On Tiger Mamas, bad art, and the heart of a child

My first thought, upon hearing of Amy Chua’s now famous (or infamous) essay about the superiority of Chinese mothers, is that it’s irrelevant to me. The odds that I will go out and father a child with a Chinese woman are exactly zero. Further, even if Chua has brilliant mothering tips, there’s no way I’m going to elucidate them for the mother of the children I do have, at least not so long as we have guns and knives in the house.

Chua’s essay, however, and its reverberations in the chattersphere, are hard for a parent to ignore. We’re all gripped by the fear, at least on occasion, that we are going about this all wrong. It’s hard not to pay attention when someone comes along to say, so very forcefully, “You have no idea just how wrong you really are.”

Chua’s thesis can be summed up as follows: Tiger mamas don’t give a whit about self-esteem. They demand excellence, and they’re willing to push, prod, threaten, cajole, and punish their children to far greater lengths than Westerners in order to get the academic and artistic performance they want. This is okay because children are resilient. What’s more, it’s necessary. “Nothing,” Chua writes, “is fun until you’re good at it.”

I hope nobody tells my six year-old, who can draw me pictures at a clip of roughly one every five minutes. It’s not high art, but he certainly does love doing iScribblet. Chua, meanwhile, admits in her book to forcing her daughters to give her better birthday cards when the ones they produced were unsatisfactory.

Who’s happier at the end of that experience? Chua’s daughters may draw better after being rejected and shamed, and they may in turn derive some satisfaction from being better artists, but while the poor little Chua girls are more carefully tracing out “Happy Birthday” to suit Mommy dearest, my Issac has made me another 87 pictures, and beamed through every one of them.

That’s not to say we ought to spare our children the arduous tasks of developing excellence. But we also shouldn’t forget that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.

We need to balance the necessary suffering of skill-building, in other words, with enjoying actions of creation, however meager. Joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy describe not just the walk of faith, but the path of a life well lived.

There’s a deeper problem with Tiger Mamas, however, and it’s evidenced in Chua’s critics as well. This is the notion that we parents are fashioning producers. This latent utilitarianism runs through the heart of today’s schools, and through too many of our churches, and we parents have embraced it without question.

Do we want our children to learn values and skills that enable them to craft valuable things in the world, and to care for themselves and their families? Without question. But is our primary function to raise productive members of society? Movers and shakers? Spellbinding artists? Captains of industry?

If this is the lens through which you view your parenting, then Chua has valid points. And so does David Brooks, who argues that she’s missing, in denying her children the chaotic joy of slumber parties, a chance for them to develop complex emotional intelligence. As does Ayelet Waldman, who counsels parenting tailored to the needs of the child.

They all make sense, and my strong hunch is that any of them is a far better parent than the schlub who lets his kid watch five hours a day of television.

But at the end of it all — no, at the beginning — you have to decide what you want the lives of your children to mean. Not in fine detail — their lives belong to them, after all — but writ large. What is your vision for your child? To be the best student? The finest pianist? A champion athlete?

Why in the world would you envision any of these things for your child? To what end? Your vision has to go further, in other words. Further inward, to the heart of your child, and thereby to your own heart. I want my sons to know God, and to know peace, and to know love — genuine, sacrificial, risk-taking love. I want my sons to find places in the world where, as Frederick Buechner writes, their deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. I want my sons to be better men than I.

Playing concert piano or curing cancer or digging a ditch — any of these can be right, and any of them can be wrong, and what will determine whether they are right or wrong for your child, for my child, is whether we have cultivated, in our brief time with them, hearts capable of love, and of joy, and of faith. Set all your will and hope on that, mother. Make it your constant prayer, father.

By all means, make sure they read good things, and exercise their bodies, and eat all their carrots. But the heart, the heart is the key. Be attentive to the rest, but passionate about this.


  1. Jonny

    “…whether they are right or wrong for your child, for my child, is whether we have cultivated, in our brief time with them, hearts capable of love, and of joy, and of faith.” Preach it!

  2. Heather

    Really great thoughts, Tony. I enjoyed reading this – since I’ve been thinking a lot about that Chua article.

  3. Beth

    Thank you ever so much. This is the best response to that article that I have read yet. God gives unique children with unique needs to unique parents with unique abilities and wants us to love and teach them the best we can. Pretty early on we parents realize that we need a lot of help…hence the calloused knees from the most effective parenting activity of all.

  4. Micah

    Tony, are you reading Last Psychiatrist? If not, you might have missed the awesomeness that is his response to this.

    [link removed to see if it’ll allow me to post] [edit: yep. You’ll have to use your own google-fu]

    My second favorite bit:

    Take a step outside the article. This is a woman explaining why Chinese mothers are superior. The thing is, I don’t know any Chinese mothers who would ever talk about their families this way, publicly, describe their parenting, brag about it. Never. And then you see it: Amy Chua isn’t a Chinese mother, she’s an American mother. She had a Chinese mother, but now she’s a first generation American, which means she has more in common with Natalie Portman than she does with any recent Chinese immigrant. As an American, she was raised by the same forces: MTV, Reagan, Clinton, John Hughes movies. She may have reacted differently to those, but they were her experiences.

    And what do Americans do? They brand themselves. I have no idea if Amy Chua cares about Viking stoves or Lexus automobiles but clearly her brand is SuperSinoMom and her bling are her kids. When Jay-Z wants to front he makes a video, and when Amy Chua represents she writes a WSJ article. Because that’s her demo, you feel me?

    Which means this self-serving piece has nothing to do with “how Chinese mothers are superior” but is really a summary of her episode of MTV Cribs. “Welcome to my home, yo, let me show you my gold toilet. It’s for peeing and flushing the coke down when the heat comes in the back way.”

    For my favorite bit, you’d have to read the article. Hint: it’s the part about the Jewish husband.

  5. Kit

    Tony, thanks for this. I think it’s my favorite response to the Chua piece, even more than the Brooks response.
    And you made me weep because I want to reach my children’s hearts so very badly. Jesus help.

  6. Celesta

    Perfect! I’ve been chafing after reading Chua’s many headlines in everything from the WSJ to People to O Magazine. I couldn’t put my finger on why it bugged me so. Then I read John Rosemond’s response and felt better. And now your brilliant comeback.

    I feel so much better now. Thank you!

  7. Spud

    When we teach love, we expect our children to understand that true love is giving without expecting anything in return. You may get something, and it may be some time later in the future. One of the underlying themes for “Tiger Mom” is the delayed gratification. Work long and hard, and maybe in the future you’ll amount to something.

    Raising children to “embrace” delayed gratification can be a tricky process, especially since most of them are so greedy 😉 . The Freakonomics blog had an interesting post on the Economics of Tiger Parenting. We’ve all heard the refrain: It’s too hard, I don’t understand it, I don’t wanna do it. We will give the authoritative response: You can’t learn something unless you dive in, try it and make some mistakes along the way.

    I believe this country of ours has a problem with delayed gratification. The SOTU address did not give me any warm fuzzies about changes in our economic direction from the executive branch.

  8. Ruth

    Oh yes indeed an excellent response to a bizarre article. “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly”. Words I try to live by or I wouldn’t attempt anything nor would my kids.

  9. Tony

    Thank you in particular to Micah and Marc (aka “Spud”) for the links. It’s a weakness of mine that I don’t read more of what other people say before I opine on something. I suppose I’m worried it will leave me with nothing left to say. And that, of course, would be traumatic.

    Anthony, you have me worried. If I’ve reached my pinnacle, is it all downhill from here? Will my next post jump the shark? The pressure. The pressure.

  10. CW

    My sister-in-law and I read this article together one morning because I stayed at her house with my kids while visiting family in Fl. As we read the article, our six kids sat (or bounced around, depending on the kid) watching a silly show (sometimes they watched the animal info shows, too). We looked at each other, since I am pretty sure they were on their fourth show, and said,”I bet she wouldn’t approve.” (Of the show-watching or the sleepover.) We had to laugh.
    I really appreciate what you said here, though. There is more I could say, but the words aren’t quite forming into coherent sentences, so I will leave it at that, even though it is so terribly vague. I promise it’s a good kind of thought-provoking for me!

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