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Eye of the tiger mom

There’s been a lot of tiger hunting over the Internet in the past several weeks. Tiger mom hunting, that is.

(ERIC KOFMAN/The Stanford Daily)

In a pre-publication book excerpt published in “The Wall Street Journal,” provocatively titled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” Yale Law School professor Amy Chua recounts her harrowing successes with traditional Chinese parenting, which she calls a recipe for “math whizzes and music prodigies.”

Chua’s bluntly earnest and highly contentious “tiger mother” tenets have stirred enormous Internet debate: her WSJ.com article racked more than 7,700 comments and scored over a million views. It’s a rather crafty marketing strategy on behalf of Chua, who is receiving free publicity, though much of it comes in the form of displeased outcries from those whom Chua calls “Western parents” expressing deep disgust for what they consider a militaristic and cruel parenting method that is, in the long term, socially and emotionally damaging.

So what exactly is it about Chua’s memoir (not a “Parenting 101” manual) that provokes “Western parents” to recoil so defensively?

According to some Stanford professors, buried underneath the emotional outcry is a deep American fear of the fragile future of the United States’ role in the global economy.

“We’re in a period of great worry,” said Hazel Markus, a psychology professor. “We’re concerned about China’s potential global dominance.”

The results of multiple studies suggest that China’s students are academically outperforming the rest, confirming a general unease with the U.S.’s declining role in global commerce.

Paula Moya, an english professor who co-teaches Introduction to Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CSRE) with Markus, remarked that the paranoia of “Chinese superiority” is not entirely unfounded.

“There is a well-known [stereotype] of the academic excellence of Asian-Americans, who are scoring higher,” Moya said. “There was a recent study that showed that students in Shanghai outscored the competition.”

The scores that Moya is referring to came from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the results of which were released in December of 2010. Sixty-three nations participated in the assessment. While American students scored a respectable average–17th, 23rd, and 31st in reading, science and math, respectively–students in Shanghai outstripped the global competition by placing first in all three categories.

Such results, Professor Markus believes, contribute greatly to the American middle class’ growing fears of the United States’ shrinking economic role.

“We have not only a fear of China, but also a fear of child-rearing,” Markus noted. “This applies especially for middle class parents. [Chua] has hit a nerve. We are worried about not only our place in the world, but also about the future of our children, which now seems rather shaky.”

Chua’s narration of her zero tolerance for failure policy strikes a more personal chord with those who acknowledge the potential risk of long-term scarring, both physical and emotional, on the child.

“There’s the huge obsession that Asian parents seem to have with success,” Ze Xiao ’11 said. “Yes, your kids will be academically and financially successful on the outside. On the inside, however, you could be screwing up your kids’ chance at happiness.”

Xiao, however, also acknowledged that Chua’s fierce regimen (which includes three hours of instrument practice per day, no sleepovers and nothing less than straight A’s), though seeming to gravitate toward an extreme, is relatively tame in comparison to some of the Asian parents she has seen.

“I can see why some parents would be so sensitive about it,” Xiao said. “But I’ve seen worse parenting. I’ve definitely heard of parents who beat their kids, so the article didn’t anger me so much.”

On Stanford’s campus, students who have grown up with Westernized Chinese parents did not find Chua’s practices surprising in theory, but were taken aback by how Chua put them into practice.

“I kind of knew about the fierce Chinese mother thing,” Chloe Yeung ’13 said. “I grew up with Westernized Chinese parents, but I have friends who went through that kind of an experience, so what the article said hit pretty close to home. I think what she’s done is a little over the top.”

Many students, while disapproving of the cold strictness of Chua’s parental method, may also find grains of truth among her derogatory name-calling and stinginess with privileges.

“A lot of children really are lazy,” Yeung said. “There’s a book we read last year [“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell] that mentioned when you want to get really good at something, you have to invest a lot of effort, which means a lot of practice. It’s a great way to gain a skill, even if you don’t end up wanting to continue with it.”

To some students, behind the veneer of the compassionless drilling that Chua described lies a genuine belief that one’s child will succeed.

“I found myself agreeing with some of the points she made,” Xiao said. “Especially how Western parents tend to ‘allow’ failure–the way Western parents let their kids fail–while Asian parents believe that their kids can do it, which is why they push so hard.”

Others, however, see the incited controversy as merely the result of a clever marketing ploy that has taken advantage of the tension between significantly polar Western and Asian cultural practices.

“From what I can tell, it’s mostly a self-promoting piece with little real substance and more of a provocation for sales,” said David Palumbo-Liu, comparative literature professor and director of Asian American studies.

Regardless of Chua’s intentions in authoring her book, she has undoubtedly sparked a much-needed discussion of cultural stereotyping when it comes to parenting.

“We like to think that we’ve got it right,” Markus said. “[But] what’s important for people to get out of this is that we need to come to terms about accepting the cultural realities on parenting–that there are multiple models for parenting. Just because it looks strict doesn’t mean that it is not a loving relationship.”

  • Susie

    My kids like the middle ground–high expectation with guidance, support of opportunities and love, lots of sleepovers and play, but definitely not three hours of whatever practice. They still get straight As of their choosing and are successful and happy! Not bragging but lucky!

  • masaru

    A number of articles have also come out that interviewed Chua directly. They give a pretty different picture from the WSJ excerpt, which is in ways rather misleading.

  • Robin Thomas

    @masaru — Agreed. For instance, my understanding is that the WSJ came up with the headline “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” without asking her, which makes a pretty big difference!

  • Grad Student

    Wow Stanford Daily… way to come to this discussion a month after pretty much everything has been said and everyone realized what the book was ACTUALLY about.

  • Publishers

    WSJ has also pointed out that the headline was approved by her publishers though, who knew the article would stir up controversy and therefore, sell books. Smart marketing ploy.