Is She as Bad as She Seemed in That First Article?

Lipstick on an authoritarian mother.

In a word, “yes.” Amy Chua has been claiming that she’s not that bad ever since the excerpt from her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, was published on a couple of weeks ago. That article set off a firestorm of protests from parents, including my popular parody of it.

So, I went to see her in person last night at a bookstore in San Francisco. She had the mostly sympathetic crowd in the palm of her hand. Audience members guffawed and threw her softball questions and clapped politely.

I was not persuaded, though. She sugar-coated her Tiger Mother philosophy, but she didn’t back down at all. Remember, we’re dealing with a Yale law professor here, so we should expect a highly articulate, clever defense. Indeed, she made her brand of abusive, hyper-controlling parenting seem more palatable than it seemed in article.
Her response is that she was chastened by her 13-year-old daughter Lulu’s violent outbursts at her, and that she’s reformed her outlook. Here’s an interview in which she articulates this response.

So, how was she chastened? Does she now think that her Tiger Mother approach is wrong, or even flawed? Absolutely not. She still thinks it’s the best way by far. What she regrets is that she failed to tone down her abusiveness a bit before Lulu exploded. When this happened, she was fearful that Lulu might totally rebel against her – e.g. that she might start to do poorly at school, get into drugs, get depressed, etc.

In other words, Chua thinks that her overall strategy was the right one, but her tactics were flawed in some ways because they almost led to a rebellion. If Lulu hadn’t made her outbursts, Chua wouldn’t have backed off one iota. In fact, her older daughter, Sophia, never voiced a hint of rebellion, and Chua is completely satisfied with how she raised her.

Think of the message this sends to the millions (?!?) of parents who read the Tiger Mother book: go ahead and be as verbally abusive and controlling to your children as Chua, then watch them closely to see if they’re close to breaking. If they are close, back off a bit to avoid a total rebellion.

The problem with this amendment to the Tiger Mother approach in the article is that it won’t avoid most of the problems caused by verbally abusive, authoritarian parenting. There are literally thousands, if not millions, of depressed former “Tiger Children” out there who didn’t explode like Lulu did when they were 13. There are many others whose first explosion was something more drastic than Lulu’s outbursts, like depression, or even suicide.

In addition, while Chua was able to avoid a total rebellion from Lulu, Lulu may still be scarred. At least in her public comments, Chua hasn’t talked about any effort to really peer inside the mind of Lulu. There may still be a lot of damage to fix under the surface, but Chua is only concerned that Lulu still get “A’s” in school and practice her violin, albeit for less time every day.

The only way I could endorse Chua’s story to parents would be if she repudiated her Tiger Mother philosophy, but she hasn’t. She’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Be wary…

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9 Responses to Is She as Bad as She Seemed in That First Article?

  1. Aleksandar says:

    Every time I hear the phrase “Tiger Mother”, I think of Tiger Woods. Perfect example of everything that is good and bad with the Tiger approach.

  2. RobertH says:

    So Chua came to your neighborhood too, huh? She was here in Pasadena only a few days ago, it seems. Scary to think that a slick lawyer seems to be able to do in a matter of weeks what hundreds of ecucators and policymakers haven’t been able to do in decades – galvanize a sizeable number of parents around a common cause.

    But Chua alone is, of course, not to blame – or to be credited – for her success. The path our educational system has followed over the last decade has provided fertile soil for her brand of parenting. Government officials incessantly compare the performance of American children to that of students in China and other Asian nations, and they continue to move our school system closer to the Asian model as we speak.

    Is it any wonder then that American parents should be impressed by Chua’s version of “good parenting”? If we want our kids to compete with the Chinese kids, maybe we need to do as the Chinese do. Or so they think.

    American parents are simply scared to death when they think of the academic and professional futures of their children. They are willing to do almost anything to see them “succeed.” Even if that means becoming Chinese to a certain extent.

    Seen in that light, Chua is just exploiting the sad state of the American educational system and the many insecurities this has instilled into the American psyche.

    Unfortunately, the world is replete with examples where outrageous, extreme solutions prevail over less entertaining, moderate ones. The idea, for example, that kids just need to play more outdoors with other kids in the neighbor, despite its obvious merit, just doesn’t have the “sex” appeal of the battle cry of the tiger mother.

    That’s one of the reasons I like Playborhood. com so much: It’s one of the few places on the Internet that tries to reinstill confidence into American parents that we have every reason to resist the “Chinafication” of our kids – by our own government, that is.


  3. SR says:

    I wonder if the parenting community would be as accepting of Chua’s philosophy of abuse if she was a “blue collar” immigrant who owned a laundromat or dry cleaners and lived above the store where everyone could hear her berating and yelling at her children. My guess is someone would turn her in or at least start a boycott of the store. Sheds a more sobering light on just how much slack people are giving her for being well-spoken, well-connected, and affluent. After all, she’s a professor at Yale, how bad could she be. Don’t give the dad a pass, either. He’s right there letting her abuse their children. What is their relationship like? Of course, all of this attention is feeding her bank account and giving her the attention she wants. As always, the children of the abuser will suffer.

  4. JT says:

    I don’t understand why you all are so upset by Amy Chua. She said the book is not a parenting guide. It’s just her story. And her daughter speaks out on the Post

  5. Mike Lanza says:

    JT – She may say that her book is not a parenting guide, but there are many, many references in the book that say directly or indirectly that her parenting style is superior to that of “Westerners.” She’s tap-dancing on this point, much like she is on whether she advocates the verbally abusive, authoritarian style of parenting she portrays in the book.

    She’s very slippery…

    Besides, millions (?!?) of people are reading the Tiger Mom book precisely to get parenting advice.

    As for Sophia’s article, it *is* nice to see that she doesn’t seem to be scarred by her mother. However, that is just one data point. Lulu does seem to be scarred, as do millions of other kids who had parents like Chua. See this article:

    I had a mother who was deeply depressed, and a father who wasn’t faithful, and they fought a *lot*. I somehow came through this very well and am quite a happy, successful adult, but my sister had many, many problems. So, a sample size of one child is too small to draw any conclusions about a parenting style.

  6. concernedparent says:

    I agree with the post above in that it is really autobiographical, it is her story.

    Of course, she thinks that her parenting style is better than others.

    If you were being honest, so do all of you and for that matter so do I. If we thought we were doing a crappy job as parents, we would probably change our approaches to parenting, duh.

    Aren’t there articles in this blog directly and indirectly criticizing other people’s parenting style, for example on red-shirting, after school activities, tweets on how sad kids look playing in the park. I may agree or disagree with these comments, but who cares, they are one person’s opinion about how he is raising his kids, for better or worse.

    Sure sounds like trying to be a parenting guide. These latest post are pretty much saying that the Western style is better than the Chinese style. If you complain about her, then shouldn’t she complain about you.

    If you don’t like the message or the person, don’t read the book. I surely am not buying a book by George Bush or Sarah Palin, why would I want to give them money when I don’t agree with them. Of course, I slipped and gave them free publicity.

  7. RobertH says:


    You bet Playborhood is a parenting guide, and a much needed one. And, yes, one of its premises – children should be allowed to play freely and with other kids – implies that Chinese parenting (as practiced by Chua; I am actually not at all sure that this is how kids in China grow up) has a serious problem, one that Western parenting DID NOT USED to have.

    And that’s the rub: The way Western parenting (in the US) is going, Western American children may soon play no more than their Chinese-American counterparts. This trend is spurred by an ongoing campaign of our government to make our educational system more competitive with that in China and other Asian nations. The message to parents is: “Your kids need to buckle down and quit playing around.” Add to this equation a bestseller such as Chua’s advertising the supposed superiority of Chinese parenting – IN AMERICA – and you have a recipe for mass hysteria.

    In other words, what Chuas writes will seem, to many less informed Americans, to confirm what government officials (I hate to call them educators, Arne Duncan has never even been a teacher) have been saying for years now: Kids need to work harder, play less, and in general be pushed harder and be given less choice.

    Now, if we followed your lead, we’d all stick our heads in the sand and pretend it isn’t happening or just not care. After all, it’s someone else’s problem. But parenting, and certainly schooling, isn’t just a private affair. It affects all of us how someone else raises or does not raise their kids, what kind of educational choices they make for their children.

    My children, for example, are deprived of afterschool play not by us, their parents, but by other parents in the neighborhood who won’t let their children out of the house.

    So, it seems, to me, to be more than legitimate to rally around the cause of childhood play in America and to criticize – fairly and accurately – the views of those who want to further limit childhood play.

    That’s what is all about.

  8. concernedparent says:

    I think it depends on where you live and how many activities you choose to put your kids in and what you or the daytime caregiver decide to do.

    We live near a number of parks, 4 within walking distance for my children and then the main school yard, which is about 1.5 miles away.

    My kids come home from school three out of five days a week, eat a snack, rest for about 30 minutes and go to a park. They have established a group of kids that they see regularly at the park and on MLK birthday (I am told, as I was at work) eight of them were playing together for over 4 hours.

    They get home in time for around 30 minutes of homework and then are off for dinner (still early in elementary school). Our nanny is proactive with getting them together with other kids and homework, but if they were doing more than two activities a week they would not have to be out with other kids.

    I am not sure, from my experience, that it is so much what the educators want, as to the activities you sign your kids up for.

  9. Mike Lanza says:

    concernedparent – Mein Kampf was autobiographical, too. Sometimes, autobiographical books can influence lots of people in a direction that one doesn’t agree with. That’s a valid basis for publicly disagreeing with it, in my opinion.