Teacher Professor

January 13, 2011

Tiger/Panda Mothering

Filed under: Exceptionality issues,Gifted — Teacher Professor @ 1:40 pm

Let the new Mommy Wars begin.  There’s a new Mother out there who is also a Professor- and she’s got me thinking…

A quick background: Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, writes about her version of “Chinese mothering” with an overwhelming focus on excellence and performance- that produces results.  Her book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother“, has raised all kinds of conflicting issues with me.  Issues that tug and pull at my own beliefs, my own hopes, my own dreams for my children- and tug and pull at what I want to teach teachers.

In a recent essay from her book that was published in the Wall Street Journal, she states, quite clearly, with no apologies for Western cultural sensitivities:

Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin

This list continues and is expounded upon- even to extremes that she acknowledges might seem almost (her phrase) “legally actionable”, but are justified by the results- as she claims in her title “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior“.  A wee bit arrogant, that title.

Culturally, I was horrified to read this.  As a mother of children with differences, I was angered.  As someone with degrees in special education, I was appalled.  As someone with bright, talented children and someone with degrees in gifted education, I… can see some of her points.  It makes for a very schizophrenic conversation filled with lots of “yes, but’s” in my own head.  I wish that the response could be clear-cut, but it just can’t be- for me, for our educational system, and even for our culture.

Part of me is horrified.  All children can’t be #1- it’s statistically impossible, much less reasonable.  Even children who are #347, or who are #2, 435 in a school of 2,435 have value.  EVERYONE has value as a human being- and to demand accolades and awards to prove their value is demeaning to everyone. 

In addition, her dictates fly in the face of what I call “a happy child/a balanced child/a mentally healthy child”.  Limiting social interaction?  Providing no choices?  How on earth can you expect an adult who is socialy adept and a critical thinker if they have not been taught how to interact with others or to make choices for themselves?  How can you find a child’s talents and interests and develop those if you dictate to a child what they are to do with every minute of their day?  How can they become their own person? 

And how on earth can they handle failure- because with life comes failure- if they take it terribly, terribly personally?  In fact, she herself says that “‘The solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child“.  I can see why suicide is the highest in this country among Asian-American women aged 15-24.  Who among us hasn’t disappointed our parents in some respect- and felt bad about it?  I could not live with the knowledge that I had shamed my children, literally, to death.  

And by those values, I reflect my Western definition of “happiness” and my Western “Panda” mothering style that values my children’s desires.  My Western cultural values are clear that children have a voice in their own upbringing and education.  Clearly, Chinese cultural values are supremely self-confident in their parenting decisions- and arrogance (loaded cultural word choice) appears to be a means of achieving what you want.  You say “focused and confident”, I say “arrogant”.

But… buried in all of the diatribe and cultural differences, she does make some very solid points.  The reality is that Singapore and China are far ahead of us in math and science scores– and in some measures, even written English.  The cultural emphasis on hard work in academic subjects has direct economic consequences for our country- we are floundering in a system where the middle class is shrinking, the rate of poverty is increasing, and the few who are rich are getting richer.  Companies- global enterprises-are often getting richer by shipping jobs to… China.  Their economy has grown.  Ours has grown… but on whose backs?  I don’t know about your community, but we remained mired in 10% unemployment, tremendous state deficits and budget cuts.  People with money may be spending it, but China is reaping those benefits. 

A friend of mine is in the Ministry of Education in Singapore, and she says that they take very seriously the concept that minds are their best- and only- national resource.  Singapore is a city-country that sits on an island.  They must pour as much effort as they can into their schooling, because the creation of mind-power is their only option. 

And they do this through lots and lots of hard work.  Their students go to school six days a week.  Teachers are revered, and are given 1/2 days of teaching duties, and 1/2 days to plan and to educate themselves further in the subject matter they are teaching.  Parents are respected and there is no concept of the “well-rounded” child.  Their idea of “happiness” comes from achievement- from getting to the next level.  Happiness =  growth- and if you beat someone else, well, that makes it sweeter.  But my friend says that the greatest competitor is themselves- and they are happiest when they have beaten their own records. 

All of this is particularly relevant to me today.  Today, my daughter came home with a score of 100 on her math benchmark.  This means that she has learned everything there is to learn in 4th grade.

There are two facts that are problematic about this:

  1. First, the fact that I am nervous about telling anyone because I don’t want to be seen as a “show off”.  I don’t want to be faced with the label of “pushy mom” or “bragging”.  I can expect people to say “You think THAT’S a problem?!  You should see MY problems!”  But the reality is that this is a problem. 
  2. Because the second fact is that the school district- and now my daughter- are very happy to let her coast until September, where she can begin again.  Sure, they might throw her an “advanced” problem every now and then, but she met the benchmark- their job is done.  From now until September, 9 months from now, she will not receive what comes next in her learning.  I will be considered “pushy” if I ask for what she needs in order to continue to grow.  Her need for learning will not be considered an educational “need” because she’s met the minimum. 

And what does she learn?  She learns that school is easy- and will be unprepared for life when it is not.  She will learn that when you have done what is expected, you can stop- rather than continuing to work to the next level.  And life… life does not stop for you because you have met a minimum.  And more dishearteningly, she will learn to work less than children with disabilities with whom I work with who are working their tails off to complete their work.  The greatest irony is that she already works so hard to function through her language challenges with autism- she analyzes those incomprehensible 4th grade social interactions, and math is her “easy” comfort area.  I want her to continue to play with what comes next- not stop and wait. 

We know this in sports- a very American cultural value.  You can see children, who are not practicing reading, practicing their hoop shots.  They practice throwing the football.  We seem to understand that in order to achieve excellence with the body, you have to provide the body experiences.  We call it “playing” football, or basketball or baseball.  But the mind…?  Here in America, we’re less comfortable with exercise of the mind.  Parents who take their children to enrichment activities are “pushing” their child.  Parents who ask for “more” (which isn’t more, but is the same amount of struggle we’re asking of other students), are perceived as “pushy”.  Asking for more math is “work”, not “play”.   Tigers push- Panda… well, pandas enjoy.

There is a cost for both Tiger and Panda mothering; costs that are defined in terms of economics, personal satisfaction, achievement, and even lives.  Interestingly enough, both tigers and pandas are endangered animals: tigers, in part, because of the size of their ambition and hunting ranges that are being restricted, and pandas, in part, because of their desire for bamboo- and only the comforts of bamboo- for nutrition.  One’s desires are too large- and the other’s too small. 

The solution, of course- if there is one-  is balance, but is balance possible?  We have to teach our children that excellence requires hard work- a lot of hard work.  And that you can enjoy the process of work- and that enjoyment is a goal as well.  I want to teach children- and the grownups teaching them- that one person’s success does not take away from another’s; that the best win is the one in which you beat yourself- that happiness comes from growth.   I am also  Western enough to believe in self-determinism- that it’s important that children learn to control their own lives.  I only hope that there will be rewarding, well-paying jobs for my individualistic, self-determined children.

So, here is my list for my children:

Here are some things my children, Elizabeth and Ray, are sometimes allowed to do:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • ….
  • fail
  • dust themselves off, get back up and try it again.

Here are some things my children, Elizabeth and Ray, are always required to do:

  • Try more than they think they can
  • Do more than they want to
  • Understand that there is enough succcess for everyone

And so I will tap my inner Tiger Mother, and I am going to go down to the school to ask for more advanced work and I am going to check out the EPGY online math program- and I’m going to do so for my inner Panda mother because I want  my child to learn the value-and the enjoyment- of working with what comes next. 

I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true — hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice. If you don’t love something, then don’t do it.
Ray Bradbury


  1. I really enjoyed your post. The think that most made me anxious about Chua’s screed is her one-size-fits-all parenting style. We all learn in different ways and are motivated by different things. Her parenting is geared toward financial success but what about emotional and artistic success. I have the feeling that in her world these are devalued.

    Comment by keithosaunders — January 13, 2011 @ 3:09 pm | Reply

    • One thing I realized from this is how “success” is so culturally defined- but I do think that the appreciation for emotional and artistic success emerges after an achievement of economic success. Some have sugested that Tiger Mothering might reflect the immigrant mindset more than just a different way of doing things.

      Comment by profmother — January 14, 2011 @ 11:23 am | Reply

  2. I actually read this twice, and I never do that! Very important post. I read it through the lens of a mom with disabled but bright children, a former educator, and a teacher who worked for many years in one of the few counties left in the country who still have a separate gifted and talented program running in their schools. I was conflicted about that when I started teaching there, less so as the years progressed. Some kids in the program were miserable about being pushed so hard, others thrived. Certain children in my “reg ed” class demanded intense academics and lived for the challenge, and others did not. I think what I came away with from that experience, and from reading this post, is that the most important thing is to be cognizant of what is really best for each child, what will ultimately bring them happiness and fulfillment in life. Sometimes, it’s truly difficult to discern what’s best. This was an extremely provocative and well-written post. I have to admit I liked your list much better than the author’s, I think your children are very fortunate!

    Comment by kim mccafferty — January 14, 2011 @ 9:04 am | Reply

    • Children are so different in how far they want to reach. My son got a 93% on his math benchmark, but I know that if I nudge him, he will push back and retreat, not go forward. And so, you change your parenting, based on the child.

      Comment by profmother — January 14, 2011 @ 11:19 am | Reply

  3. Being born in the Year of the Monkey, I think I want to be a monkey mother. Active, intelligent, clever, social, mischievous… I’d like to be optimistic and think that not only is balance possible, but that there are many paths to many balance points.

    Meanwhile, Chua responded to some reader questions yesterday on the WSJ blog. Apparently she didn’t choose that “superior” headline. And, her book takes an arc that the excerpt doesn’t reflect — “Much of the book is about my decision to retreat from the strict ‘Chinese’ approach, after my younger daughter rebelled at 13.” And, in the blog interview she takes a stab at addressing the disability question, using as an example the upbringing of her youngest sister who has Down Syndrome.

    Thanks for this post. You write SO well and thought-provokingly!

    Comment by JoyMama — January 14, 2011 @ 10:46 am | Reply

    • Love your imagery of the monkey balancing- in oh, so many ways! Thank you for this follow-up. I made the mistake of reacting to the WSJ article and not the full book- shame on me for taking it out of context.

      The point that she did make- of working hard- and my friend’s points of “competing against yourself” are the keys, I think …

      Comment by profmother — January 14, 2011 @ 11:17 am | Reply

      • Oh, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with reacting to a piece published in a major newspaper! If anything, the problem lies with the WSJ and how they contextualized (or didn’t) what they chose to present and how they headlined it (ugh.) Obviously a lot of other folks reacted to what was presented as well, hence the follow-up piece and the explanations therein.

        I wonder what form her retreat from the strict approach took? You and she may have ended up focusing on the same kernels of value in the end, for all I know!

        Comment by JoyMama — January 14, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

      • As I tell my children “Read the book”! 🙂

        Comment by profmother — January 14, 2011 @ 7:40 pm

      • Hmmm. Maybe after I get through (finally) reading all the Harry Potters! 🙂
        On my bedside table now: Order of the Phoenix.

        Comment by JoyMama — January 15, 2011 @ 7:33 am

      • You did not take that article out of context. I was ready to give Chua the benefit of the doubt until I heard her interviewed on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC. Chua wants it both ways — she wants to be respected as a mother and well-liked. Everything she wrote is true, down to calling her daughter garbage, threatening to throw out her doll house if she did not practice piano, and rejecting a birthday card because it wasn’t good enough.

        Furthermore she is not that well-spoken. She has a pedestrian vocabulary and has never shed her valley girl accent. (every sentence ends as a question) This is understandable given her upbringing. I can well imagine that literature, or any reading material that was not a text book was frowned upon. Good grades were attainable, but any kind of deep, critical thinking, or artistic outlook was not so easy.

        I am a pianist and if I had been forced to practice piano in that way I never would have gone on to be a professional musician. What she did to that little girl sickens me.

        She is a monster.

        Comment by woodynyou — January 18, 2011 @ 3:47 am

  4. Loved your post — wish I had some good suggestions for your mathematically-gifted 4th grader. Also see Khan Academy.

    As far as Chua goes — I think you might find this post from Jen at Disgrasian quite informative. Features an interview with Chua on how the WSJ misrepresented her point of view, and the emotional costs of “Tiger Mothering”.

    Comment by Liz Ditz — January 17, 2011 @ 5:48 pm | Reply

    • What an interesting post! The immigrant view is a strong one that a number of blogs have talked about… The “excerpt” capitalized on our cultural paranoia about the Chinese, I think…

      Comment by profmother — January 17, 2011 @ 6:13 pm | Reply

  5. great post. thank you. i also struggle with balancing my high expectations for my gifted son and trying to enjoy the moment in the life of a medically fragile child. how do you plan for the future if you are not sure about tomorrow?
    the Chinese mother must be very sure of the future. her daughters are still very young and a second rebellion or a ‘burn out’ may be coming. and yes her children may be ‘high achieving’ but will they ever become inventors, innovators, creators of something revolutionary?

    Comment by Barbara — January 17, 2011 @ 7:25 pm | Reply

    • Interestingly enough, I’ve been told that the biggest clients of the Torrance Center for Creativity & Talent Development at the University of Georgia are… Singapore and Korea. The Asian culture has shifted to recognizing that even creativity has to be nurtured through hard work… They certainly have the skills to be creative in math!

      I love your phrase “How do you plan for the future if you are not sure about tomorrow”? I think the view for tomorrow is a cultural one as well- shaped, of course, by medical issues.

      Comment by profmother — January 17, 2011 @ 8:19 pm | Reply

  6. I also had very strongly mixed feelings about the excerpt I read from Ms. Chua’s forthcoming book. Thank you for your reflections. As a homeschooling parent to a bright 10-yo girl, I’d just like to encourage you to check out all the great math delights out there that might include an EPGY course, but might also look like chess club, Life of Fred books, teachingtextbooks.com, or living math (e.g., livingmath.net). It would be fantastic if we could demonstrate to kids that mathematics holds so much beauty, and isn’t just about algorithms, scores, and benchmarks.

    Comment by Karin — January 17, 2011 @ 10:36 pm | Reply

  7. Amy Chua is simply selling books. She could have given her title a 100 different titles but she picked one that is controversial and provoking (not just thoughts). A regular title would have put Amy Chua on the worstseller list. But she did something smart with her title. That did not depend on a regimental upbringing or her math or her science scores but her reasoning. I’m an Asian myself who sees the obsession with scores and grades among asians with derogation. If you are a western parent having doubts about your parenting style read below.

    What style of parenting has brought and sustained a lasting and thriving democracy. A open society where individual liberties are so cherished and defended even if they are individual liberties of a non-citizen or a criminal. A country with people thronging at its gates wanting to become a part of a great nation.

    What style of parenting has yielded a society of over 1 billion people, that is living without the power to choose its leaders..under a regime that cannot be questioned.. that massacred its own students in tianenmen square.. A country whose best minds, with the best science and math scores possible on the planet, wanting to leave their nation, their society , for a chance to become a part of a greater nation.

    Do u really want to change parenting styles ?

    The result of parenting is not just the individual, but rather a society, a community, a nation

    Comment by KS — January 21, 2011 @ 1:02 am | Reply

  8. You’re awesome. My mother is also a principal and teacher and you are absolutely on the mark with your views.

    My response to Amy:

    Elitism is a funny thing in education… And so is complete and utter ignorance.

    I’ve had first hand experience teaching Asian and Western children from kindergarten to high school and grew up in a household with a mother who is a teacher and principal. I am Canadian, went to public school like everyone else, put myself through university and achieved academic honours in finance, ended up in investment banking and left to travel in Asia where I taught english and diving before moving back into finance in SIngapore. We aren’t that different in some respects but in others, vastly.

    As an example… I have been horrified at the treatment children receive in the Hong Kong public system and also at their level of acumen. I can say in one particular instance I taught a class of grade 2 & 3 students for almost 8 months, all of which were there to receive ‘extra’ help because their parents made them feel ashamed of themselves and inadequate, and were more worried about them getting ahead than their own mental well-being. Low and behold, with a little care and encouragement, I saw every single kid in that class completely come out of their shell in the time I spent with them, as a result of applying ‘modern’ not ‘western’ teaching practices. And I can say without question that every ‘gui loh’ teacher I’ve met in Asia would stand right beside me.

    You may not be aware of this but in Hong Kong the public education system is divided into 3 tiers. Children and their parents are interviewed prior to the first grade in order to place the child according to ability level. Remember this is the public system and it is well noted that if a child does not enter at level 1 or 2, their chances of attending even a local university are very slim. They are 7 years old when this happens… I had to sit and provide interview tips and techniques to manic-paranoid parents and their petrified 7 year olds.

    They’re not allowed to be children. And a kid is a kid is a kid. They all learn and perceive things the same way regardless of culture. And we’ve moved forward in the west from this ideal of ‘beat your kids into it’. No culture is perfect at it by any means, but at the very least we are ‘open minded’ and have an educational system that is self critical and recognizes the students’ best interest and talents. Sorry we aren’t all left brained. If the asian system of parenting and education is so exceptional, why is that just about every asian parent I’ve met with the means is fighting to send their children overseas for university. I’ve also consulted in corporate recruiting and the vast majority of western and Asian financial institutions, including the CICC’s, Goldmans’ and JP Morgans’ of the world placed a Western degree from an Asian candidate as priority one.

    From a purely academic perspective, virtually every study ever done on the effect of negative re-enforcement in teaching, particularly children, has shown just how ineffective it is relative to well placed and consistent positive reinforcement. What I experienced were children that were being left behind because they were forced into a rigid and draconian educational system that produces people with low self esteem and an inability to cope with uncertainty. The mass predilection for acceptance in the group through status and wealth, which are unobtainable by the vast majority vs. the development of relationships based on altruism and trust, case in point.

    Apologies for the rant and if I’ve offended anyone, that’s not my intention. But it makes so angry to see a supposed diplomat of higher education, one that is supposed to represent the equality of the strongest institutions in the world, justify that behavior and treatment of children. I’ve had my own students come into class with their eyes full of tears at 7 years old and ask me if I thought they were ‘garbage’. Those parents should be ashamed of themselves. Look yourself in the mirror Amy and the reflection of arrogance and elitism should be staring you in the face.

    Comment by Grant — January 21, 2011 @ 1:57 am | Reply

  9. […] if you Google “panda” and “mother blog”, you just might get this one… or this blog here.  Depends on the type of panda you’re looking […]

    Pingback by PANDAS and Pots « Professor Mother Blog — January 21, 2011 @ 4:31 pm | Reply

  10. Hello! I just wanted to ask if you ever have any problems with hackers?
    My last blog (wordpress) was hacked and I ended up losing a
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    Comment by intraceuticals oyxgen infusion treatment — December 13, 2013 @ 9:05 pm | Reply

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