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Chill Out, Tiger Mother

Are chinese mother's really superior?

Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Why Chinese Mothers are Superior), puts child rearing back in the forefront of news and opinion. In her book and a subsequent article in the Review section of The Wall Street Journal, "The Tiger Mother Talks Back," Ms. Chua claims that a "tough immigrant" way of child rearing works well. To many readers, however, it dredges up an old-fashioned, unenlightened attitude: Children should be seen and not heard, which flies in the face of a modern, Western culture.

For those readers who aren't familiar with the Tiger Mother philosophy, the child is kept on a tight schedule of study and music lessons, as well as helping around the house or in the family business. Children are not allowed to attend school dances or go on overnight field trips. Parents demand A grades in all core school subjects. If they get anything less, parents hold their children's noses to the grindstone -- until they deliver. They are also expected to take advanced classes. Parents may be stern and critical when talking to their kids about achievement in school.

Let's look at this childrearing philosophy through the prism of two constructs. One is the left-brain, right-brain concept of personality. The left brain is verbal, sequential, logical, detailed and controlling. The right brain is nonverbal, simultaneous, creative, spontaneous and looks at the big picture. Maintaining a balance between these personality types is important for adults and children. The Tiger Mother approach violates this balance by emphasizing a left-brain approach to child-rearing. Even the study of music is regimented and prescribed by parents and isn't necessarily a creative activity.

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The other concept is the Developmental Principle: Children are not midget adults and should not be treated like adults when growing up. Lighten up and let the kids have some fun, already! The very nature of childhood and the development of the young brain are consistent with spontaneous and creative thinking. It may be dangerous to straitjacket curiosity and spontaneity, thus moving the child's brain -- which is vulnerable and plastic -- to an overly adult, left-hemisphere mode.

Iain McGilchrist fears that society is moving in a left-brain direction. He believes the left brain has evolved to help us use the world to achieve our ends; however it is a specialist in denial. After a right-hemisphere stroke, subjects often flatly deny that anything is wrong, even when half their body is useless. "The left brain, ever optimistic, is like a sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as it ambles towards the abyss," writes McGilchrist. 1

The Tiger Mother philosophy is blind to the concept of individual differences. Each child comes to us equipped with his or her own unique intellectual, artistic and athletic aptitudes.

Self-esteem is associated with peer group involvement, and these children must feel out of the mainstream when they're not permitted to engage in social interaction at school. It is interesting to note that reports from China show that teachers in the state school system -- there is no private system -- complain that students are not sufficiently exposed to art, athletics and other creative endeavors. When this writer visited China, our tour guide reported that his mother kept him locked in a room to study, except for bathroom breaks, for over a week to prepare for an important exam.

It seems that Communist China is following the unsuccessful example of the former Soviet Union in downplaying the creative and spontaneous in favor of mechanistic control and order. This is enforced by strict government control from the top down rather than encouraging freedom and innovation from its citizens. Some fear that China will overtake the United States economically, but if the U.S. remains the center of "Yankee ingenuity," it may surpass the Chinese in the long run.

It's interesting that the Chinese government is compelled to copy American technological advances. A good example of this is China's first Stealth Bomber, which was unveiled when our Secretary of Defense visited China a short time ago. Perhaps it is in our own best interest to encourage the Chinese to continue their mechanical teaching methods!

Assuming that Amy Chua's book truly reflects the Tiger Mother parenting style, can anything be said in support of this approach? Children enjoy structure, and in some ways Tiger Mother parenting follows the Developmental Principle. It is the parents who provide the structure and leadership in the household; not their children.

It is important for children to learn to persist and work toward success. This especially is true with the onslaught of technological games, Twitter, and even electronic readers which encourage children to flit from one thing to another without completing tasks. As noted in previous articles, too much exposure to technology in childhood can rewire the brain and reinforce information snacking at the expense of curiosity and creative thinking.

The peer group, which I mentioned earlier, can also be a negative influence and our public schools seem to have little concern about violating the Developmental Principle and overexposing kids socially. Sixth-grade girls wearing heavy makeup and high heels to attend school dances is an example of this.

In The Wall Street Journal review article, "The Tiger Mother Talks Back," Chua seems to backtrack from her book and subsequent interviews. She points out that she did not impose these tough standards on her children as toddlers, but rather read to them and snuggled them and gave them support. In this way, she gives recognition to the Developmental Principle.

She also states that much of her book is tongue-in-cheek, a way of making fun of herself. She implies that the publisher came up with the subtitle, (Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior). Most writers have had this same experience. Publishers need to promote book sales, so catchy and even exaggerated titles are important marketing tools.

Chua explains that A grades are not what Chinese parenting is about; rather, they help children be the best they can be. In her "Review" article, she admits to knowing people who were raised with "tough love" and who were not happy -- and who resented their parents. She admits to mistakes and says at the end of her book she got her "comeuppance" and ultimately decided to retreat (but only partially) from a strict immigrant model.

Do Chinese mothers need to chill out? Their approach is tempting because it is simple and straightforward and reflects a positive contrast to parents who spoil and indulge children. Sometimes these parents don't set high expectations, encourage their children to be successful, or work with them on their studies because they are just too busy doing their own thing. Children sense this lack of commitment and create problems in the hope that their parents will give them more time, attention and love.

If the schedule a parent sets out is a reminder of parental involvement, love and commitment, this can go a long way in developing a secure adult with good self-esteem. When children feel secure, loved and protected, they can survive the Tiger Mother system or any other system for that matter, and do well in society, although one has to wonder about the long-term outcome here, especially as to self-confidence and creativity.

Children with low intellectual potential, a learning disability, or attention deficit disorder -- but who seem perfectly
normal -- are tremendously frustrated by rigid and inflexible parental demands. Chua supports tough immigrant methods of parenting. Perhaps one reason the "Tiger" approach seems successful to Chinese parents is the "us against them" attitude of immigrants who are trying to assimilate into a foreign culture. This may keep the family unified and secure -- regardless of parenting style.


1. Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary (The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World).Yale University Press. 2009.

 

Mack Hicks, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author of The Digital Pandemic: Reestablishing Face-to-Face Contact in the Electronic Age.

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