Tiger Mothering

A shocking number of people forwarded me the now famous Tiger Mother article. My mother-in-law even brought over the hard copy of the Wall Street Journal when the first excerpt appeared. Surely Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother must be the most well-marketed book of all time. For weeks now excerpts and interviews and rebuttals and horrified counterpoints have appeared in every form of media I regularly read. Clearly, I am the target demographic: overachieving Type A perfectionist mama?  Check.

Hysterical online responses to the Tiger Mother excerpts abound, so as someone who has actually read the book in its entirety, allow me to set your mind at rest on a few points:

  • This is not a manual for how to get your kids to be straight A musical prodigies.
  • This is not a book about how China is better than America.
  • This is not a book about child abuse or how to steal all the joy out of your kids’ lives (Well, OK, there is some joy-robbing, but the author thinks it’s for a good cause).

What Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother actually does is chronicle one mother’s quest to give her children the best start she can within her framework of life as the first born daughter of Chinese immigrants.  We all have a framework, we all have an idea of proper parenting based on or in rebellion against the way we were raised.  Many liberal Western parents responded to Chua’s articles with vitriol – such harsh methods must be child abuse!  Chua would probably argue that permissive Western parenting and junk food (physical and intellectual) consumption are more abusive.

While I disagreed with many of Chua’s methods and goals, I found her writing funny and refreshingly honest.  She admits where she overstepped and where she pushed too hard.  She writes frankly about how she nearly lost her younger daughter’s heart and had to radically re-examine her parenting methods in order to save that relationship.  By the end of the book the reader is left with an understanding of how the author thinks and how she has changed, as well as some cultural points to consider.

Like Ms. Chua, I also think Western parents tend to expect too little of their children.  A cursory investigation into what was expected of children academically and socially in the past shows how much standards have relaxed.  In some ways this is good: I am not an advocate of overloading children with activities or crowding out childhood.  However, I think in many ways our culture robs children of the joy of unstructured play and the freedom of being a child by pushing kids into too much busy-ness and giving them too many tools to grow up too fast.  At the same time, relaxation of standards means that kids don’t learn as much as they could as well as they could or as early as they could: they aren’t always taught to think or given tools to excel.

However, and I think this is key, I also think that parents have to make sure that their efforts to see their children meet their best potential are seasoned with grace.  Yes, as Ms. Chua points out, no child will voluntarily choose to practice an instrument until they are good at it, and yes, you can only really enjoy something when you’ve achieved a certain level of mastery.  But no, I don’t think you need to get your kid to practice by screaming at him or threatening to burn her toys.  According to the stories in this book, Ms. Chua is given to extremes.

You know what, though?  I am too.  Like most parents, I care deeply how my children grow up and turn out.  I care what their attitudes are, that they have good hearts, that they don’t get lazy.  Sometimes my zeal for making them better makes me worse.  It makes me get frustrated and impatient and I begin to take things too personally.  Ms. Chua’s account, while hyperbolic, showed me how my own heart toward my children is also often clouded by an ends-justify-the-means orientation.

What is the antidote?  How can we walk the fine line between wanting what is best for our children and going “all Tiger Mother” on them?  I think the answer is grace.  Grace helps me sympathize with my child’s weakness, grace gives me patience to think through what is the best way to motivate each individual child, grace reminds me that I have a long way to go myself so it’s ridiculous to expect perfection from my kids.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is not a how-to parenting manual.  It is not a proud defense of crazy intense ways to pound your kids into perfection.  Whether or not the author intended it, I think the book serves well as an illumination of our hearts towards our children and an invitation to consider what our goals in parenting really are and to evaluate the methods we use to reach them. As a well-written, thought-provoking memoir of one style of parenting, I would recommend it.

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