Joanna Weiss

The Tiger Mother roars, and slacker parents shudder

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / January 18, 2011

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IF THERE’S a universal pastime of modern parenthood — other than worrying — it’s the labeling of parenting styles. You might be a Helicopter Parent or its opposite, a Free-Range Parent. You could be a Slacker Dad or a Bad Mother, either of which qualifies you to blog about how awful you are (and how cute your kids are when they’re annoying you).

Now, there’s a new parent to add to the taxonomy: the Tiger Mother. That’s the term Yale Law School professor Amy Chua gives to the stereotypically strict, high-pressure Chinese parenting style that’s most common among immigrants, and not limited to Chinese families. Those of us who weren’t raised by the Tiger Mother way likely knew someone who was: a straight-A overachiever and classical-music prodigy who feared “a screaming, hair-tearing explosion’’ if she came home from school with an A-minus.

In her new memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’’ — which was excerpted in the Wall Street Journal under the incendiary headline “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior’’ — Chua writes of bullying, threatening, and berating her two daughters into practicing their instruments, getting perfect grades, even making acceptable hand-drawn birthday cards. The result, she notes, is that both excelled in school, and one played Carnegie Hall at age 14.

The parental navel-gazing set has been apoplectic, which surely was part of the marketing scheme. “Tiger Mother’’ lands defiantly at a time of backlash against frenzied parental involvement, whether it’s overscheduling, overprotection, or overemphasis on children’s self-esteem. The best parents, we’re now told, are the ones who kick back and let their kids play in dirt and follow their unproductive bliss. “We’re not perfect, we’re parents!’’ is the constant refrain on preschool TV channel Nick Jr., reassuring the guilty masses that it’s OK to let their kids watch TV.

But even parents in relaxation mode have to admit they’re a little conflicted. After all, Nick Jr. also showers them with ads for a product called “Your Baby Can Read!’’ which pitches the dubious goal of teaching infants to read from flashcards. The glassy-eyed parents who offer testimonials talk about their kids’ bliss, too. Being able to identify the word “foot’’ before he can speak, they say, gives Junior confidence to venture out into the sandbox.

That’s Chua’s philosophy, too: Achievement is the path to happiness. “What Chinese parents understand,’’ she writes, “is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.’’ That’s a direct contradiction of the winning-isn’t-everything credo that my own daughter parrots when she’s losing at Wii Bowling. But Chua has a point: Winning is fun, and it usually requires practice, and practice requires motivation. And when you’re a kid, that’s sometimes hard to understand.

So where does a parent’s role begin and end? After all, plenty of kids manage to excel at music and academics without their parents regularly berating them. Chua’s elder daughter, the Carnegie Hall one, might well have become a pianist on her own terms – though perhaps without collecting as many accolades. And is a trophy awarded for achieving a parent’s goal more meaningful than the trophies kids get in the name of self-esteem?

The obvious answer is “no,’’ and it’s easy to consider Chua the Helicopter Parent in extremis. But in some ways, her parenting style has more in common with the freewheelers. Where Helicopter Parents think they should hand-hold and help, both the Tiger Mother and the Free-Range Parent believe that kids are strong, not weak. They don’t need to be shielded from dangers, disappointments, or harsh critiques — or even, Chua believes, from parental abuse.

Of course, overbearing parents can go too far, though Chua claims her descriptions are somewhat tongue-in-cheek. And it’s worth noting that, by the end of the book, Chua has a partial change-of-heart. Her younger daughter rebels, convinces her mother to quit browbeating, then sets aside her violin to be a tennis star.

In other words, she takes the best of Chua’s lessons — hard work breeds success — and uses it to follow her own bliss. That’s perhaps the scariest thing to accept, for navel-gazing parents of all stripes. In most cases, once the basics are taken care of, the theories don’t matter much. Whatever your philosophy is, your kids will grow up to be themselves.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at