Had enough of tiger mothers yet? Yale professor Amy Chua’s new book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which unapologetically promotes an aggressive and restrictive, putatively Asian style of child-rearing, has struck a nerve and prompted an electric response–from praise to condemnation. One blogger insists “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian-Americans like me are in therapy.” Chua’s daughter says her mom’s not really so bad. The Times’ David Brooks says Chua’s not bad enough.
Fine, but what does the evidence say? Would our children be better off with nation of tiger moms? Laurence Steinberg says there is scientific evidence to back up some of what Chua’s promoting as good parenting. “Kids need limits and structure, and it’s good for parents to have high expectations for them,” says the noted Temple University developmental psychologist. “If you want your kids to do well in school, you want to do things like getting involved in their schooling, having expectations of success and praising them when they do well, he says in an interview with Scientific American.
“On the other hand, the downside to what she is advocating, if I understand her correctly, is that if parenting becomes too authoritarian—and by that I mean overly restrictive, overly punitive, squelching any attempt by the child at independence or autonomy—those parenting practices have been shown to be related to elevated anxiety, depression and psychosomatic problems. Kids raised in those circumstances are less self-assured and socially poised, and more compliant.”
Brooks, however, suggests Chua coddled her kids.
“Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.”
He’s kidding. At least I think he’s kidding.
Chua says her Tiger mom parenting style was a key to her daughter’s academic success. Steinberg is skeptical. “It seems hardly a surprise to me that the children of two Yale law professors did well in school, and one might ask if that would have happened however they were raised,” he notes. “For her to claim that her children turned out the way they did because of the way they were raised seemed like a stretch.”
Some of Chua’s extreme parenting tales have prompted revulsion from non-Tiger moms: she once called her daughter “garbage” for being disrespectful; she threatened to burn her stuffed animals if she failed to perform a piano piece perfectly; she rejected a birthday card because it wasn’t good enough. “There’s no evidence that belittling or demeaning children in an insulting way is good for them,” Steinberg says. “There are certainly ways to criticize and shape children’s behavior that is not that harsh or punitive.”
Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, Chua’s daughter, says she wasn’t scarred for life. “Maybe if I had poured my heart into it, I would have been upset. But let’s face it: The card was feeble, and I was busted,” she writes in the New York Post. “It took me 30 seconds; I didn’t even sharpen the pencil. That’s why, when you rejected it, I didn’t feel you were rejecting me. If I actually tried my best at something, you’d never throw it back in my face.
On the other hand, Steinberg shares Chua’s disdain for not cultivating a false sense of self-esteem. “I’m not aligned with parents who think that no matter what children do, it’s wonderful. I think kids should be praised for genuine accomplishment,” he notes. Is tiger mothering here to stay?
“Parenting fads and fashions wax and wane in their popularity. There was a time when this kind of advice would have been very popular and not seen as controversial at all. Before World War II you had strict, regimented parenting recommended, and then there was a movement toward more indulgent parenting in the 1950s and ’60s. The pendulum swings back and forth.”
Meanwhile “tiger mom” seems destined to become a synonym for authoritarian, no-nonsense parenting. Look for it to join “app,” “friending,” “shovel-ready” and “staycation” as permanent features of the language.