in a very different household. I was never subjected to the kind of maniacal, dictatorial discipline that Chua touts here. My parents were quite open-minded and laissez-faire, probably much more so than a lot of "Western" (i.e. American-born) families I’ve encountered. There were piano lessons, specialized high school tests, and a very brief, failed foray into daily math drills. I can’t say those were my fondest childhood memories but I don’t regret them. The bottom line is that much of children’s development and worldviews are shaped not necessarily by a single parenting doctrine but by environmental factors, peer pressure, mass media, expectations from one’s community, and yes, culture. But that’s "culture" in a more organic sense, not necessarily imposed through parenting regimens. Children, particularly children of immigrant backgrounds, are, from birth, involved in a process of forming an identity by mixing and matching cultural elements to which they’re inevitably exposed. What’s been misleadingly described as the "Chinese" way of parenting seems to turn on a longstanding debate about authoritative vs. more permissive parenting styles. Though it has the element of cultural difference that throws the normative analysis off its axis. Perhaps what Chua failed to realize (and to her credit, her book does suggest some measure of personal growth and soul-searching toward the end), is that not all of the social and cultural factors are under a parent’s control. Children are individuals and they readily internalize family lessons as well as stimuli from their surrounding social environment, and eventually–maybe at 12, maybe at 35–they will learn to do so on their own terms.

Beyond the vague, reductivist argument over "Western" vs. "Chinese" parenting, it’s important to recognize that kids are remarkably resilient creatures. And that, for better or worse, makes them perfect blank slates on which parents tend to project their own insecurities, aspirations and neuroses, until maybe the filial sons and daughters start to discover that they’re not who they’ve been taught to see themselves as.

Is it any wonder that all this hoopla surrounding Tiger moms is emerging in the midst of growing anxieties about America’s place in the world and "losing out" to China as it takes our jobs and outscores us on tests? What would be really sad is conformity to this or that parenting dogma simply on the basis of geopolitical tensions, which have enlisted mothers and children as pawns in a battle for economic and political power. Largely absent from this discussion is that it is taking place under the assumption that this well-resourced realm of the well-educated, middle-class family is the ideal, indeed only, arena in which these parenting dramas can play out. Are mothers and fathers who don’t know algebra, or who can’t afford violin lessons, also entitled to have their own parenting styles?

By the way, Jeff Yang wrote an interesting piece about Chua’s own take on the media spin surrounding her manipulated excerpt in WSJ.

America loves its mommy wars but it’s a sucker for paper tigers.

And on Tumblr, undercover in the bay presents a key paragraph of Julianne’s Atlantic post with her own thoughts, excerpted here:

One thing that sticks out in my mind is this: In junior year of college, I went home to visit. My long-term boyfriend and I had just broken up, and I was pretty upset and smoking a lot. My mom with her super ninja psychic mom skills figured out that I smoked. I went back to college and she wouldn’t talk to me for a month.

I couldn’t figure out why she was mad at me. Was she disappointed in me? Did she think that, somehow, because I smoked that I was a bad kid? Was she worried that people would think she hadn’t raised me right? Was she mad because I didn’t listen to her when she said that smoking was bad for me? Because I wasn’t a good daughter and obeyed all the house rules?

I finally got her on the phone, and she asked, "Why do you smoke?"

"It’s nothing, Mom," I said. "I’m just stressed out."

Then, near tears, she asked me, "What did your father and I do to ever to make you stressed?"

That was it. She thought it was her fault. The whole time it wasn’t "My daughter’s a bad daughter." It was "I’m a bad mom." My kid’s so stressed out that she’s smoking. What did I do to hurt her? What can I do to help her?