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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 01/19/2011

What to think of Amy Chua

By Jennifer Rubin

Amy Chua is the Yale law professor whose new book on parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has created a storm of controversy. Ruth Marcus gives an vivid summary:

You may have heard the horror stories. Chua threatened to burn her daughter's stuffed animals if she failed to perform the piano piece perfectly. She rejected hand-made birthday cards from her then 4- and 7-year-olds because they were inadequately elaborate.

She banned sleepovers and playdates; mandated hours of daily violin and piano practice; insisted that her daughters be the top students in every class except gym and drama. When one daughter behaved disrespectfully, Chua called her "garbage" - and then bragged about it at a dinner party, to the horror of more Westernized parents.

Ruth writes that good parenting must balance "demanding too much and accepting too little. The difficulty of good parenting lies in the fact that this sweet spot is elusive, individual and constantly changing."

Meanwhile, David Brooks offers a different take on Chua: "I believe she's coddling her children. She's protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn't understand what's cognitively difficult and what isn't." He contends Chua has missed the boat because she has ignored other critical life skills: "Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group -- these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale."

I agree with both, as far as they go. But I don't think they go far enough. The headline-grabbing incidents are evidence of cruelty, not simply bad parenting. Is she making achievement machines or being emotionally abusive? Closer to the latter, I would suggest.

Moreover, as an accomplished pianist told me yesterday, she "doesn't know what she is doing on the piano instruction." He explained that a professional instructor would never recommend a series of what amounts to futile frontal assaults on a passage, whether it be a child or an adult. The music was either too hard for her girl, or the girl needed a work-around (e.g. another fingering) to solve the problem. Chua isn't teaching achievement, but rather is guilty of musical malpractice.

In short, we aren't being nearly hard enough on Chua. The question is not whether her parenting is better than the average American mother, but whether it is destructive and downright mean. And don't get me started on her husband, who apparently delegated all his parenting responsiblities to his wife.

By Jennifer Rubin  | January 19, 2011; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Culture  
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When I heard and read the sort of comments this American Chinese mother used to abuse, attack, and "teach" her daughter, I was and remain horrified.
Because this is precisely the way the Chinese Soviet style Communist government has historically and even now relates to it's slave\serf population, along of course with the threat of imprisonment, torture, and death for misbehavior or bad performance.
At least this Chinese American "mother" and I use the description with a great deal of doubt, cannot legally physically torture or murder her poor daughter as occurs far too frequently both by the government and families in that "mother's" former homeland.

Posted by: Beniyyar | January 19, 2011 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Racism is ugly even if its practitioner is Chinese.

Posted by: getjiggly2 | January 19, 2011 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Tough, yes, but cruel? I'm not so sure. They had an interview with her daughter, and it painted a much less extreme picture. I think Ms. Chua wants her daughters to think they can master anything, if they work hard enough.

I'm not saying I would do things the way Ms. Chua does, but in the spectrum of how she raised her kids, and what I often see in the constant self-esteem, kids ruling the roost that I often see, I think she gets more right than wrong.

Posted by: timInCT | January 19, 2011 12:35 PM | Report abuse

I think any sympathy the mom gets is because we know there is a lack of discipline being instilled by many parents. We wonder if we're not pushing our kids enough when they watch TV, go to parties or the like and don't get straight A's.

But it's clear that she represents a true extreme and shouldn't be what parents emulate.

Posted by: keepandbear | January 19, 2011 1:07 PM | Report abuse

In all the discussion about Chua I've never seen anyone mention her husband. Thanks for that. Her mothering style deserves to be eviscerated; I doubt she realizes all she has unwittingly revealed about her wifely style. Forcing a child to your will is easy, albeit cruel. Co-parenting with your husband takes an adult.

Posted by: kafbst | January 19, 2011 1:15 PM | Report abuse

There is no problem with having high expectations of one's children. My parent's had high expectations of me and I had high expectations of my two beauties.

There is nothing wrong with being assertive about a failure to work toward those high expectations either. My parents were in my face about bad grades in school and I got in my kids' face about theirs.

There is nothing wrong with demonstrating the fact that there are negative consequences to bad behavior. In the real world there are real world negative consequences to bad behavior, might as well let the tykes obtain that understanding sooner.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | January 19, 2011 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm, I can see both sides on this one, but missing from the debate is the idea tha child-bearing is limited in China. The parents whole hopes rest on the achievement of that one or at most two children.

My sister teaches in what would be called an impoverished area on the East Coast. Some of her children are African immigrants, or the children of African immigrants. She says the difference in parenting is remarkable. They are the first ones, sometimes the only ones to attend parent-teacher conferences, and some of them want her to let them know if their children aren't working hard enough and they will beat them at home. They're not kidding.

On some level it's our old problem of believing that everyone in the world is just like us, in funny clothing.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 19, 2011 2:22 PM | Report abuse

When I view Ms. Chua's childrearing practices, I am reminded of how these things tend, from time to time, to swing like a pendulum.

Back in the 70's and 80's, Dorothy Briggs' book, "Your Child's Selff-Esteem," was the new parenting/education bible. Even children who were completely slacking off were told what a great job they were doing, at home and at school. Pre-Briggs, building a child's ego was not the number one parenting or educational goal. Nevertheless, this caught on, both for good or ill, and has been very influential.

In a negative view, Briggs helped usher in a generation of mediocre achievers who often erroneously believe they are exceptional. Schools began expecting less of students for fear of harming their fragile egos. Now our students are consistently falling behind others in the world. However, they often THINK they are tops, despite their measured shortcomings.

I see Chua's views, as weird as they may seem to many, as an attempt to push the childrearing pendulum away from the overblown 'self esteem revolution' of the 70's.

Posted by: marybel9999 | January 19, 2011 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Chua's behavior is unquestionably cruel, even criminal. Anyone who thinks it is OK to call their children "garbage" does not deserve to have children. End of story.

Posted by: karlmarx2 | January 19, 2011 3:14 PM | Report abuse

I remember a great scene in the Cosby Show, Dr. Huxtable goes into Theo's room saying, "your mother sent me up here to kill you" and then "I brought you into this world and I will take you out" this sounds similarly abusive but depends entirely on the context of the relationship between parent and child so aptly played in that scene by Bill Cosby and Malcolm Jamal-Warner.

Posted by: almorganiv | January 19, 2011 3:21 PM | Report abuse

I agree that Chau's approach seems harsh, and I am glad my folks didn't use it. On the other hand, you have to admit that Asian kids tend to be a whole lot smarter and more successful than white kids, if less happy.

Posted by: mddg7771 | January 19, 2011 3:23 PM | Report abuse

How come Mrs. Chua didn't give us more information on how to raise fertile children? Here's my view:

Posted by: joemcveigh | January 19, 2011 3:37 PM | Report abuse

If that birthday card story is real, she's a monster.

Posted by: danw1 | January 19, 2011 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Please feel free to think what you want of Chua and her husband, but please do not think all mothers who are Chinese are Tiger Mothers.

Chua and her publishers have every right to publicize her book, and they did a very good job, but it came at the expense of all the academically and musically successful Asians who will have an even harder time of shaking off the image they could not have accomplished much without their tiger mothers pushing them.

Posted by: gaimusho | January 19, 2011 4:26 PM | Report abuse

Well said, gaimusho. The racial (and racist) overtones of this whole debate are a distraction from the real issue, which is the use of cruelty and abuse in child-rearing.

Tiger mothers have no monopoly on abusive behavior. It's clear from this and other WAPO boards on this subject that there are many American parents who embrace violence and emotional abuse as acceptable child-rearing tools.

Posted by: karlmarx2 | January 19, 2011 4:47 PM | Report abuse

What if two mothers insisted that their daughters be the top student in every class. Somebody'd be in for a whuppin.

Posted by: alexandria6351 | January 19, 2011 5:29 PM | Report abuse

I think Amy Chua is naive if she didn't expect a firestorm from what she has written. But, why backpedal -- just reload!!!

Who the Heck do the critics think they are? OK. Its not a style that you would practice -- and neither would I. I wouldn't feel good about myself if I called my child garbage. But, maybe Amy has a point: American parents are soft on their children and you get Loughner's who have no direction and no discipline and live in their own world. I don't think you can say that Amy Chua doesn't love her children, she's just tough on them-- her version of tough love. Maybe it gets the last ounce of ambition out of the kids and puts them on the right track. It works in the military -- and so many kids these days get their bearings and their heads screwed on right in the military.

I can't do it, but my kids have all done well by themselves, too. My approach was to give them ideas and show by example and they took off. If I were Tiger Father, I know I'd lose them, and I'd regret it. But, I can't say that it or TOUGH LOVE, wouldn't work for others -- as long as you balance the love with the discipline. You've got to be able to read your children and know when to back off so they really know that you love them even when you expect a lot of them.

Posted by: oakland | January 19, 2011 6:23 PM | Report abuse

The problem with such a stricly goal oriented approach is that is does not provide one with the emotional maturity needed to handle such achievements. You see this demonstrated in many of the female Asian golfers on the LPGA Tour. They are diligent automatons who sacrifice countless hours of social interaction in pursuit of their craft with considerable individual success. Those who get to the highest levels, however, often don't obtain the satisfaction they were striving for because they don't have the balance in their lives that you need to truly appreciate and enjoy such achievements. This causes them to completely break from their regimented routine and rebel. This is not just confined to female golfers it is seen throughout society in those reared in such methods. One who identifies and reaches their goals as a PART of their life as opposed to ALL of their life can handle it, and therefore enjoy it, in a much healthier manner.

Posted by: cunn9305 | January 19, 2011 7:54 PM | Report abuse

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