“All decent parents want to do what's best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.”
— Amy Chua
Ever since Chua published “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” couples everywhere have debated the pros and cons of strict parenting. Now, some children weigh in on its effectiveness.
To Cleary Elder, 13, Indianapolis, a tiger mother is someone to dread. “I think a tiger mom is a person who really wants her children to succeed and sometimes sacrifices other activities that her kids would want to do.”
But to Victoria Xiao, 16, of Carmel, any sacrifice is for the child’s own good. “I think a tiger mother is someone who has the best intentions for her children but sometimes doesn’t consider her children’s feelings when carrying out her methods of parenting. But in the end, they do succeed, usually, in helping their children reach their success. And I think their ultimate goal is to show their children what they’re capable of doing.”
There is no concrete definition for “tiger mother.” According to Hilary Levey Friedman, a sociologist at Harvard University specializing in the study of competition in childhood, “She could be American-born, but it tends to be more immigrant parents and parents who are focused on particular types of achievement.”
In her book, Chua describes some of the achievements — mostly musical and academic — in which she pushed her two daughters to excel. She also described some of the methods she used (such as threatening to burn a daughter’s stuffed animals) to enforce the work ethic she desired.
Chua’s book caused an uproar when it was first released. However, much of the outrage may have been caused by cultural misunderstandings. Chua takes pains to discuss the differences between “Western parenting” and “Chinese parenting.”
“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it,” she writes, describing her daughters’ hours of practice every day at the piano and violin. According to Chua, Western parents are too worried about damaging their children’s self-esteem.
Chua describes how her parents instilled in her the value of hard work. They expected her to work just as hard as, if not harder, than they did. That mind-set appears to be widespread.
Victoria, who is a first-generation American, explained how expectations build in immigrant parents. “They’re driven by the expectations of their own parents, and the fact that their parents have worked so hard to give them good lives,” she said.
“They’re just trying to tell their kids that, ‘You’re bathing in my success right now, so you have to work in your childhood to become as successful as me so you can pay me back.’”
But Samantha Dunn, 15, Indianapolis, sees tiger parenting as more self-serving. “They are parents who probably try to place too much of themselves on their kids. They try to make their kids succeed in places where probably the parent didn’t succeed.”
Friedman says that tiger parenting can be good and bad. It can help a child achieve success. “If your goal and your parent’s goal is single-mindedly to attend an elite Ivy League college, it can certainly be helpful to have a tiger mom,” she said.
“If your goal is to win a gold medal in figure skating in the Olympics, it would probably be helpful to have a tiger mom as well.”
In addition, it can instill in children a strong work ethic. “I think in the end it will teach you discipline and hard work, and it will prepare you for the future because you’ll be so much more well off than someone who doesn’t do any work when they’re a child,” said Victoria.
But at the same time, there are drawbacks to having a tiger parent. For example, it would be difficult for a child whose interests differ from his or her parents, Friedman pointed out.
Christine Carter, a sociologist specializing in happiness at the University of California at Berkeley, has graver concerns. She says tiger parenting is stressful for all but the most compliant children.
“I’m not saying every person who is parented by a tiger mother is going to turn out anxious and depressed, but that’s the real risk there,” she said.
“We know that students at the elite colleges are by and large really struggling to find their happiness, that very, very high percentages of them are taking prescription medication to help them with depression and anxiety.”
Cleary agreed that she would feel stressed if tiger-parented. “There would be so much pressure and stress to do the right things to such a great extent that you never really get the chance to just relax and live your life enjoyably.”
Carter and Friedman agreed that parents need to be flexible enough to help their children develop individual interests and character.
With tiger parenting, Carter said, “most children are not even allowed to know who they are or express what they want in life. And those are things that we need to know in order to lead a happy and a meaningful life over the long haul.
“We have more than 200 studies that show that happiness more often precedes success.”
However, Victoria says that tiger parenting is the method that is successful in the long run. “Your life can be split into two sections. One half you succeed and you enjoy what you do. And the other half you work hard and you suffer basically.
“So it’s your decision whether you want to have that enjoyment be the second part of your life or the first part of your life.”
In fact, the girls said some pressure is good. Most of them said they wished they had been pushed a little more, either to excel in their classes or to continue an activity that they chose to drop.
But even though a little pressure is desirable, the girls say they still need the independence to make their own choices. “I think the line is when you start making choices for your child and they lose all or most of their independence,” Cleary said.
Despite the benefits and downsides of tiger parenting, Samantha says all students need room to learn. “One of life’s most important lessons is making your own mistakes. And with a tiger parent controlling every little facet of your life, then they don’t really give you the chance to make your mistakes. They’re constantly pushing you towards something, and the possibility of mistakes is pretty much like failure to them.”
Reporter Carmela Verderame, 12, contributed to this story.