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The Taunting Tiger Mom and Her Lessons

Yes, the Mother is a Tiger--Why Does that Upset You?

This post is in response to
Flinching from the Tiger Mom

Amy Chua’s book—Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother—might be more accurately described as a cultural phenomenon, what with all the attention, commentary, contempt and handwringing its roll out has occasioned.

I can’t be the only writer who hopes all the current screaming over Chua’s book might be some sort of distorted historical echo of what books used to be (Louis Menad refers to the days of “books as bombs”); Chua’s book suggests that perhaps once again, books can have the incendiary power and importance they once did and lately seem to have been lacking. Think of Steal This Book or The Feminine Mystique or The Autobiography of Malcolm X—books that jolted our collective consciousness and changed our world. Then think of Eat, Pray, Love. Please dear Lord, writers are asking right now, let this Chua thing snowball. Let books not only sell but matter again, since writing them is the only thing we know how to do.

As a parenting journalist and a parent, I think a lot of people are missing a very obvious and important point as they lament Chua’s awfulness, lambast her “strictness,” name call (David Brooks, in an attention-grabbing move, referred to her as "a wimp" while other called her a harpy), interpret our fixation with her book and her parenting style as a symptom of our anxiety that China is kicking our a*s globally, and just kind of pile on for fun (for example, trotting out the fact that Chua had a nanny as if it somehow makes her less of a mother or more of a hypocrite. Oh please, how else are you going to get tenure at Yale? You need a nanny—or a wife). In large part, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has held up a mirror to our very own version of trampling each other to death at soccer games—we are a country that goes berserk when it comes to our national blood sport, judging mothers. Take your own child or someone else’s out without mittens on a cold day if you don’t already know what I’m talking about.

Lost in all the noise, much of it insipid and reductive—Time asks, “Is tough parenting the answer?”—is a fundamental truth. Which is that there is, and isn’t, an “answer” to the question Chua seems to be posing, a simple “right way” to parent. Ask the sociologists and social and clinical psychologists who have been studying parenting styles for years—and broken them down into authoritarian (high levels of control and low levels of warmth), authoritative (high levels of control, high levels of warmth) and permissive (low levels of control and high levels of warmth) styles. What they discovered is that permissive parenting serves no one. Not the kids. Not the parents. And not the marriages either—guess who has the power in a household where permissive parenting “rules”? Hint: It’s not the parents. And when marriages revolve around the children rather than children revolving around marriages, couples report higher levels of dissatisfaction—and divorce more frequently.

Authoritative parenting, this body of research tells us, is what works best for most kids. In the words of one study:

Research has generally linked authoritative parenting, where parents balance demandingness and responsiveness, with higher social competencies in children. Thus, children of authoritative parents possess greater competence in early peer relationships, engage in low levels of drug use as adolescents, and have more emotional well-being as young adults. Although authoritarian and permissive parenting styles appear to represent opposite ends of the parenting spectrum, neither style has been linked to positive outcomes, presumably because both minimize opportunities for children to learn to cope with stress. Too much control and demandingness may limit children’s opportunities to make decisions for themselves or to make their needs known to their parents, while children in permissive/indulgent households may lack the direction and guidance necessary to develop appropriate morals and goals.

So there’s a ringing endorsement, it seems, for authoritative (versus authoritarian or permissive) parenting. In other words, don’t throw the birthday card your six-year-old made you back at her with the directive, “You didn’t put enough effort into this. So I reject this gift”; but neither should you praise her every squiggle, thought and poop as a wonderful achievement (child psychologist and parenting author Ron Taffel writes with amazement of his experience observing Manhattan parents praising their kids for going down the slide. “These children were being praised,” he observed, “for being subject to the laws of gravity.”)

You’re thinking, “Well, duh, I should walk the middle road as a parent. And so, presumably, should everybody else.” But it’s not so simple. Because research and common sense also suggest that different children do better with different styles. Authoritarian parenting styles tend to be more common among African-American families and among ethnic minorities, and may insulate children in high-risk, low income neighborhoods from environmental threats like drug prevalence. And in Asian American families in particular, authoritarian, Tiger Mother-ish parenting is linked to social success, self-confidence and academic achievement.

Yes, Amy Chua was courting a backlash and being provocative and taunting you (if you’re a permissive parent) when she said that permissive parents are bad parents and when she (or her agent or her publisher) decided to call her article in the WSJ “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” But she is also right. Don’t let the fact that she’s an authoritarian parent—wrong for many families—dissuade you from the fact that she’s right for some, and particularly her own.

Sources/further reading:

Bornstein L, Bornstein MH. Parenting styles and child social development. In: Tremblay RE, Barr RG, Peters RDeV, eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development; 2007:1-4. Available at: http://www.child- Accessed 1/25/11.

Bornstein MH. Handbook of Parenting. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum; 2002. Darling N, Steinberg L. Parenting style as context: An integrative model. Psychological Bulletin 1993;113(3):487-496. Grusec JE, Hastings PD. Handbook of socialization: Theory and research. New York,NY: Guilford Press; 2006.

Maccoby EE, Martin JA. Socialization in the context of the family: Parent-child interaction. In: Hetherington EM, ed. Socialization, personality, and social development. New York, NY: Wiley; 1983:1-101. Mussen PH, ed. Handbook of child psychology. 4th ed; vol 4.