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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 02/ 1/2011

Story pick: Roaring about the Tiger Mother

By Brigid Schulte

Almost as provocative as reading Amy Chua's widely-circulated, loudly-denounced, intricately-dissected or secretly-praised excerpt from her memoir, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," is reading the flurry of pieces published in reaction to it.

By now, the details of Chua's tale are well-worn - calling her kids "garbage," ripping up the birthday card that she didn't feel her child had done well enough, the hours and hours and hours of instrument practice, math drills with a stopwatch. Reviewers cite the latest neuroscience research to support some of Chua's harsher parenting philosophy, as well as the "adequate parenting" movement and the decline in U.S. math and science scores and economic rise of China. Much handwringing has ensued.

Annie Murphy Paul, in a Time magazine cover story, wrote one of the more interesting pieces. Readers of the book "Nurture Shock" will recognize this cautionary study:

Another parenting practice with which Chua takes issue is Americans' habit, as she puts it, of "slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks — drawing a squiggle or waving a stick." Westerners often laud their children as "talented" or "gifted," she says, while Asian parents highlight the importance of hard work. And in fact, research performed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has found that the way parents offer approval affects the way children perform, even the way they feel about themselves.

Dweck has conducted studies with hundreds of students, mostly early adolescents, in which experimenters gave the subjects a set of difficult problems from an IQ test. Afterward, some of the young people were praised for their ability: "You must be smart at this." Others were praised for their effort: "You must have worked really hard." The kids who were complimented on their intelligence were much more likely to turn down the opportunity to do a challenging new task that they could learn from. "They didn't want to do anything that could expose their deficiencies and call into question their talent," Dweck says. Ninety percent of the kids who were praised for their hard work, however, were eager to take on the demanding new exercise.

Judith Warner, who wrote a bestseller, "Perfect Madness," about the helicoptering Mommy trend, wrote "No More Mrs. Nice Guy," in the New York Times:

...there is true universality behind the message she’s honest enough to own: that she is terrified of “family decline,” that she fears that raising a “soft, entitled child” will let “my family fail.” Her deepest hope is that by insisting upon perfection from her children in all things, like violin playing, she will be able to achieve, in her words, control: “Over generational decline. Over birth order. Over one’s destiny. Over one’s children.”

Leslie Morgan Steiner, in "The Curse of the Tiger Mother," blogged:

Tiger Mother is more about Amy Chua than her daughters. It’s a cautionary tale, more than anything, of the vicious cycle of narcissistic-achievement-oriented perfectionistic parenting. You can call it Chinese parenting, Suzuki parenting, Watch-Out-Or-I’ll-Get-The-Belt parenting, or whatever you want. I’d still never want to be a kid in her family.

Elizabeth Kolbert, in The New Yorker, writes with touching clarity about real parenting, without the noise from our crazy, elbows-out, full-body contact winners and losers style of modern middle and upper-middle class American style:

Parenting is hard. As anyone who has gone through the process and had enough leisure (and still functioning brain cells) to reflect on it knows, a lot of it is a crapshoot. Things go wrong that you have no control over, and, on occasion, things also go right, and you have no control over those, either. The experience is scary and exhilarating and often humiliating, not because you’re disappointed in your kids, necessarily, but because you’re disappointed in yourself.

The Post's own Ruth Marcus, a self-described product of "pushy parents," left readers with these words of wisdom, comparing Chua's Tiger Mother approach with the philosophy outlined in a new "relax and let the kids learn from their failures" book, "The Blessing of a B-Minus:"

The key to good parenting lies somewhere between these two approaches, between demanding too much and accepting too little. The difficulty of good parenting lies in the fact that this sweet spot is elusive, individual and constantly changing. You may be the lucky parent who hits it, but you will not know for years.

These pieces are funny, witty, snarky, informative and often wise.

By Brigid Schulte  | February 1, 2011; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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All these wise words remind me of a toy pendulum my daughter once had.

When she took the ball in her hand, and released it with a throw, the ball would swing wildly to the left and the right for several minutes, before slowly stopping and settling in the middle.

Society has gone from one extreme form of parenting as in spare the rod and spoil the child, to another as in everybody is a winner.

Everyone is busy swinging from left to right, or right to left.

Somehow, I think the real winners will be the children of the parents who like the ball of the pendulum, find their balance right in the middle.

Posted by: gaimusho | February 1, 2011 1:17 PM | Report abuse

I've thought a lot about the way I was raised, by emotionally and verbally abusive and neglectful parents, and how it affected me and my brother. Two things in the Chua excerpts struck me: That letting your child give up is bad for their self-esteem, and that a parent should assume strength, not fragility.

The piano story is a good example of my childhood experiences. My parents, teachers, and it seemed like almost everyone was always pushing me, yelling at me, threatening me, to make me do things I didn't want to do. No one cared how I felt or what I wanted. Of course, in that environment I didn't feel motivated to do anything. I just wanted to leave. This was not good for my self-esteem! It made me feel hurt, angry, fearful, frustrated and sad. I still have trouble with these feelings decades later.

But I didn't have the love and support that Chua says she gave her children. If I had, would it have made a difference? Would I have felt loved, motivated, confident? Would I have finished college and become a scientist?

Should a parent assume strength? Maybe, but if this is not done very carefully it would amount to the same thing as neglect. Without someone to help with problems, a child can't do very much on her own (just try getting a grown-up to take you seriously when you're a child. Just try.) If the child can't count on the parents for help and moral support, she doesn't feel strong at all. It's the opposite of being confident and empowered, and it's horrible.

One of the big problems in Midwestern culture is that people do give up too easily. Many never try at all. It would be good to counter this by teaching children not to give up on the activities they enjoy most (so they can have fun) and on the goals that are important for a successful life, like education and interpersonal skills. But it's just as important to know when to stop a task or activity - they are not all so important.

It would also be good to teach strength and along with it, responsibility. Another big problem in Midwestern culture is that many people don't take responsibility for their actions. For example, someone chooses to eat fattening food, but blames the restaurant for their weight gain. Someone hates their job, but makes no effort to find a better one. These things could be countered by teaching children they do have the strength and power to take responsibility for their choices and lives.

If Chua's daughters do think she is a monster, they are not currently in a position to say so. They are still dependent on her for survival and they have to cooperate with her. It would be good to hear from them in 10 or 15 years when they are independent and have accessed any feelings with which they are not currently in touch.

I hope my comments will lend some insight to this discussion. Maybe one day I can do more to help solve these problems in my culture and improve the emotional health of both adults and children.

Posted by: Julia87 | February 2, 2011 12:40 AM | Report abuse

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