American Education in Cross-Cultural Perspective

A Fresh Look at the Detested “Tiger Mom” of 2011

The book brought a torrent of disagreement…even invective. One reader had the book shredded and sent the slivers to author Amy Chua.

Chua wrote that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was supposed to be about how Chinese parents are better at raising kids, but it turned out to be about a bitter clash of cultures.

What was so upsetting? Chua’s daughters weren’t allowed to attend a sleepover, have a playdate, be in a school play, complain about not being in the school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities – or get any grade less than an “A.” If that didn’t make readers think Shredder!, they probably did after reading that the girls’ regime included “grueling drudge-drilling” of basics for multiple hours every day including every vacation day.

At least Chua got one thing right: a bitter clash of cultures!

American parents intend to raise independent children who self-reliantly explore and discover throughout a wide range of experiences, becoming well-rounded and aware of their unique potentials – while building self-esteem and having fun.

Chua’s daughters were robbed of their childhoods!

Worse, the crushing stress – abuse? – of being raised by a Tiger Mom must have emotionally crippled them. As one critic said, Chua’s daughters will grow up “friendless, robotic, mentally ill, and suicidal.”

Is there any upside? Well, both girls became phenomenal musical performers while simultaneously winning most of their high school’s academic prizes. Both attended Harvard. Lulu is graduating this year; Sophia already graduated and was commissioned an Army second lieutenant. But don’t take my word for it. There’s plenty on the web about Lulu Chua-Rubenfeld and Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld.

An Anecdote versus Respectable Social Science

Someone once wanted to know the singular of “data.” The reply: “anecdote.” We’ve been recalling Amy Chua’s anecdote: one account of Chinese parenting. Respectable social science can’t be based on an anecdote, even a shocking one.

But we needn’t rely on Chua. There are over 500 published findings from researchers who, since 1970, have studied East Asian children, learning, parenting, and schooling. Does their mountain of data enable us to step back and view Chua’s anecdotal account in broader perspective? Yes!

The outrage over “tiger mothering” has subsided. Let’s take a fresh look.

Five Values and Themes of East Asian Parenting

Why are there over 500 studies of East Asian children? Because we’ve known since the 1960s that they learn more effectively in classrooms. Researchers wanted to figure out why. Their research yields this insight:

East Asian children’s academic superiority isn’t only about what happens in schools. It’s also about what happens in homes.

And here’s the thing: If you can forget the details of Chua’s mothering – drudge-drilling, no playdates, etc. – and seek the values and themes that characterized her parenting, you come up with many of the same values and themes that the researchers derived from their painstaking observations and measurements.

Following are five ways in which the Tiger Mom aligns with research findings:

One Top Goal: For their children, East Asians make academic exceptionality their unrivaled top goal. Americans are far more likely to make well-roundedness the overall goal, with good academics as one component.

Family Responsibility: East Asians believe they and their child share responsibility for that top goal’s attainment. American parents feel responsible for their child’s learning during his earliest years, thereafter viewing teachers as responsible.

Coach and Trainer: With regard to academics, East Asians parents relate to children similarly to an athletic coach or trainer. Americans relate to children like a supporter or cheerleader, encouraging but not authoritatively directing them.

Command of Basics: Essential skills – e.g., multiplication tables – are foundational for rapid learning of higher knowledge. East Asians require them to be overlearned via repetitive practice. Americans protect children from drudgery and boredom.

Response to Failure: East Asians respond to poor academic performance as a diagnostician, remedy-seeker, and coach (consistent with family responsibility). Americans try to bolster their child’s damaged self-esteem.

What Does It All Mean for You?

You want your child to learn in classrooms as effectively as East Asian children. Does that mean you must think like an East Asian parent? Yes.

Does that mean you must never allow sleepovers or TV watching, insisting instead on drilling of basics every day? Not necessarily.

It means that your unrivaled top goal for your child must be academic excellence, and that you and they – not their teachers – share full responsibility for attaining it.

What might that look like in your family?

“The Chinese [prepare children] for the future,” wrote Amy Chua, “letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence. Western parents worry about how their children will feel if they fail and constantly try to reassure [them] how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents assume strength, not fragility.”

“Friendless, robotic, mentally ill, and suicidal” is from, where it appeared in quotation marks but was not attributed.

The Amy Chua quote above is excerpted from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011), pp. 51-2 & 63.