‘Tiger Mother’ book on mothering raises media storm

  • By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
  • Wednesday, January 19, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

If President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao run out of things to talk about at a lavish White House banquet planned for tonight, here’s a doozy of a topic: a new book by a self-described “Tiger Mother.&#8

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The visit by China’s president happens to coincide with a media storm. This fracas has nothing to do with trade policy or nuclear proliferation. It’s about, of all things, mothering.

The first I heard about this story of a super-strict mom was at church. A mother with a son in my boy’s sixth-grade class stopped me as I was leaving last week. She told me I might want to read an article she saw in The Wall Street Journal.

I went home and found the Jan. 8 story: “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” You may have seen an Associated Press article about Amy Chua’s new book in Monday’s Herald. It was a follow-up to The Wall Street Journal piece, which is an excerpt from “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”

Chua is a Yale Law School professor and the mother of two teenage girls. She is the daughter of Filipino immigrants of Chinese descent. Her book is described by AP as a “new memoir of bad-ass parenting, Chinese style.”

And that, if you read The Wall Street Journal excerpts, is an understatement. Chua writes that her daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to attend a sleep-over, be in a school play, watch TV or play computer games. They couldn’t choose their own extracurricular activities or get any grade less than an A. They had to play piano or violin — and no other musical instruments.

Chua writes that she was called “garbage” by her father after being disrespectful to her mother — and that she, in turn, once called her own daughter garbage.

She writes that if a Chinese child gets a B — which she says “would never happen” — there would be “a screaming, hair-tearing explosion.” She describes making her 7-year-old play a piano piece perfectly — yelling and not letting her leave the bench even to use the bathroom — until it was.

Alison Lo, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus, has read about Chua’s book. Lo, who grew up in Hong Kong and came to the United States to earn her doctoral degree at Duke University, sees the parenting debate from both sides.

“I don’t think Amy is advocating a best practice of parenting style, or that success and achievements are critical yardsticks of a good life,” Lo said. “But I can imagine how strong her daughters’ college applications are going to be.

“For many parents whose dreams are seeing their kids graduating from a competitive university, Amy is sharing with the readers that it is achievable by persistent, dedicated parental guidance,” Lo said. “In that sense, a young adult’s giftedness can be born, or made.”

In interviews since The Wall Street Journal excerpts were published, Chua has countered some harsh impressions left by her words, while not backing away from her basic recipes for success. She told ABC News Sunday that “My book is a memoir, not a parenting book.” In the AP article, she allowed that her younger daughter will celebrate her 15th birthday with a sleep-over.

Once before, I wrote about an East Coast mother’s book. I talked last June with Lenore Skenazy, the author of “Free-Range Kids.” Skenazy had caused a stir in 2008 when she wrote that she let her 9-year-old ride the New York subway by himself.

Skenazy, who has a website freerangekids.wordpress.com, makes a point that overprotective parents don’t help kids become independent. Her message spoke to me much more than Chua’s push, push, push toward nothing but success.

Still, it is astonishing to a mom like me how Chua accepts and gets only perfection. It’s instructive, too. Somewhere between my tendency to let children grow into who they are and Chua’s insistence on nothing but the best, there must be a good path.

I don’t know any perfect parents. And I’m not about to condemn a mother raised in a culture so different from mine. We probably have a lot to learn from each other.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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