In “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (Penguin Press, 2011), Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua describes child-rearing techniques that, as she puts it, “would seem unimaginable — even legally actionable — to Westerners.”
Reacting to a modern American parenting culture she finds soft and forgiving of mediocrity, Chua, inspired by her Chinese immigrant parents, set strict standards for her daughters. They weren’t allowed to make grades lower than As. They had to play piano or violin and practice hours a day, even on vacation, to ensure excellence. No sleepovers, play dates or TV.
For a lot of American parents, Chua’s strident defense of “Chinese parenting” touched a nerve. But parenting experts see some value in her approach — if not always in the way she carried it out.
“There’s a good take-home message here,” said Dorian Traube, an assistant professor at USC’s School of Social Work. “Chua has very clear expectations of her kids — what activities they’ll engage with, who they engage with. Any parenting book you pick up will tell you that’s the way to raise happy, secure children. What’s controversial is her methods.”
Take the way Chua taught her children perseverance. In “Battle Hymn” she writes of a time when her daughter Louisa tried to walk away from her piano practice after a week of “nonstop” — and fruitless — work on a piece.
Chua forced Louisa back to the piano, even as the child “punched, thrashed and kicked.” She threatened to take Louisa’s dollhouse to the Salvation Army if the girl didn’t have the piece perfect within a day. When Louisa kept making mistakes, Chua told her to “stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.” She forced Louisa to practice “right through dinner into the night,” not allowing breaks for water or even to use the bathroom.
Eventually, Louisa mastered the piece and loved playing it.
“One of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up,” Chua writes.
David Palmiter, a psychology professor at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa., said he was not aware of research showing that belittling children is a healthy motivational technique. But to some degree, he added, forcing kids to tough out a challenge — even when kids “howl at the moon” and push back hard — makes sense.
“We want kids to develop the psychological muscle to do things well when they don’t feel like it,” he said. That work ethic fosters success in school and work.
Ideally, Palmiter said, parents should aim for “optimal distress” — enough to build resilience but not interfere with growth. If your child gets so worked up by the pressure that she stops sleeping, or gets anxious or aggressive, or begins avoiding you, you’ve taken things too far.
Chua (partially) got it right with grades, too, the experts said. In “Tiger Mother,” she writes that her daughters had to be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama. Underlying this rule is an assumption common among Chinese mothers, Chua writes: that children can be “the best” students if they work hard enough.
Setting challenging goals — insisting that mediocrity won’t do — is crucial for children, said Abigail Gewirtz, an assistant professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. “If you push a kid to do well, and they’re good at it, they benefit,” she said. “It’s good to have high expectations.”
But expectations need to be realistic and tailored to each child. “Not every kid can be at the top of the class,” Gewirtz said.
Traube said that for high-performing children, meeting lofty expectations can be empowering. For a child who can’t get the A, however (and some truly can’t), a bar set too high can so discourage children that they decide “it doesn’t make sense to have goals for the future.”
While acknowledging that cultural norms vary, the psychologists saw less to laud in Chua’s policy outlawing sleepovers and play dates.
“It would not be a recommendation I’d make,” Traube said. “Not allowing kids to spend time with other kids could set them up to miss social cues and not be as comfortable with their peers.” Such discomfort can lead to isolation later in life.
Chua’s hard line on TV and computer games — she banned them completely — got mixed reviews.
“It’s kind of extreme,” said Jeffrey Seinfeld, a professor of social work at New York University. “Kids need some veg time.”
Gewirtz, who doesn’t let her children watch TV during the week, noted that some parents create successful no-TV households by replacing television time with other family activities. But she also said that keeping children away from television completely can make it harder for them to fit in with peers. “If your family doesn’t watch TV, your kid might not know what’s going on,” she said.
With television as with anything, moderation, the experts agreed, is probably the best course. “Tiger mothers,” as defined by Chua, take good instincts to extremes that just can’t work for every child.
But at least, said Traube, Chua has folks thinking. “One thing I love about this book is that it’s getting people talking about parenting,” she said.
Times staff writer Jeannine Stein contributed to this report.