Questioning the “Tiger Moms”
By Jia You
He was a boy with an “addled” brain, the way his teacher saw it. His formal education stopped at three months’ grade school, after which he set out to ruin the basement with pungent gases from chemical experiments, burn the baggage car on the train, steal news from the associated press –
And he invented the light bulb.
So here is the question: what if Thomas Edison had had a Chinese mother?
My guesses: he would have a) spent three hours a night drilling questions to get an A for all his school subjects; b) picked up the violin bow instead of smelly jars and poisonous chemicals; and c) been called “garbage” had he dared to protest.
These are my logical deductions based on the rules one Chinese mother – well, a “tiger” one for that matter – spelled out in her memoir on raising two daughters “the Chinese way.” The prepublication excerpt alone has attracted more than 7,000 comments on the Wall Street Journal website with a made-for-the-Sputnik-moment title, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.”
Yes, it’s Amy Chua and her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
By any standard, the Yale law professor raised two exceptional daughters. Both maintained perfect grades while playing either the piano and the violin; the elder, Sophia, played at Carnegie Hall in 2007.
According to Chua, the key to her success is that unlike their Western counterparts, Chinese parents “assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.”
Which is why, she argues, her daughters could practice the piano for six hours, do 20 math questions every night, and take insults like “garbage” which she employs as motivational tactics.
There is one limit to Chua’s confidence, though: she does not seem to believe that her daughters could make the right choices for themselves.
“Children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their references,” she claimed. And so she banned them from choosing their own extra-curriculum activities, participating in school plays, or even attending a sleepover.
Edison’s mother, on the other hand, must have also assumed strength on the part of her son when she pulled the “addled” boy out of school and home-schooled him. Different strength, that is – she let young Edison explore whatever interested him. The boy read poems, sold vegetables, printed newspapers, experimented with chemistry and even considered an acting career once.
Was he ever asked to be the best newspaper boy? Or to recite Shakespeare with a perfect pitch?
There is a difference between disciplining children and molding them like clay.
Imagine a society where every child was raised “the Chinese Way” as Chua described: there would be a surplus of straight-A students but no gymnasts or actors or artisans. So many musicians, but no instruments to play because no one would make them.
Society needs all kinds of people – artists, engineers, farmers, business executives, waitresses, construction workers – to thrive. And history has its peculiar ways of choosing who pushes society forward. It could be the Renaissance artists, or the peasants in 18th Century France.
But of course, the Tiger Mother would want to prepare her children for the future, for the competition, for the opportunities that come with winning prizes.
But she forgot to ask what another Yale professor, William Deresiewicz, asked in his essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education ”:
“What of the opportunities it shuts down?”
The opportunities to receive 1,093 patents, for one.