Mother Tiger—or Just a Big Bully?

by Frederick Luis Aldama on January 20, 2011

From the playground to Internet, bullying runs rampant. Now it appears in the form of blaze-away bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin 2011). The author and mother of two, Amy Chua, takes pride in raising her girls the Asian way: no sleepovers, playdates, school plays, TV or video games, no grads less than an A, etc. “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until your good at it. To get good a anything you have to work, and children on their own never want o work, which his why it is crucial to override their preferences”. And while “Western parents” ask their kids to try their best, Chinese use put downs like “your lazy” and “your classmates are getting ahead of you” as well as order to get As.
To punish her daughter Lulu for not practicing till she got the “The Little White Donkey” right on the piano, it’s not so much that she threatened to take toys to the Salvation Army or to burn a stuffed animal or that she couldn’t use the bathroom or drink water, but that she told her to “stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic”. By working her daughter to the bone to get it right, Chua explains that this builds self-esteem.
While Chua has tried to hide behind disclaimers (“Retreat of the Tiger Mother”) that this is “ironic and self-mocking” (“I find it very funny, almost obtuse”) or some form of exaggeration since, we know better. Do we use a dash of cultural relativism and let this Chua off the hook or call this for what it is: bullying. I don’t want to add more to the huge wave of negative response—“Parents like Amy Chua are the reason Asian-Americans like me are in therapy”—but would like to mention the huge research in the biological science—social neuroscience and cognitive development research—that tell us otherwise.

It’s simple. It’s universal. Given that we are the only species that grows so much ab ovo, we require a massive force-field of nurturance and protection to grow healthy and balanced emotion and cognitive systems. Indeed, it is precisely the protected environment of childhood that allows us to develop faculties of reasoning (deduction, induction, abduction), judging (distinguishing, separating, ordering, classifying), evaluating (good/bad, right/wrong, tasty/unsavory, attractive/repulsive), as well as our emotions, our motivation (or will, or will-power), and our intentionality (our capacity to plan, to have an action and its result in our mind before materializing it as an entity out there in the world).
The proof’s in the pudding: while you might make it to Julliard with your piano playing, goodness knows where you might have gone if you’d been given a parent/child environment where the draconian is not the rule; where it is the stamp of love and acceptance and not avoidance and anxiety that opens up the desire to explore world outside in unlimited ways.
Why on earth would we want to clip wings and create children that formulate only limited theories of love and physical and biological world outside? Why in the world would we want to create unimaginative little people who become big bullies?
As Alison Gopnik so nicely puts it in her wonderful book, Philosophical Baby: “There’s a kind of immunity about a happy childhood. Change and transience are at heart of human condition. But as parents we can at least give our children a happy childhood, a gift that is as certain as unchanging, as rock solid, as any human good.”

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

David Garderet January 21, 2011 at 2:20 pm

My heart aches for Amy Chua’s daughters. Once gain we see parents who’s ambitions for their children involve only things that will make them, the parents, boast about but completely miss the mark on what their children so dearly want: Love. As a parent and stay-at-home Dad, my ambitions for my daughter are simple: Be happy and be kind. Without these things, what good comes of perfect academic grades, piano performance and accumulation of awards? How about fostering a love of learning rather than a fear and dread of it? Will her children ever want to touch another musical instrument or continue under their own initiative to seek further education as adults, and, here’s the kicker, maintain a relationship with their parents who robbed them of their opportunity to be children? Now that Amy Chua has grabbed the media’s attention in her new book, detailing her extreme point of view, she is backpedaling. Hearing her speak on NPR, she said that “clearly a hybrid of Western and Asian parenting philosophies are preferable”. Um, duh! I strongly believe that children need rules and structure to guide them in their uncertain little worlds, but the key is ‘guide’, not limit their experiences and opportunities to grow emotionally and socially. After all, our job as parents is to prepare our children to leave us, and to that extent, it’s all about them not us. I cheered out loud when I heard that her teenage daughter rebelled against her mother’s draconian rules and parenting philosophy – you go girl!


Frederick Luis Aldama January 24, 2011 at 8:58 pm

As David so rightly points out, when you decide to have a kid, it’s all about “fostering a love of learning rather than a fear and dread of it”.

This common sense approach to raising healthy human beings is backed up solidly by today’s neuroscience research.

The research show us that at the neuroanatomical levels “bullying by peers is as pernicious and destructive as different verbal, physical, and even sexual forms of abuse inflicted by adults” (“Inside the Bullied Brain: The Alarming Neuroscience of Taunting.” The Boston Globe. November 28, 2010.)

Draconian parenting a la Chua grows all kinds of psychologically negative feelings as well as an actual rewiring important features of the brain’s structures such as memory and other cognitive functions; indeed, constant and pervasive bullying impact the brain in ways that are as brutal as a beating. That is, bullying has a psychological and material impact on the brain.

Those who have been bullied in their teens manage to become healthy functioning adults, it’s a result of the magnificent neuroplasticity and neurogenesis of the brain. In many cases, the brain recovers; many of those broken neurological networks broken in, say, adolescence can be rebuilt in adulthood.

Yes, Chua’s kids are high achievers. But one can only imagine what Chua’s daughters might have become had their brain’s been hit so hard by the Mother Tiger fist.


wrightee January 25, 2011 at 8:59 pm

They’re even talking this @ Harvard Business:


Frederick Luis Aldama January 26, 2011 at 10:24 pm

I should add that the research discussed by Emily Anthes also states that in fact “bullying can leave an indelible imprint on a teen’s brain at a time when it is still growing and developing. Being ostracized by one’s peers, it seems, can throw adolescent hormones even further out of whack, lead to reduced connectivity in the brain, and even sabotage the growth of new neurons”


Samuel Saldivar III January 28, 2011 at 12:32 am

As I write this response my youngest son is fighting with my feet. My other two children are running around with a scarf and pretending that it is a rope that binds them to each other. My house is full and tolerant of laughter, rough-housing, heated conversations, and even arguments as my three boys navigate their ever expanding spaces, but the one thing that is not allowed/tolerated are words and actions that are deliberately (sometimes they wrestle) meant to hurt the other. After all, we are responsible for offering (or in this case omitting) particular activities, attitudes, practices, etc. that are meant to ultimately build up our children. Alfie Kohn writes in Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community that “children are more likely to be respectful when important adults (i.e. guardian, mentor) in their lives respect them. They are more likely to care about others if they know they are cared about. If their emotional needs are met, they have the luxury of being able to meet other peoples needs-rather than spending their lives preoccupied with themselves. (111)” This may shed some light as to why Chua’s daughter revolted when she had the chance. Having spent so many years being disrespected, mistreated and torn down by her mother, Chua’s daughter took it upon herself to establish an emotional rebellion (I can only imagine those conversations) in the home. Chua’s daughter was simply returning destructive actions that were so generously poured into her for so many years. As for me, I’m going try my hardest to keep my parenting Tiger on its leash and work with, through, and for my child’s ideas and roar only when it’s the last resort.


Don Morgan January 29, 2011 at 1:04 am

I read the original comments a week ago and am just having a chance to respond. I must first state that I have not read her book nor heard her interviews. I used to read a syndicated column by John Rosemond (child psychologist) and would really like to hear his comments on Amy Chua’s book. He tends to have a no nonsense approach to raising kids yet has firm boundaries that he believes should not be crossed.
From what little I’ve read and heard, Amy is a hyper type A person who believes they must endure her rigor to become successful. I don’t know enough about the Chinese culture to know if she is in line with the majority of Chinese parents or is way over the top. Consequently I can not comment on the cultural aspect of this method of child rearing.
What bothers me about this is the idea there is one way to make your kids successful (and therefore happy) and that is to be a drill sargent for the first 18 years of your children’s lives. There is no one-way to parent. You really need to take cues from your children and (attempt to) respond (i.e. raise your children) accordingly. Some children may respond positively to Amy’s methods. Most, I would think, do not.
It’s a bit ironic that as a type A person myself, I tend to avoid other type As. They tend to be ego centric and believe they have the only “right” way to do things. It’s based on this belief that I think Amy is way out of bounds. She has an insatiable need to succeed and feels her kids won’t be happy unless they end up just like her. I thank God my mother was not like her.


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