The XX Factor

The Tiger Mother Wastes Her Breath

“As every American knows, we have serious child-rearing problems in this country.” It probably won’t surprise you to learn that those are the words of Tiger Mother Amy Chua. It may surprise you even less to hear that in an op-ed for USA Today , ” Tiger Mom: Here’s how to reshape U.S. education ,” Chua has resumed her argument that Americans are too soft on our kids-but this time, she’s grossly overshot her target. Is Chua really so ensconced in her Yale bubble that she can’t see that the problems of her kids and their immediate peers are scarcely the problems facing the nation?

A poor showing on international student assessment tests. Too much time watching TV. High rates of substance abuse and teen pregnancy. Lack of self-discipline and focus. To Chua, those are all problems of similar magnitude, and all with apparently a single cause: poor parenting. She’s ready with a solution: Combine Eastern and Western styles into a melting pot of methodology with “more structure when our children are little (and will still listen to us), followed by increasing self-direction in their teenage years.”

That’s decent parenting advice-for the middle-class parent with the kind of worries Chua is familiar with. And it allows Chua to defend herself and her parenting by demonstrating that in China, she’s considered a laudable example of someone who’s embraced just enough free-wheeling Western standards. But as a solution to the struggles of the U.S. education system, or even to the problems facing many of our nation’s teens, Chua’s argument isn’t just innocuous. It’s offensive, and it’s the kind of pernicious rhetoric that feeds our national obsession with the idea that individual parents are solely responsible for the well-being and success of their children. It’s true that America has a “child-rearing problem,” but it’s not in the lax standards of Chua’s neighbors. It’s in our national determination that if an individual parent doesn’t have everything it takes to successfully rear a child, we would rather see that child fail than provide anything but a bare minimum of help.

Chua’s daughters’ cohort are doing fine. Those test scores Chua repeatedly cites are deceptive . China, for example, essentially hand-picks the kids who are measured, while the United States’ lower ranking reflects our entire country, warty schools and all-as do Chua’s stats on TV watching, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy. Do we really think poor parenting in New Haven is skewing those results? No way.

Underneath those sky-is-falling numbers lie the really damning figures. 18% of children in the United States live below the poverty line (in some states, it’s as high as 31%). 37% of our nation’s public schools are “failing” by our own national standards, and the primary debate surrounding that number isn’t about how to help the schools, but how to redefine the (extremely faulty) “No Child Left Behind” law setting the standards. When it comes to national education policy, we don’t know what we want. But we do know that 6% of American teens aged 16-18 aren’t in school , and they aren’t graduates, either. That’s 12 million kids who needed something they didn’t get from their parents, or from anywhere else, either. Who else thinks those numbers reflect problems that won’t be solved by advocating that parents “teach our children a strong work ethic, perserverance and the value of delayed gratification?”

Maybe Chua didn’t really presume to be speaking about the education of all of our nation’s kids in her USA Today piece. Maybe she was screwed by the headline writers again . But if her focus is only on the upper-middle-class parents who read her work and anguish over the delicate balance between freedom and self-discipline, then that’s exactly the problem. It’s fine to worry about how you raise your own kids-and I do. But we need to focus our national debate not on the kids whose parents are well-equipped to worry about their well-being and education, but on those whose families aren’t.

For those kids, no individual parental prescription is going to be enough, and when we promote the idea that it is, we encourage those politicians who are perpetually ready to put more burden back on parents and families. I doubt that was Chua’s intent. But I’d love to see the “Tiger Mother” in there fighting for funding for Head Start (in China, public education starts at 2 years old), Planned Parenthood, affordable housing, job training and child care for single parents instead of wasting her considerable abilities and her high profile on advocating individual action. It’s tough to be a tiger mother when nobody’s got your back.

Photograph of Amy Chua courrtesy of Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for TIME.