Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tiger Mom Is Still Better Than You

"Tiger Mom" Amy Chua returned last month with a new essay in the Wall Street Journal. She's a little more circumspect, a little more "hands-off." But don't worry. She's still a better parent than you are.

Chua's older daughter is now in college (at Harvard, of course). Tiger Mom is constantly looking over her shoulder, right? Wrong! That's for inferior Western "helicopter parents," who have to hover over their incompetent college-age kids because they didn't follow the Chinese way when they were younger! Ha!

Chua's new essay, like every public statement she's made since starting the "tiger mom" controversy a year ago, is an exercise in spin. It has nothing to do with what she actually advocates in her book. Her contradictions are so breathtaking that she must assume no one has really read the thing. (I have, by the way.) But it's interesting insofar as it reflects the treacherous landscape of stereotypes that Chua waded into--and added to--with her book. Stung by the backlash that labeled her "Chinese" parenting as scary, foreign, un-American, Chua in this new essay makes the equally implausible case that what she called "Chinese" was always unthreateningly all-American, after all.

The basic gist of Chua's new essay is that "tiger parenting" is a strategy to be used only in childhood, then let go:
It's really only about very early child-rearing, and it's most effective when your kids are between the ages of, say, 5 and 12.
Well, that would be a surprise to the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, whose idea of a compromise with "Western" parenting is this:
"I've decided to favor a hybrid approach," I said. "The best of both worlds. The Chinese way until the child is eighteen, to develop confidence and the value of excellence, then the Western way after that. Every individual has to find their own path," I added gallantly.

"Wait--until eighteen?" asked Sophia [Chua's older daughter]. "That's not a hybrid approach. That's just Chinese parenting all through childhood."
Yup. Real Chinese parenting, according to Chua's book, is a lifelong enterprise. Letting your kid alone when she goes off to college is a sentimental American indulgence. But that was the book, which nobody's read anyway. In this latest essay, Chua seems intent on claiming that tiger parenting is not a permanent state but just an early phase of child-rearing, one that is loosened up in order to give a child more freedom as she becomes a teenager. (Never mind that many of the most harrowing scenes of conflict in Battle Hymn come when Chua's daughters are thirteen and sixteen.)

What's Chua up to here? What she's been up to for the past year: trying to rehabilitate herself, and to salvage her claim that "tiger parenting" is a real model rather than a caricatured monstrosity.

Now you'd think that the major thing Chua would want to defend herself against is the charge that her parenting model is cruel, abusive, and psychologically damaging. But the criticism that most infuriates her is this:
[W]hat drives me the craziest may be the charge that tiger parenting produces meek robots and automatons.
This is interesting, because if you read Battle Hymn you'd think that the most likely outcome of tiger parenting would be psychotic freaks. The charge that tiger parenting produces "robots" has nothing to do with Chua at all, and everything to do with stereotypes about Asians--as a faceless mass of nerds, skilled only at math and science, lacking social skills and personality.

Facing down this criticism is a missed opportunity for Chua. She could take this moment to reflect on how stereotypes about the Chinese shaped the way her own claims about Chinese parenting were received. Maybe she could even have reflected on her own complicity (knowing or otherwise) with those stereotypes. But instead, she gives us yet another disingenuous revision of tiger parenting, leaving anything Chinese far behind.

Tiger parenting, Chua now tells us, "is all about raising independent, creative, courageous kids." Oh really? I dare you to find any of those words used in a positive way in Battle Hymn. (They do appear: "Independent" is a trait of a dog who is difficult to train. And "creative" does get mentioned as a trait--of the tiger mother herself, not her children.) Parenting in Tiger Mother is, instead, a virtuous (or vicious?) circle of shame and obligation, in which the parent's relentless labor, however humiliating to the child, is later repaid by the child's boundless gratitude and respect. Yet Chua would now have us believe that her model of parenting produces idiosyncratic college-dropout geniuses like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, because those guys show us how we should apply the values of hard work to "something that we feel passionate about." The Chua of Battle Hymn would laugh that one out of the room:
[Western parents] just keep repeating things like "You have to give your children the freedom to pursue their passion" when it's obvious that the "passion" is just going to turn out to be Facebook for ten hours which is a total waste of time.
Take that, Mark Zuckerberg!

But in claiming that tiger parenting can produce Jobses and Zuckerbergs, Chua is confronting a real stereotype about Asian Americans: we make great engineers and programmers, but we simply don't have what it takes to be true leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators. Despite the heavy presence of Asian Americans in US technological fields, they're rarely seen among the icons of the field or the leaders of major tech corporations. (There are, of course, exceptions, like computer pioneer An Wang and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang.) Wesley Yang's "Paper Tigers" gives us the standard explanations of this phenomenon: it's either due to a racist "bamboo ceiling" that limits Asian American advancement or the result of shortcomings within Asian culture that keep Asian Americans from being leadership material.

Chua has an opportunity to provide us some insight into this debate. Instead, she simply pretends it doesn't exist. Asian parenting, she asserts in her new article, just does produce entrepreneurial geniuses the way it produces math whizzes and concert pianists. But it's really difficult to see how the model of parenting described in Battle Hymn could produce a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates--both college dropouts who spent a good deal of their childhoods goofing around with arcane computer technology. Are we really supposed to believe that Chua ("children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences") would have been supportive if her daughters wanted to spend all day in the garage taking computers apart? How would she have reacted if, instead of playing violin and piano, they wanted to start a band or lock themselves in their rooms programming video games? (I think I can tell you about the band: Chua asserts in her book that playing the drums would have been out because "playing the drums...leads to drugs.") Far from convincing us that tiger moms produce innovators, Chua's book seems like Exhibit A for those who think there will never be an Asian American Steve Jobs.

Guess how many times the word "Chinese" appears in Chua's new article? Zero. That's right: the woman who rose to fame declaring that "Chinese Mothers Are Superior," and whose book is about the desperate quest to make her daughters as Chinese as possible, has completely abandoned the idea that being a tiger mom has anything to do with being Chinese. Instead, it's now "not that different from the traditional parenting of America's founders and pioneers." Ben Franklin was a Tiger Mom too!

Being a tiger mom has gone from being too culturally specific (it's all about being Chinese) to having no content at all (it's just good old-fashioned American parenting).

My problem with Amy Chua has never been her actual parenting advice. What bothers me is the intellectual dishonesty. In her book, it was the willingness to slap the label "Chinese" on her invented, high-stakes methods of parenting. In her subsequent public statements, it's her blithe willingness to misrepresent what her own book says, assuming that her audience is ignorant or gullible enough to believe that "tiger parenting" is whatever she says it is today. In all of this, Chua does nothing to question the stereotypes that have framed the reception of her work; instead, she uses them to her advantage, exploiting the assumptions Americans make about Asian parenting to fashion a platform for herself. Professor Chua's field is law, but she really ought to try politics: she can flip-flop like a master.


Jennifer said...

Great essay -- I have also, unfortunately, read her book. Although I will say this. If I were teaching a course on psychological disorders, BATTLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER is a great example of narcissistic personality disorder. It sounds like the latest WSJ essay confirms this diagnosis.

Unknown said...

It's definitely a well written piece of work here. I have not actually read the book, but I have read many articles on "Tiger Mom" for my Asian American study class. At first glace of your essay, I was not really getting into it because I actually support Amy Chua in many ways (especially because my mom is a clear instance of "Tiger Mom"). However, as I was reading more and more, I realized that you have some great arguments regarding Amy Chua's inconsistency and dishonesty. I greatly appreciate your work because you have opened a whole new way for me to re-interpret and re-establish my understanding of "Tiger Mom." Thank you, Timothy.

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