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Are Tiger Mothers UN-American?
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In her syndicated column, Betsy Hart recently expressed something less than pleasure with a recently published book by Chinese-American author Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua discusses a plan for rearing children that she applied to her daughters, who, according to Hart and Chua, are now highly accomplished young women. This method of child-rearing is based on traditional Chinese practices, and Chua prefers this form of child-rearing to the one that is now common in the United States.

Her Chinese method seems quite sensible. She assigns domestic responsibilities to her children, makes sure they do their school work, and finally, imposes compulsory practice time for learning to play a musical instrument. Chua is outspokenly contemptuous of how the young are being pampered in our society. Working parents, including mothers, who are trying to increase the family’s disposable income, throw goodies at Heather, Whitney, or Ashley. Material benefits and other indulgences have taken the place of molding offspring. Educating children means increasingly for American parents providing video games, sleepover parties for girls, and conversations that raise the esteem of those who are not really entitled to feel good about their scant accomplishments.

Apparently Betsy Hart has no trouble with furnishing such indulgences, or so I would guess from her earlier columns about her efforts as a single mother to deal with her children. Although she shrinks from the more excessive forms of coddling, she is certainly not opposed to it in principle. She even raises questions as an authorized “conservative” about Professor Chua’s suitability for our American way of life. Chua rejects “individualism, the unique American belief that we can grow up to change the world, to be anything, and not just what our parents are.” Although this belief can lead to “excesses and faults,” it has “allowed us to tame the West, to win two world wars, and invent just about everything the world uses today.” Indeed Chua is being inconsistent in how she lives her life, according to Hart. Despite her apparent anti-Americanness, “she teaches at a U.S. university and brought her daughters up in the United States, not in China.”

Allow me to observe the obvious here. American generals in the Second World War and our most renowned inventors were not like the students in my freshman classes, who can barely read and write. It is foolish to ascribe the achievements of past great Americans to parents who ran to oblige their kids. Did General Patton spend his youth watching “Sex and the City” or did Edison develop his inventive genius by twittering in class? Perhaps those who “tamed the West” were actually making arrangements for their daughters’ slumber parties.


This of course is not the case. Resourcefulness and courage do not come from being pampered by parents who feel guilt that they’re too busy making money to attend to their children’s development. Although not true of all American parents everywhere, the shoe may fit more parents than those who are the exceptions. Chua outlines an urgent social problem; and it is impossible for me to fault her for throwing away current American models for better Asian ones.

Hart’s snide conclusion that Chua is being un-American in her child-rearing methods is staggeringly dumb. American parents of my parents’ generation behaved like Chua’s parents, not like their present American counterparts. Earlier Americans would have been astounded to learn that disciplining children and imposing high intellectual expectations was un-American. “Conservatives” of the Hart generation are carrying their misguided patriotism into a glorification of what is not even traditionally American.

Contrary to Hart’s charge, Chua’s decision to live in a country whose language she speaks better than Chinese is not hypocritical. She is staying in the country in which she’s used to living. She may also enjoy the greater economic opportunity relative to China that our country affords and (despite its diminished liberty) the greater freedom to publicize her views. But this does not require a Chinese-American to disguise our problems or to celebrate our mistakes as gloriously American.

And Chua is perfectly justified in pointing to a better model of child-rearing than the one I see in practice. Having taught in college for many decades let me assure Betsey Hart that Chua is not exaggerating what she criticizes. Has Hart tried to teach a class in which no one has read any book, except for the instructor? Has she found students showing wonder when asked to identify Jesus or Napoleon? Has she encountered college students chatting on cell phones during a lecture and then being offended when asked to stop?

This is how our “kids” behave at home, and so why should they alter their behavior once in college? It may be also what they can get away with in high school. Surely there must be better ways to raise the young.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Amy Chua 
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  1. It is in fact what American kids get away with in high school. I briefly made the mistake of trying to teach high school in Clark County, Nevada, and was forbidden by the school administration to require a student to bring a pencil to class every day. And of course, all the parents were fine with that. American public schools are a bad joke; the first thing a “tiger mom” would do would be to yank their kids out and either send them to private school or home school them.

  2. gcochran says:

    Educational achievement has not decreased over the last few decades. The average citizen doesn’t know much about history – or biology – but their grandparents didn’t either. This is a persistent idea, presumably because it feels good, but it is easily shown to be false.

    In fact, most 25 year-olds today know somewhat more than their parents or grandparents at the same age – not that they know much – and the only negative trends stem from the fact that an increasing fraction of the population is made up of traditionally low-scoring ethnic groups, due to immigration and differential fertility.

    High-pressure parenting has limited effect. It definitely doesn’t make a kid smarter, and I doubt if it has much effect on retained knowledge or long-term economic success.

  3. For what it’s worth, since it seems (forgive me if I am mistaken) that Dr. Gottfried only knows Chua’s article through Hart’s description, here a link to the original article. The methods described involve a bit more (e.g., threatened destruction of toys for poor musical performance) than merely “disciplining children and imposing high intellectual standards.” Apparently (not described in the original article) Ms. Chua herself modified some of her methods after a public screaming fit by one of the daughters.

  4. TomB says:

    In the first place, probably due to my libertarian instinct, I gotta wonder … need *everything* be fodder for attempting to impose some political “right/wrong” judgments upon? What about just … letting different parents do what they think best and then letting the results just flow?

    After all, one phenomenon we’ve all seen is parents trying to either re-live their lives through their kids, or trying to burnish their own feelings of worth via their kids’ achievements. What about … just striving to raise one’s kids to end up being happy, without doing so by hurting others or being irresponsible? Regardless of their social status? If that’s parental failure, strikes me that something’s wrong with the metric. Raising kids to be eternally socially anxious … geez, I dunno that that’s much of a parental virtue.

    Secondly though, it seems to me that Chua’s prescriptions kinda miss the boat beyond just obviously teaching her kids that their social accomplishments are the ultimate coordinates in life: What about their values *beyond* that? Why, after all, should Chua’s kids care if society around them is crumbling and everyone else is failing? After all, the more others fail the easier and greater *their* (alleged) accomplishments even, so….

    I don’t know, for instance, that all or even many of the great and good men who invented this country were prodigies, or had any great facility at anything, or were even particularly scholarly or learned. What made them great and good it seems to me was instead a sense of … responsibility. They took their job of … coming up with the Constitution seriously. And that seems to me to be an awful lot of what’s missing today. Certainly Chua’s kids take themselves and their own fortunes seriously. (If not indeed mammothly, obsessively.) What about the effects of what they do on others though?

    In a sense the way that Chua is raising her kids might be seen as … of *course* “Chinese.” Living in a society which screws you every which way you turn, well, it’s only logical to exclusively worry about you and yours and screw everyone else since everyone else is always just screwing you.

    One has to laugh a bit then at Chua’s talk about how communitarian or wonderfully social Chinese values are or etc. While one certainly sees some hopeful changes in China, and no doubt battling against it otherwise has been an uphill battle that many have tried and been killed at, nevertheless overall what’s the evidence that the Chinese people ever took the responsibility of … governing themselves? Of demanding that their government was anything but either an imperial claque or a communist one? Hell, there seemed to be lots of happiness with Mao even, right? Even when he was starving whole swaths of his country to death. Indeed one might even argue … no, the Chinese have been perfectly happy to let their society and even ancient culture get screwed by whatever claque there was because they think that by pursuing their own narrow self-interests ferociously enough—like Chua seems to be raising her kids—even if all their fellow citizens get screwed they will still be able to come out ahead and that’s all that’s important.

    Yeah, right, how … communitarian.

  5. Richard says:

    TomB wrote: In the first place, probably due to my libertarian instinct, I gotta wonder … need *everything* be fodder for attempting to impose some political “right/wrong” judgments upon? What about just … letting different parents do what they think best and then letting the results just flow?

    I’m with Tom. As is so often the case these days, Amy Chua’s book soared to itd 15 minutes of fame and has become one of those momentary cultural phenomena About Which Everyone Must Have an Opinion.

    The problem many of us have with what we have read ABOUT Ms. Chua’s book (I’ve not read the book) lies in the descriptions of what seem to be excessively punitive and gratuitous approaches to discipline. That may have everything to do with not seeing the context of the actions that Ms. Chua describes, not only the facts and circumstances of the disciplinary action, but the web of communication and (I presume) expressions of affection that presumably have existed between Ms. Chua and her daughters since their birth. And that would differ uniquely from those of every other parent-child relationship.

    Having high expectations for one’s children is – I trust I can say this on the TAC site – natural and desirable. Calibrating those to allign with the skills and interests of the child (while, no doubt, occasionally challenging them) is also necessary. As any parent knows, this is more art than method, and the experience of parenting most often brings to light the imperfections of the parent rather than those of the child.

    The struggle some of us have with the chorus of “Amens” that arise from some corners for Ms. Chua is the sense that this portion of the applause for her book comes from those who see parenting as fundamentally and principally the exercise of of power. It is of a piece with a segment of conservative belief that views the world as fundamentally a playing field for the exercise of power – power to dictate the course of other nations; power to restore a perceived ‘lost’ culture through the actions of government (if only the ‘right’ people were in charge; power to demand the assent and compliance of those with whom we disagree in a cacophonous society.

    We all know people like that and, sadly, we have seen some of them apply that model to the difficult and nuanced task of bringing up children. I am not arguing that Ms. Chua is one of these. I not only do not know her or her daughters, I have not even read her book.

    But I’m with TomB. A fetishization of expressions of power is what leads to applause for actions by government that compel law abiding persons to take off their shoes before they board an airplane.

  6. With due respect to those who insist that the educational levels of Euro-Americans have never been any higher than they are at this moment, I can attest from forty years of college teaching that my white students, who come from families with disposable income, are almost without exception cultural illiterates. Even the underclass black students who somehow got into Michigan State when I began my teaching career there could have answered the historical questions that stump but also bore my current students. The girls in the secretarial courses in my high school classes in the late 1950s were geniuses in comparison to the illiterates I’m now encountering in college. Although I’ll concede that the cognitive elite that gets into the best universities is as bright as it was fifty years ago, once you move below that level, you enter a world of almost total educational darkness. WhateverChua’s nutty fixations, she’s at least aware of this problem. Unlike Hart, John Podhoretz and other minicon happy talkers, this highly gifted Asian does not celebrate smug illiterates as proud examples of American exceptionalism.

  7. TomB says:

    Richard wrote:

    “A fetishization of expressions of power….”

    Lapidary. As perfect a description of some of what we see today as possible.

  8. gcochran says:

    Paul: you’re wrong. First, you have to be careful to compare apples and apples: you want to compare the top 10% of 20-year-olds now with the top 10% of 20-year-olds then. Note that the fraction going to college today is way higher than it was in the late 50s. Look, if we added a third major league, the average quality of baseball would decline, since the talent would be diluted, but nobody would be playing any worse than they did the year before.

    Second, there is a fair amount of hard evidence on general knowledge, going back to the 40s, and it’s clear that virtually everyone has always been a cultural illiterate. And a political illiterate, scientific idiot, numerical idiot, etc.

    I’d be happy to say more if you’re interested. I’m quite serious, and I’ve looked at this at some length.

    related quote, from Norman Podhoretz in the year 2002 -“What’s a Kurd? ”

  9. I remain entirely unconvinced that the level of cultural illiteracy was the same fifty years ago as it is today. Having taught at comparable learning institutions most of my career, I’ve seen the knowledge that students bring with them from high schools, except in certain technical fields, dramatically decline, particularly in the last twenty years. These students are not even exposed to such texts as the Bible and they know nothing of Shakespeare, whose tragedies we had to read in high school. Even the non-college bound students were exposed to the same literature and took the same history courses, with lots of facts. I also seriously doubt that anyone has much data on the cultural knowledge of Americans in the 1940s. What is the fair amount of evidence suggesting that they were even dumber than what I’m seeing right now.But even Mr. Cochran would have to concede that the types of people we’re discussing would not have been around a college in the 1940s, except to do the cleaning and yard work.

  10. I’m sure Betsy Hart and her ilk have no problem whatsover with those who say that “America needs to adopt the Israeli model of homeland security.” It is she, not Professor Chua, who is being a hypocrite.

  11. David says:

    Twenty years ago parents would ask their children “What did you learn at school today?”; now the question is “What did you get on the ________test?” The obsession with “results” is only over-shadowed by “results gained with as little effort as possible”.
    Effort expended on something that doesn’t interest you simply doesn’t fly in today’s classrooms. Students’ interests must be appeased every step of the way.
    I have taught for twenty years as a high school English teacher in both private and public schools. The career I had chosen really no longer exists. Books are regarded as vile and archaic. Blogs, Web-inars, and interest-inventories dominate the academic landscape.

  12. Claiming that our young are brighter today than 30 years, or even 60 years, ago is, ironically, patent evidence of how truly dumbed down we presently are. Indeed, a generation and two ago, we could excel with any society in the arts and sciences — while spending less, even after adjusting for inflation. Our young were incarcerated at half the rate as are today — with 82% of prison inmates being high school dropouts . Even those in school, a recent report documented how 26% of our society are mentally maladjusted; today, a new report shows how a majority of college kids have mental & social illnesses . So much for the feel-good academic curricula that has replaced real learning. Or, more critically, real teaching.

    That a plethora of studies are so easily accessible in this age of Google, and is yet ignored by critics above, bespeaks volumes of the slothful intellect, of the ostensible intelligent who subscribe to this periodical. Ugh! Where’s that paddle, Chua?

  13. Carter says: • Website

    “Did General Patton spend his youth watching “Sex and the City”

    No, Patton spent his childhood playing with swords, shooting guns, and riding horses on his family’s 1800 acre estate. He had no formal schooling, and could not read, prior to the age of eleven.

  14. Anonymous • Disclaimer says: • Website

    Regardless of whether her methods are American or not I think parents shouldn’t use them when bringing up their children. There definitely needs to be some kind of balance between the parent’s aspirations and the child’s actual capacity to do well and Amy’s approach somehow ignores that balance.

  15. Re. Some kind of “balance”: Considering Amy’s child, by any measure of American “aspirations” has done better than “well,” why shouldn’t we replicate this model???

    Further proof how “unbalanced” we bufoons are…

  16. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Chua and her family are from the intellectual upper crust, the top 1% of Chinese, and Chinese-American societies. The sheer fanatacism she describes probably makes good sense in her case. For most of the rest of us, the 90%, it would be pretty dang foolish to be that demanding.

    From my experience, Asians, and especially Asian women, routinely abuse each other, calling each other apes and pigs and such. A fat child, will be called pig, little sow, pig nose, and so on. It’s hilarious, and that’s life. A fat child is ugly; they don’t pretend otherwise. Why should they? Why should we?

    We don’t want the Oriental approach to education, of course, which is just rote, rote, rote. We are creators, they are not. Still, it’s a great book, very refreshing, and much to emulate. What bothers liberal/conservatives is the honesty. Liberal/conservatives think it’s wrong to be honest with your kids, and with each other.

    But remember, she comes from the elite of the elite. There’s just so much that cannot apply to the rest of us. It won’t work, hectoring a kid with an IQ of 101 for 12 hours a day, so he can get into Harvard in 10 years. He won’t.

  17. A Page of fallacies:
    Re.:Chua’s performance is from the top 1% of Chinese society
    Fact: China’s #1 ranking on the international tests measures ALL of its school population.

    Re. the rote, rote, rote of Chinese education v our being the “creators:
    Fact: over the last twelve years, Chinese have registered more Patents than we have; have sent our corporations’ satellites aboard their space successful rockets (versus NASA’s giving up on the space race) are years ahead in Solar-energy development, etc. etc.

    Even our Park Avenue and Beverly Hills super moms, dropping $30k annually in exquisite private-ed and college-prep trainers, (after all the Baby-Einstein video experiments) still fail to achieve Harvard, Yale & Berkeley admission rates anywhere near the Asian numbers.

    Granted, the Asian fervor to produce Mozarts & Beethovens (with 10-12 hours grueling practice) is questionable. But to claim their education system is inferior to us Yanks, is to engage in mega hallucinations. And I thought LSD was a thing of the past. But then again, we do drugs like no other culture; hence comments as psychedelically seducing as the above.

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