Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Amy Chua Is a Circus Trainer, Not a Tiger Mother

Real tiger mothers let their cubs learn through play.

Everyone's been asking me for my thoughts on Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, so I finally broke down, bought the book, and read it.

I'm embarrassed that my purchase has contributed even a smidgeon to the best-selling ranking of this book or to Chua's royalties.

I'd like to think that Chua wrote this book as satire, but she says it's an honest account and I take her at her word. That's why I can't enjoy the "humor" that others have claimed to find in Chua's extreme descriptions of her training methods.

"Training" is the correct word for Chua's approach to bringing up her daughters. Her methods involve as complete a subjugation of her daughters' wills as she, the ferocious "tiger mother," can muster. Chua decides which instruments they will play (piano for Sophia, violin for Lulu) and uses every means possible, short (apparently) of physical violence, to make them practice for hours per day. Her methods include fits of screaming, threats, bribes, insults, shaming, and lies (as when she promises a future respite from practice and then reneges). Her favorite method is to tell them over and over again that they will disgrace the entire family--especially their mother--if they come out any less than number one in an upcoming competition. She speaks proudly of all of this. At no point in the book, not even at the end when she claims in some respects to soften, does she express regret. To Amy Chua life is all about competition, and anyone who doesn't come out first is a failure. Chua calls this the "Chinese" way of parenting, but I'll avoid joining the controversy currently raging on the Internet as to whether or not she is thereby insulting an entire race or culture of people.

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Chua makes sure that every minute of her daughters' time is occupied with activities of her (Chua's) choosing. Mostly, the daughters go to school, do homework, take music lessons, practice their instruments (usually with Chua standing over them criticizing), and travel to give recitals in prestigious settings. They are not allowed play dates, or pajama parties, or (apparently) any free time to play on their own or to hang out with other kids. They go on countless overseas trips with their well-heeled parents, but must spend much of the time on those trips practicing their instruments. Chua spares no expense in hiring the best, world famous instructors for her daughters and making sure that they perform before the most illustrious audiences.

For someone who occupies a prestigious position as a Yale law professor, Chua comes across as incredibly immature and ignorant in this book. Her outbursts of screaming anger are the tantrums of a two-year-old. Many of her claims, which are supposed to form the philosophical backbone of the book, are simply foolish and seem to represent her ignorance of real human life.

On page 29, Chua presents what seems to be the central tenet of her educational philosophy: "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences."

How sad and impossible life would be if this absurd statement were true! How does Chua account for every normal child's learning to talk or walk and enjoying it from the beginning; or my son's early enjoyment of reading and writing, which he learned entirely on his own through play; or Einstein's early love of mathematics; or my own childhood thrill in learning and becoming good at baseball with no formal instruction at all; or the enjoyment that all normal children (the ones not raised by "tiger mothers") everywhere and throughout history have gained from play of all sorts, at all stages of skill from novice to expert. Chua would have no way at all of understanding the success of students at the Sudbury Valley School, where all students take charge of their own education, pursue their own interests, and enjoy themselves every step of the way.

Chua herself comes across in this book as a cartoonish caricature that could be used to illustrate, by negative example, many of the ideas that I have presented in previous essays in this blog. I have argued that free play teaches children how to have fun in life, how to enjoy learning rather than see it as work, how to get along with others as equals, how to overcome narcissism, and how to control their impulses and regulate their emotions. Chua herself was raised under the thumbs of her own "tiger mother" and "tiger father." She herself had to get straight A's and win all the competitions to please her parents and had no time for play. And what kind of an adult did she become?

On page 97, Chua says, "The truth is, I'm not good at enjoying life. It's not one of my strengths." The purpose of life, if we go by Chua's example, is not enjoyment but winning and showing off. Her children, whom she views as extensions of herself, must present themselves as perfect in every public setting--in school, at musical performances, at fancy dinners for Chua's illustrious acquaintances and colleagues, and even in giving little prepared speeches about their grandmother who has died. Chua's values, throughout this book, are those of a narcissist. There is nothing here about the value of caring for people other than oneself and immediate family (who to Chua are extensions of the self). Her child-raising philosophy would be comically elitist if I could accept the book as fiction rather than autobiography. If everyone raised their children the "tiger mother" way, then everyone would be putting their children constantly into competitions and judging them by where they rank in each. In every competition, every child but one would be a failure--"garbage" to use the term that Chua is proud to say that she called one of her daughters when she failed to live up to Chua's expectations.

Why is this foolish book selling so well and generating serious controversy? I think the primary reason is that Chua's philosophy is not, in truth, as far off from the philosophy of most American and European parents and educators as we might want to believe. Our schools are set up to be one constant competition. We see "Western" parents driving around with bumper stickers bragging, "My child is an honors student." In school, learning is called work and is work, because all children in the class are forced through each lesson in the same way, at the same time, regardless of their preferences and predilections. The enjoyment supposedly comes from winning--getting A's, or high honors, or into Yale--but that comes only after you have become good, and to become good in these play-deprived conditions you must be forced against your will to work.

The philosophy of our school system is, in fact, the "tiger mother" philosophy; but in executing that philosophy many people in the school system are weak-willed and mushy. Grade inflation, trophies for mediocre performance, passing students who haven't learned the lessons--all these undermine the philosophy. So, Chua's book appeals to those who buy into our culture's mainstream philosophy of schooling and believe that a tougher approach would make the system work. Chua's "tiger mother" approach to parenting and education is the logical extension of the same, mainstream mentality that gave us "No Child Left Behind" and all the rest of the current drive to make our schools even more restrictive and confining and to give our children even less opportunity to play than is presently the case.

Perhaps Chua's book has a purpose after all, in the larger scheme of things. She didn't write it as satire, but nevertheless it is satire. It shows the absurdity of our culture's current beliefs about education, and it does so by carrying those beliefs out to their full, logical conclusion.

If we want a system of education that is consistent with our beliefs about freedom, self-determination, and the democratic ethos that many of us still claim to hold dear, then we need to found it on the philosophy of the real tiger mother, not that of the tiger trainer in the circus. Real tiger mothers let their cubs play, because they know that cubs are designed, by nature, to play in ways that teach them what they need to learn to grow successfully toward tiger adulthood. Tiger trainers, on the other hand, use the whip to train young tigers to do all sorts of things that tigers don't want to do, just for the purpose of entertaining others and showing off the trainers' skills.

Have you read the book or heard Amy Chua speak about her philosophy? What is your take on all of this? Why do you think people are taking this book seriously? Do we really need more virtuoso pianists and violinists, or do we need more true enjoyment of life and more concern for the public welfare? Let other readers and me know through your comments in the discussion section below.

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Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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