The XX Factor

Tiger Mom. Terrible Role Model.

Because her nonparenting career has been so successful, “Tiger Mother” Amy Chua largely gets a by on the ugly reality of the parenting style she extols: It falls mostly on the mother, and it requires significant personal or financial resources to carry off. The father’s role, even in a fully “Chinese” family (Chua’s husband is not Chinese), appears limited to providing naked scorn and blind ambition when appropriate, and sounds easy enough to fit into even the most demanding work schedule. But the hours Chua put into her campaign for parental greatness astound. Her ability to combine that with a career as a law professor and best-selling author would have been enough to make the mothering blogosphere nearly explode with envious loathing even if she hadn’t offered so much in the way of additional bile-producing ammunition.

David Brooks is wrong:  Chua is no wimp. Her philosophy is clear: You can “do it all” if you just  work hard enough . In her case, that meant combining career with intense parenting practices that make many of us blanche. For her daughters, it meant musical prodigy-hood plus academic success. She’s reasonably honest about what her daughters gave up in the bargain she imposed on them, but other than one off-hand admission (“I’m not good at enjoying life”) that is, in itself, an indictment of any activity outside of what she’s deemed important, she denies giving up anything herself. She can’t be telling the whole story. There are only so many hours in the day, and somewhere a book is unwritten, a class not taught, a mountain not climbed, a charitable endeavor left untouched. When Chua chose to be a “Tiger Mother,” she chose not to be something else. What’s reasonably clear is that her husband made no such sacrifice.

That’s fine. But in all of our defensive “Western” angst over Chua’s parenting abilities, we’re ignoring the fact that it was a choice. Most mothers won’t do what Chua has done not because we’re “Western” or weak, but because our lives are filled with difficult choices, and ours have been different. Stripped of the cultural references and boiled down to the facts, what Chua offers is a model of helicopter-style parenting that requires enormous personal effort for any mother, Chinese, Western or otherwise labeled. And “mother,” in nearly every culture, is the key word. Chua taught her daughters the value of hard work and perseverance. She also taught them that you’re going to need those things, because when you’re a mother, the onus will be on you to make sure that your kids are successful.

Chua never says so, but that’s a solid piece of the parenting culture she’s embraced. In a piece titled  In Japan and Korea, Asian-style Parenting Means Mom Stays Home ,”  Working Mother ‘s Carol Fishman Cohen, who spent time in Japan and Korea working to encourage mothers to return to the workforce, writes: “time and time again, after I spoke, I was pulled aside by women who confided that they desperately wanted to be working, but the demands of intensive Asian parenting methods to maximize their children’s academic performance were keeping them at home.” Those women described pressures from in-laws and society. “My daughter was my walking report card in diapers,” one woman told Cohen. In China, the picture looks more “Western” than you would imagine: poorer women often  leave their children with extended family for years while they work in cities, women who work near their families  struggle with finding part-time work or child-care, and some wealthy women are  emulating the opt-out over-achieving helicopter parent mothering model that takes such a beating here in the U.S. press. Chua’s example argues that career plus maternal greatness is possible. Other available evidence suggests even Chinese women don’t find it such an obvious choice.

Chua’s credentials make talking about how hard it would be to parent with such intensity feel difficult, so most mothers and writers have found ourselves reduced to defending our “Western” parenting methods rather than considering how difficult it would be for most working mothers to emulate her. In some ways, that’s a good thing: maybe some of the valid points made about how “Chinese mothering” doesn’t achieve what a “Western” parent would regard as success will sink in, and allow us to release some of our doubts about the way we raise our kids and get on with other things. In my house, and in most “Western” houses, Chua’s girls would be regarded as spoilt for both their dependence on their mother and their assumption that their needs would take precedence over those of their parents or, more startlingly, of their grandparents (my own kids would react to the suggestion that their grandfather be told that he couldn’t go somewhere on his vacation until they’d practiced the piano with a very healthy degree of shock and fear).   Hanna argues that true “Western” parenting, in which we release the idea that we can somehow control what happens to our children, allows those children to become people who can find their own way to happiness.  Dana says that for every “Chinese-” raised kid praising her parents’ strict methods, there will be a ” successful young adult thanking his freewheeling mother for ‘believing in me no matter what.’ ” Chua has mothers talking.

But she has fathers chuckling. Women are examining whether they do enough for their kids. Men are laughing, poking their wives and saying, “Oh, yes, you should absolutely sit with the kids for five hours while they practice the mandolin!” Some are more pointed. “You’re the one who let him quit golf when he hated it. He would have had fun once he improved.” And I’ve heard any number using Amy Chua to indict society–as in, “We’re all too soft on our kids.” I’ve yet to hear one using her example to indict himself. Chua’s husband, Jed Rubenfeld, is  keeping his head down , and who can blame him? Up until now, he got the sweet end of this deal. But until we get as many fathers chiming in on a debate like this as mothers, books like Chua’s are a distraction. The  real question isn’t why “Chinese mothers are superior,” but why even among two-working-parent couples, we’re so overly focused on “mothering” instead of “parenting” in the first place.