The Tiger Mom Debate

I’m sure that many of you have heard by now of the infamous Tiger Mom, Amy Chua.  She recently published a book titled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which the Wall Street Journal published excerpts of in this article (all the most controversial parts, most likely).  The article created quite a stir, with many parents accusing Mrs. Chua of child abuse.  I read this original article and, while I think that some of Mrs. Chua’s parenting tactics are extreme and unhealthy (especially calling your children degrading names as a motivating tool), I also think that many important points were brought up that partially explain the problems we are seeing with the youth in American society – namely a sense of entitlement, a poor work ethic, and the gradual loss of a competitive edge in the global workplace.

One thing Chua brings up in the article is the idea that American parents view their children as fragile.  The stereotypical American parents (and much of what I’ll discuss here is based on stereotypes and I know they don’t apply to all – or even most – American families) are afraid of damaging their child’s self-esteem, of trampling their ego.  They think that if they force them to do something, like rewrite the draft of a mediocre essay that they were planning on turning in, they will make them feel like a failure or give them an inferiority complex.  To help their children feel like they are worth something, they praise them for any small accomplishment, even if they know they could have done better.

In contrast, Chinese parents expect much more from their children.  They don’t view them as fragile and don’t treat them that way.  The treat them as if they know that they can succeed if they work hard and they don’t allow them to put in less than their best effort.  Praise is given only for real achievements, and the child’s work ethic is what is being praised, not the child’s innate “smartness.”  The distinction is very important – in another article on the Tiger Mom debate that was published by Time magazine, a study is cited that shows that children who were told they are smart after scoring well on a task don’t take on as many subsequent tasks as children who were told that they were hard workers.  The children who thought they scored well because they were smart were afraid to try harder tasks, fearing that if they failed they would lose their “smart kid” status.  The students that were praised for their hard work rather than their smartness were more than willing to continue to attempt tasks of increasing difficulty.  The study shows that parents would be wise to praise their child’s effort rather than their ability.

A while back, I read an interview of a Chinese exchange student who was living in the U.S.  He was very surprised at the low level of work that students here put in outside of class.  In China, students are focused on their studies, with little time for pursuing entertainment.  He was shocked at the amount of time American students spent on playing video games, logging onto facebook, watching television, going to sports activities, and attending parties and other non-educational pursuits.  Americans as a whole feel like childhood should be fun and carefree, and allow their children to spend a lot of their free time with their peers.  But this view is not necessarily held by the world at large; many cultures believe that childhood, rather than a time live it up before you have to grow up, is a time of preparation for life, and that the harder you work, the better prepared you will be. On the other hand, the suicide rate for high school and college students in China has risen, indicating that too much of this type of pressure can have very serious negative consequences.

Another issue Chua mentioned in her article is the fact that, for many children, activities aren’t fun until you are good at them.  I have found this to be true for certain things my girls have attempted.  Ballet is boring until you have learned enough technique to be able to do the “fun stuff.” Learning a new piano song can be torturous until you have mastered it and then you want to play it all the time, for fun.  As parents, we can encourage our children to persevere through the hard beginning stages of acquiring a new ability rather than let them drop it at the first sign of disinterest or difficulty.  I think this is especially true for kids with perfectionist tendencies, who want to be able to sit down and do something easily on their first attempt and quickly give up when they find they can’t.

I am not extreme enough to cut all movies, video games, and other entertainment our of our lives.  But I do believe in limiting these things and that activities that are educational or otherwise beneficial (including physical activity, music, reading, family time, etc.) should be first priority and that purely-entertainment activities come afterward.  I also believe that, as parents, we need to be modeling this for our kids.  They need to see us working, reading, creating, learning, and otherwise being productive instead of plopped on the couch watching TV or playing farmville for hours on end.  They also need to see that we are interested in their development and their schoolwork, and that we are willing to put in the effort with them if they are having difficulty mastering a subject.  We are their encouragers, their mentors, their tutors, their life coaches.  If their academic performance and work ethic doesn’t seem to matter much to us, how can we expect it to matter to them?  I’m working on trying to be this kind of parent and it’s not easy, to put things mildly.

In other countries, students are piling up accomplishments while (as a group) our high schoolers are busy attending football games, staying current with their friends on facebook, and keeping up with ten of their favorite TV shows.  This year, China will file more patent applications than the U.S. for the first time in history.  We are losing our status as the most innovative and hardest-working country in the world.  How do you feel about this? Read the two articles I linked above and let me know your thoughts.  Are you a Tiger Mom/Dad?  Are you an All-American Parent?  Or a balance of the two?

5 CommentsLeave a comment »
  • February 8, 2011 Reply
    Christy said:

    Rush Limbaugh discussed this on his radio show a couple of weeks back and it was very interesting. I think that most American parents are too concerned with their child’s psyche and are afraid to be honest with themselves and their children. They lower their expectations and standards because they don’t want their children to feel bad about themselves or to feel that they have somehow failed as parents. A good example is youth soccer. They no longer keep score! I remember being shocked when I was told at a parent meeting that they do not keep score because they want all the kids to have fun and feel like winners. Well that sounds fine, in theory, but in real life, we can’t all be winners. People learn by failing. Is it really harmful to tell a child, I’m sorry your team lost but what do you think you and the team can work on to improve your game? Are we supposed to tell our children, oh well, it doesn’t matter because no one is keeping score? What is that teaching them? I believe we have to set goals and a level of expectation for our children and ourselves. I don’t expect my children to be perfect, nobody is perfect. I do expect them to try their hardest to achieve their goals even if it is difficult and painful. I think it is good for children to go through the process of working really hard to achieve something. I have not read the two articles you have listed but I will and I will let you know what I decide 🙂

    • February 9, 2011 Reply
      Virtual Pilgrim said:

      I’m interested to hear your thoughts! Your kids work harder than anyone. 🙂

  • February 11, 2011 Reply
    Lisa said:

    I just think her perspective is so interesting because I feel like American patents and kids, rather than being coddled, are constantly trying to do too much and constantly trying to keep up. Even when I was in school I felt like there was a lot of pressure to keep up with my peers in academics and other activities. I dropped band in high school because by the high school level if you were not getting private lessons or just a prodigy, you were going to be last chair or maybe not even make it. With four kids there was really no way my parents could afford private lessons on my dad’s tire salesman salary. My sister struggled in soccer and swimming becausemost if the other kids on those teams for the school also were involved in year round clubs giving them a huge competitive edge that again was not something my parents could afford. Ballet was dropped for the same reason even thoughI loved it. My only real choice in keeping up was academics and academic activities like debate team where it was pretty much all on me to do the work and reading and mastering of information, no real money required. Even now, I look at pretty much everyone we know with kids al little older or our kids age and the amount of activities, learning groups, classes, etc they are all involved in. I feel this huge pressure to keep up with everyone and hone my kids skills so they don’t get to high school like me and only have debate team as their option. But then I look at how much some of these activities and groups cost and I am like, ack! Now I know how my parents must have felt. I don’t know, maybe I am just surrounded by a group of exceptional people though and this isn’t the norm for most of America.

  • February 11, 2011 Reply
    Virtual Pilgrim said:

    I think that the emphasis is on academics rather than having their kids busy with “stuff” – school clubs, team sports, youth group, etc. She would say that these sorts of activities are a waste of time and the student should be focusing on things that are increasing skills and knowledge. I think that American parents spend more time and money on these types of activities and let their kids skate by with lower grades while they participate in them as compared to Asian parents (in general).

  • February 16, 2011 Reply
    Christy said:

    I read the article and it is very funny and shocking. There is so much I agree with but her method is over the top. I think where we differ is, she chooses her child’s path and they have no choice in the matter. My daughter did play violin for 2 1/2-3 years and she never really loved it. When it started to get hard, the second year or so, she would put up a fight every time I mentioned practicing. She would get so upset and I found myself getting upset and we would both end up in tears. She didn’t want to go to her lessons and it was miserable until we said, no more. Since then, she has been taking dance lessons – ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop. She loves it! She never complains, in fact her day revolves around her dance lessons. She has lessons 5 days a week and it is not enough for her. She is motivated to get better and she works hard at it and that is without any input from me. So, where would I rather be, back in the dark, upsetting, tearful violin era or driving her to dance lessons everyday? I much prefer the present situation. Academically, my children have no choice. They are expected to be at the top of our homeschool classroom 🙂 They have to try hard, not complain, do their best, focus but I won’t call them garbage if they are having a bad day.

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