Battle hymn of the tiger child


Ok., so I wasn’t raised quite as strictly as Amy Chua’s daughters. I was allowed to go to sleepovers, an A- wasn’t a bad grade, I could participate in school plays (and did so with enthusiasm) and I wasn’t forced to learn a classical instrument.

But even though I was allowed more liberties, when I first read the excerpt from Chua’s book in WSJ, it was like traveling back in time to my childhood, especially the period after 1989 which is the part that took place in the U.S. And I have to tell you that it was, overall, quite a pleasant trip down memory lane.

Of course I can only say this now, imbued with the wisdom that adulthood brings. When I was a child and teenager, I longed for my parents to be more like my American friends’ seemingly cooler moms and dads. Why can’t I have an allowance? Why do I always have to get good grades? Why do you have to know who all my friends are? Why, why, why, why why??!! Having achieved some distance from the childhood and teenage years though, I can now unequivocally say that the Chinese/Indian/Russian/Jewish/etc. way of parenting is totally the way to go. In fact, where I was allowed more leeway by my parents than Chua’s daughters, I think I could have benefitted from less.

Yes, you read that correctly. I actually think my parents could have been more strict.

The crux of the issue is permissiveness and I truly believe that American/Western parenting is far too lax. You’ve got all these moms and dads out there trying to be their kids’ friends. I remember thinking this was utter and complete nonsense even when I was a teenager. Parents are meant to be parents, not friends. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a wonderful relationship with your parents. In fact, I believe “parent” is a status much higher than “friend.” A parent is owed deep respect, love and gratitude. A friend might eventually reach a status where you respect, love them and are grateful to them, but it’s very, very rare. Parents start out at that level as the default.

What is the end result of this type of parent/child relationship? Yes, sometimes its therapy 😉 But more likely, it’s what Amy Chua expressed multiple times in her recent Chicago Tonight interview and what I absolutely agree with. Like Chua, I deeply love and respect my parents to this day and they have always been my biggest fans (joined in the cheering section of late by my husband of nearly five years :-))

So you see, if done correctly, this type of parenting doesn’t alienate the child from the parent. It actually brings them closer. Because what Chua also reiterated multiple times in the interview and what I can tell you I experienced growing up is that there is a tremendous amount of love that comes with this style of parenting. Somehow, and I still don’t know how they did it, my parents made me feel so loved at all times that I understood completely that their pushing me was for my own good. It was because they loved me so much and believed in me so fully that they urged me to excel. They knew what I was capable of and they only wanted me to live up to my potential. Is there something wrong with that?

Finally, I want to touch on something Chua mentioned at the end of the Chicago Tonight interview. It was the part where she briefly talked about being proud that her daughters were growing up more slowly and traditionally. Again, this mirrors my experience and what it made me realize is that there are many other benefits to raising kids this way besides them getting good grades. Not sure what I mean? Let me spell it out. I’m talking here about all the things parents (allegedly) want to keep their kids away from: drinking, drugs, sex and other self-destructive behaviors. 

I always felt so loved by my parents and so safe and protected in their home, that I could never fathom disapppointing them by taking drugs or even smoking. To this day, I’ve never smoked a cigarette (of any sort) even though my dad smoked for part of my childhood before eventually quitting. I also never drank in excess even though my parents drank and I often accompanied them to dinner parties where the adults imbibed with frequency and enthusiasm. Without going into great detail, I didn’t engage in sexual activity until much later than many of my peers. All of these things and more were freely on offer at my high school by the way. I just didn’t partake in them. 

As I understand, many American parents achieve this level of moral adherance only with strict religious mandates and threats of Hell or other such deterrants. As Soviet Jews who had had the religion beaten out of us several generations ago, my parents weren’t exactly pious. But again, they loved me so much and had sacrificed so much for my welfare and happiness that I would have thought it unthinkable to turn my back on all of that by acting irresponsibly. Perhaps this too is a cultural difference between many Western parents and those of the Tiger parent variety. Western parents seem to focus a great deal more on their own lives than those of their kids. In my culture (and many others) parents can have careers and their own lives of course, but job #1 is always helping their children through life in every way possible and this job supercedes all others.

Ultimately, when I look back, I also realize that my parents taught me self-respect and self-esteem on a daily basis. They taught me to have a strong sense of self and to believe in myself. It’s so ironic to me that people have decried Chua’s methods precisely because they think they would be damaging to a child’s self-esteem. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. When parents set a high standard, a child believes that they can reach it and that they are worthy of success if they work hard for it every day. This eventually produces adults who are ambitious, hard-working and who always strive for better. Sounds to me like a world I want to live in.





  1. Anonymous February 23, 2011

    I agree with you that parents should definitely not be friends — they should be parents. My biggest issue with Chua – or any “helpful” adamant parents out there – is advocating a “one size fits all” parenting. There’s so much conflicting advice out there — co-sleep every night to make kids feel secure vs. don’t you dare co-sleep ever; tiger mom vs. free range parenting; let kids cry it out and learn independence vs. respond to each cry or else your kids will be totally insecure. It’s hard to be all or nothing (at least for me). I think that more strict (and consistent with that strictness) is better than less, but each child, each parent, and even each situation is different. I know you understand the subtleties of all this. It just seems like moms (note — not dads) find all these ways to argue with each other and make everyone else feel guilty so that they feel like they’re doing it “right.” When really, moms should be a supportive community to help each other make the right decisions for our family, because it’s hard. I say all this, of course, married to the child of a Korean Tiger Mom, and we’re working on merging discipline styles with our children. It’s an interesting adventure. Thanks for the post!

  2. Anna Tarkov February 23, 2011

    If you had watched the entire interview with Chua on Chicago Tonight that I linked to, you would have actually seen her say multiple times that her book wasn’t mean to be a how-to on parenting. It was simply a personal memoir of her own parenting experiences and she was careful to say that she didn’t prescribe her approach to every parent.

    In fact, Chua herself discovered that all kids are different as her older daughter was very compliant while her younger one rebelled and wanted to do things her own way. So she found that she couldn’t take the same approach with the second daughter and had to relax some of the rules. Thus she seems to fully understand that not all kids are the same.

    That said, I believe that there are certain parenting basics that ARE universal. All kids should respect and love their parents. All kids should learn how to be responsible, how to work hard to achieve what they want, excel at school, not do drugs, etc. I don’t think any of those things (and others) are up for negotiation. Now, will this be easier with some kids than others? Yes, absolutely. But that’s where the hard work of parenting comes in. That’s something else Chua talked a lot about: doing all the hard work and sacrificing personally when it was necessary in order to help her daughters with their schoolwork, music lessons, etc.

    The question then arises if the “tiger parent” style is the best way to achieve the results. That’s up for debate I suppose. But whether or not all kids should have these qualities isn’t in my opinion.

  3. Anonymous February 23, 2011

    Point totally taken. And, I have to admit to being lazy and reading more ABOUT Amy Chua than actually just READING Amy Chua. And not watching much of the Chicago Tonight segment you posted. Thanks for clearing it up. And I agree that there are certain absolutes — I guess how those get instilled is the hard part, and how you define some of those, too. If only I were rich enough to afford boarding school, and could just let someone else do all that hard stuff. ha ha.

  4. Anonymous February 24, 2011

    Before I get into my comments, I just have to state for the record that I have no kids and do not plan to ever have kids, so you can give my comments however much weight you feel they deserve.

    I agree that parents should be the force that pushes kids to live up to their potential. But my experience tells me that parents CAN push too hard.

    Lord knows I didn’t live up to my potential as a kid. I was a slacker who never did his homework in high school and my grades showed it. Though they pushed as hard as they could, my parents couldn’t force me to change my habits. I was too stubborn. I knew I was screwing things up, but I didn’t particularly care.

    As a result, my parents eventually gave up around my junior year. Not in the “Screw you, get out of my house” sort of way, but rather in the “Ok, do what you’re going to do and deal with your own shit” sort of way.

    And you know what? That was the best thing they could have done for me. After all the pushing, the arguing, punishments, groundings, etc., they decided that the best thing they could do was let me either fall on my ass or get my shit together without their help. Somehow, I got my shit together and didn’t fall on my ass.

    My point in all of this is that too often, it seems like parents aren’t willing to let their kids fail. And that’s sad. You learn a whole lot from falling on your ass, often more than you do from succeeding.

  5. Anna Tarkov February 24, 2011

    I take your point Billy, but you started talking about high school. What was it like for you in kindergarten is the question I’d ask. Or even before that? Instilling hard work and responsibility in kids starts much earlier than most people realize. That said, Chua herself allowed for the fact that not every kid is going to be easy to lead down the right path. Sometimes you DO have to let go as a parent, but letting go doesn’t mean suddenly letting them do whatever they want. It just means loosening things up a bit. But loosening from what? If you start out with very high standards, a loosening will still leave you with a fairly high standard. However, if you started out expecting very little, well…. So my feeling is that every parents should aim high and adjust as needed.

  6. Anonymous February 24, 2011

    I did start talking about high school and I digressed a bit. Sorry.

    Kindergarten, eh? Well, I went to one of the best elementary schools in the city of Chicago (Decatur Classical, if that means anything to you). Back then, I didn’t have to be pushed at all. I was all about school back then. Loved every bit of it except math. Did my work religiously, was always the first one done with tests and all that stuff. I spent any playtime we had in kindergarten reading encyclopedia articles.

    Before that, I don’t really remember. I went to a Jewish preschool at a temple in Evanston. That’s about all I know.

    The reason I started talking about high school is because that was the point at which I started needing the push. Before that, I could have been the tiger-child you describe. Anything less than an A was bad in my mind. A C would have required ritual suicide. (:

    The point is that back in my grade school days, I took to school naturally and pushed myself harder than my parents ever could.

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