Tiger Mothers


My daughter Christine, the author of today’s guest post, is the mother of two teenagers. She’s also a member of a book club that recently read and discussed Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Since the women in Christine’s book club have children, Chua’s book provoked a lively—some may say heated—discussion. Were Amy Chua’s methods good discipline or torture? Should mothers force their children to practice the piano or violin three hours a day, every day? Should they expect straight “A”s and ban sleepovers and play dates?

On NPR’s Fresh Air, Maureen Corrigan suggested that “Amy Chua may well be nuts” and compared her voice to that of Hannibal Lecter. David Brooks expressed the opposite view in the New York Times. He called Chua “a wimp.”

Christine has her own opinion.


Tiger Mothers, a guest post

I really do love my two children, and what I want most is for them to be happy.  But sometimes I have pushed them to work hard, even if they didn’t want to, because I thought it would cause them more overall happiness in the end.  I believe that true self esteem comes from a child trying something he thinks he can’t do, working really hard,  . . . and succeeding!  So in that way, some would call me a tiger mother.  (Although my husband says ‘sheep mom’ would be more accurate.)

book jacketThe Tiger Mother reference is to Amy Chua’s 2011 book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”.  I have no desire to mimic the more extreme aspects of a strict Chinese parenting style, but some of Chua’s ideas, like the “virtuous circle”, seem self-evident.

The idea behind the virtuous circle is that most things are not much fun until you’re good at them.  Becoming good at something usually takes hard work, often a lot of hard work.  But once you get good, it becomes more enjoyable, you start getting recognition, and that fuels the desire to put in more hard work, until happiness and success become self-propagating.  This can apply to piano, baseball, or math.

Perhaps it’s because I went to school overseas through 10th grade, but some things many American parents do make no sense to me.  For example, many seem willing to spend endless hours playing catch with their young children, but are reluctant to practice math or spelling.  This seems upside-down, as all of these kids will need to know how to write and add, but very few will be heading to the major leagues.

flashcardsMy daughter is bright, but hates rote memorization, so in first grade she had trouble with math facts.  She understood the concepts, and liked the patterns, “Isn’t it neat that for all the multiples of nine, the digits add up to 9?”  (As in 7*9 = 63 and 6+3 = 9).  But to take it to the next level, her teacher said she needed to be faster at math facts, and to do that she needed to memorize and practice with flashcards.  Her teacher and I sometimes brought my daughter to the point of tears, but we persevered, and she learned her math facts.  This accomplishment put her in the “fast group”, from which she never looked back.  She had fun with algebra, calculus, and even theoretical linear algebra proofs.  In math competitions in high school and her math class in college, the faces are heavily Asian, and my daughter is often the only blond female in the group.  Did the others give up in first grade?

Catherine, violinMost of the time, parents don’t have to make their children cry – they just need to communicate what they think is important. We have great conversations on politics, history, and religion.  These discussions began in preschool, with “stories” of the Middle Ages, the founding fathers, the bible, and current events.  Academics can be really fun.  My son, to this day, requests that we play the word game “Contact” every time we go on a hike.

Catherine, baseballI also required my children to play sports every year, explaining that I want them to be healthy, and that high school is a great time to get in peak physical condition.  Both kids fought me on this at first, but eventually derived a great deal of satisfaction from exercising hard and seeing their bodies become fast and strong.  My daughter ran cross country and plays badminton (the serious indoor type).  My son likes ultimate frisbee and does weights and core exercises.

As my mother says, “Instead of praising a child for being tall or smart, traits they were born with, praise them for working hard.  Help them see the success that rewards perseverance.”  Roar!


Are you a tiger mother or father? Have you required a lot of your children?


About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. If only more parents thought like you!

  2. Maureen

    Interesting article, I like the last paragraph particularly. The line “most of the time you don’t have to make children cry” startled me. I would never push a child to that point so I guess I wasn’t a tiger mama. I was lucky both my children seemed naturally driven to be successful and didn’t need much prodding, just positive reinforcement.

    • Teresa

      Maybe it depends on the child’s personality or style of communication. Having just spent the holidays with a little one, I have a hard time believing that any parent hasn’t had a contest of wills in which a child has resorted to communicating their frustration with tears. That’s just another day in the life of having a strong will but not getting everything you want. Doesn’t impress me much. But then I was raised by a tiger sister.

    • Maureen, I must admit that line was a little tongue in cheek. Pushing children too hard is generally counterproductive. My daughter was very unusual, with a combination of really hating the rote memorization combined with a strong drive to get it done. I think if I had suggested we give up in the middle, she would have refused (tearfully).

      You were certainly lucky, and I think I was too. I much prefer the supporting and counseling role to the pushing one.

  3. I’m convinced that True Success in life comes from satisfaction with the choices we’re making . . . even if no one else notices.

    I do think that parents should push their kids to try LOTS of things, but I also believe that pushing too hard creates anxious, unhappy kids who don’t view their accomplishments as a reward UNLESS they are receiving applause, accolades, and approval from others.

    • I think we’re on the same page. Pushing a little is necessary. Pushing too much is fail parenting. The hard part is knowing where the sweet spot it – getting the kid to the point that either 1) their continued efforts will be self-sustaining or 2) they have gone far enough to know it’s not for them. And I completely agree, self-sustaining has to include internal satisfaction, can’t be dependent on external validation.

      Also, you can’t push it to the line on everything, so each parent has to push a little harder on things they think are most likely to make the kid happy in the long run.

  4. I hold the middleground on this. Some kids need pushing. Others just need tools and encouragement; they’ll get there without pushing. Pushing a self-motivated child annoys the kid without improving performance. Failing to push a fearful or unmotivated kid may let the child slip away without trying. Each child is different and each parent is different FOR each child. I don’t think there’s a formula that you can apply. It’s not that simple.

    • Wise advice. I failed to mention that critical component – the love, trust, and understanding between parent and child that helps you feel your way and better approximate what each child needs. Also, when the child loves and trusts you, you will be working together rather than at cross purposes. So much better.

  5. There is a classic story about a woman who raised 7 sons by her own after her husband dies. All of her sons ended up being “great people”. This post reminds me of that story.
    (I forget the title of the story and the name of the woman! It’s somewhere in my mind but I somehow fail to grasp the words! Arghhhhhh!)

  6. Zachary Garripoli

    I wonder what might have happened if Einstein’s parents had pushed him rather than allowing him to develop at his own pace–his teachers thought he was retarded.

    • Zachary,

      I would be hesitant to change anything about Albert Einstein’s upbringing – his contributions to human knowledge ended up being so great! And he was a fascinating person with many talents and a strong creative and independent streak.

      There is a lot of conflicting information out there about Einstein’s early years. Although his parents appear to have taken a laudably broad-minded approach to their “difficult” son, they were very concerned and involved with his education, and enrolled him in top schools (for example, the competitive Luitpold-Gymnasium at age 10, to which he would not have been admitted had he been considered retarded, and which also appears to have been a poor fit – too rote and regimented). They also took him to counseling, purchased enrichment materials, and provided him with tutors. Here is a very thorough discussion of his education:


  7. I would have had a lot of trouble as a child if my parents had made me do a sport every year. Luckily I was born in the 40s and in elementary school in the 50s, and school sports did not begin until 7th grade.
    Instead we played outside a LOT, even nonathletic types like I spent hours riding bikes, skating over at Cleveland school in Mt Vernon, WA (even on rainy days because in those days they had a covered part of the playground between the U shape that configured the structure in those days).
    We also played games that involved running, climbing, etc, organized “parades,” and our own baseball games in vacant lots; unless we inadvertently injured ourselves or hurt one of our playmates, our parents let us alone. We worked out disagreements, usually without violence, and our parents were satisfied if we were mannerly, obeyed both them and our teachers, and did as well as we could in school.
    I was an artistic child who blazed through the 25 cent package of typing paper from the corner grocery in no time at all. My parents also bought me plaster of paris, crayons, watercolors, and pretty much any art supplies I asked them for.
    I grew up to have six children, 5 of them boys. Three of those were very athletic, by their own choice, and two were not, and I didn’t force them to be. Our daughter turned out for track in high school, by her own choice.
    I don’t claim to know which approach to raising children is best–I think it really depends on the child and on the parents, too. However, I really lean toward the way that I was raised and the way we raised our children. Most children have a passionate interest in something of their own choosing; giving them what they need to pursue their passion, be it typing paper, piano or dance lessons, baseballs and mitts, whatever their passion requires, is enough for a parent to do in my mind. I think pushing kids to do things they aren’t interested in and don’t enjoy serves no useful purpose; I’d rather let them pursue things they DO love–it may turn out to be their calling in life or at least a life-long hobby that they love. JMHO. Maybe life is different now, or is it really?

    • Barb,

      I also have a fond nostalgia for an unstructured childhood. We went to the park after school every day and played with friends, and also spent a good part of our afternoons reading or playing at home and “making up” things like shows.

      It may not be the same for everyone in today’s world, but I have often felt that I and those around me have become victims of our own affluence. Large houses in large lots means few nearby neighbors (our house is on 2 wooded acres). There is no park in walking distance and it would be dangerous for small children to ride bikes on the curvy tree-lined 40-50 mph roads with no shoulders. All the (few) neighbor kids are in organized activities and had little time to play with our kids. In this kind of world, I worried that many kids would not get enough “natural” exposure to different activities to have any idea which they would like. There are always some kids with a powerful drive for something, but there are also many others who will really enjoy something, once they give it a try, but need to have that initial exposure, and maybe also a “push” to help them overcome fears of meeting new kids, learning new skills, and other hurdles.

      I hope that communities of the future will learn to bring back some of the advantages they have lost.

  8. Parenting is such a personal thing, and yet we all have opinions about how other people raise their children. You’re sitting in a doctor’s office, and a mother ignores her screaming kid. Eventually she’s had enough, and she shouts at him. But by now it’s too late and he ignores her. And you’re thinking: She should have caught that sooner. She should have a book or a game or a toy in her purse to keep him occupied. She should have whispered something to him at the first sign of trouble.

    It’s been a long time; I don’t know how much I remember about parenting, but I’m sure I wasn’t a tiger mother. That’s not my style. I think I encouraged my daughters and made suggestions. I checked up on them and made my opinions known. And I was lucky. They were usually interested and enthusiastic. More than enthusiastic. Christine, for example, the author of this post, would usually take my suggestion and go with it, sprinting ahead like a cheetah.

    If you want your child to win a gold medal at the Olympics, you may need to be a tiger mother. But most of us just want our children to achieve their potential and be healthy and happy (whatever our or their definition of happy is). So we give them opportunities and encouragement, and sometimes we supervise them. Occasionally we push them. It all depends on the children, on us, and even on the time and place we live in.

    • DSM

      Our society prizes experts. We tend to focus on those who are best at what they do. In our local high school, there are 1000 kids in each class, and you sign away your life if you want to be in the marching band. Or the swimming team. Or the football team. But how many of them are really having fun?

      If what they learn from childhood is that the goal is all that matters, they are setting themselves up for a life where they will be successful (maybe), miserable (probably), a burn out (often) and boring. If you don’t learn to indulge curiosity as a child, when will you? You will never be creative if the path and the goal are everything.

      The worst thing about being a tiger mom is not the pressure they put on their kids. It is the directions they force them into…ones that are not of their choosing, ones that do not permit sidetracking, ones that are not fun. Push them, but don’t direct them. There will be enough robots in the future.

      • DSM, you mention signing your life away to the football team. An extreme example of the “tiger mother” syndrome can be seen in a new show on Esquire Network called “Friday Night Tykes,” in which the coach yells “at 8- and 9-year olds to ‘rip their head off and make them bleed.'” Bob Cook discusses the show and the question of how much to push your kids at Forbes.com. It seems that more people are open to pushing their kids in sports than in academics, in the United States at least.

        • DSM

          I think that people who push kids in sports have a somewhat different intent compared to those who push kids in other areas… They are often doing it for themselves. The coach wants to win, the parents want their kids to do what they would want to do (but are too old) or want their kids to be prominent so they can boast about them…

          Now this would differ from Christine’s column above about pushing participation for the kids’ own sake.

  9. I’m not a parent (yet) but I am an educator in Taiwan so I can provide a teacher’s perspective to the conversation. In a society that aims for perfection and a grade of less than 100% is considered failure, I try numerous ways to motivate my students. As a teacher, I understand that everyone can’t be #1 so it is my job to encourage my students to reach their true potential. For example, I acknowledge students who try their best and improve. I give out awards not only to the top three (which is required by the school), but also to students who have improved the most (which came as a shock the first time). I also encourage through positive reinforcement and I refuse to use force. I make learning fun and exciting for the students (which some parents frown upon), but I get the best results, and I have received awards from the government for my teaching ability so I must be doing something right! Personally, I think if children know you believe in them, they will begin to believe in themselves and with the right amount of guidance and encouragement, they can reach their true potential. Plus, I promote class unity and respect so my students are very engaging and happy to learn together. I teach the younger levels so I feel that it is up to me to mold and shape their minds and make their first learning experiences as happy and enjoyable as possible! And seeing all their smiling faces when they walk into my classroom every day, eager to learn things, is reward enough for me!


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