The Tiger Mother, the Western Father, and the Sweet Spot In Between

This past week a friend of mine sent me a disturbing thought-provoking article from the Wall Street Journal.  The piece, entitled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior is an excerpt from Amy Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  My friend and I have had several discussions on parenting, and she served as one of my editors as I wrote my ebook, Parenting with Positive Guidance.  So naturally, she wondered what I thought about this mother’s take on superior parenting and ultimately superior kids.

I have to think that some of what Amy Chua wrote was written in hyperbole and intentionally inflammatory for the sake of generating a passionate audience (writing tame, middle-of-the-road stuff doesn’t get many people buzzing about a book).  But still, I feel I have weigh in here and make just a few points.

More Than Two Styles

In the article, Amy Chua points out the superiority of the authoritarian parenting style she typifies as the “Chinese mother”.  No playdates, no sleepovers, all extra-curricular activities chosen by parents, and a firm expectation that their children be not just among the top of their class,  but the top student in their class.  (Which makes me wonder, what happens when you have twins in the same class?)  For this Chinese mother, anything short of perfection is a disappointment.

And when children need parental guidance to help them memorize that next piano piece, correct their misbehavior, or reprimand them for being less than the top student in their class, Chua’s Chinese mother advocates belittling, shouting, and shaming them into conformity.  She insists that strictness, harshness, and threats drive them to be their best and make them stronger.

At the other end, Chua points out the flaws of  what she calls the “Western father”, which she characterizes as lax and indulgent.  She decries the tendency to be overly protective of the child’s self-esteem and to expect less than a child is capable of.  It is this Western parenting that leads to weak, lazy, and apathetic children.

Of course I had a gut reaction to the parenting tactics that Chua proclaimed as preeminent, but beyond that, I take issue with the fact that she presents these two extremes as the only choices we have as parents. 

In the literature on parenting styles there are actually at least three styles as defined by the foremost academic author on the topic, Diana Baumrind.  (A fourth, neglectful, could also be considered, but we’ll leave it out of this discussion for obvious reasons.)  Buamrind labels the first parenting style as authoritarian.  Similar to Chua’s examples, the authoritarian parent exerts total control over the child, does not invite the child’s opinion, and exerts parental authority through punitive means. 

What Chua describes as the “Western father”, the “whatever makes you happy”, “rules are relative”, and “as long as you’re OK with it I’m OK with it”  kind of parent would be labeled by Baumrind as a permissive parent.  This parent is warm, fun, and friendly, but doesn’t exert much power or control.  This parent is thought of more as a buddy.

Confined to these two choices, things look pretty bleak for our kids.  Luckily, there’s a third style.

The third parenting style presented by Baumrind is actually the most beneficial for children, generally producing better outcomes in social-emotional, behavioral, and even school performance.  That parenting style is labeled authoritative and is, of course, the middle of the road.  The authoritative parent has high expectations and firm and consistent authority, but the authoritarian also invites open communication with her children, explaining her expectations and asking for her child’s perspective.  The authoritarian encourages child choice and independence within the boundaries established.  It’s the ideal blend of warmth and love with appropriate amounts of parental control and guidance.

So to take an example of authoritarian parenting from Chua’s essay, she responds to her daughter’s disrespect toward her by calling her “garbage”, claiming that when her father did the same to her as  a child it didn’t do any damage.

On the other end, the permissive parent might respond to a child’s disrespect by rationalizing that the child is entitled to express her opinions and simply let the child carry on as she sees fit, without reprimand or consequence.

Thankfully, there is the middle ground of the authoritative parent.  This parent validates the child’s emotions (“I know you’re disappointed…”), but sets limits and holds them firmly (“…but I will not allow you talk to me that way.”). 

I find that in many minds, positive parenting or positive guidance is associated with permissive parenting.  And certainly, there are some who become too permissive in their attempts at positive guidance.  But in truth, positive guidance works best in an authoritative parenting style.  The term “guidance” alone indicates that there are standards and expectations to be guided toward.

Chua makes great points about the need for high standards, hard work, and parents who are bold enough to do the sometimes messy job of parenting.  And to be fair, I have to note that studies show that the efficacy of Baumrind’s parenting styles are sometimes mitigated by the intricacies of specific cultures.  But the extreme examples outlined in the essay in the Wall Street Journal are certainly not the only ways to go about it.  And in my opinion, calling your child “garbage” isn’t even close to the best way to go about it. 

So while The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother may be a fascinating memoir, I cringe to think of anyone reading it as a how-to book on “superior motherhood”.  First of all, motherhood isn’t a competition.  We all just try to give the kids we have the best we can with what we know.  But one thing is for sure.  It won’t matter how many extra letters your child earns at the end of her name, how young she was when she learned to read, or how many hours of piano practice she clocks, none of those accomplishments can make up for a childhood marked by threats, fear, beratings, and insults.

Top photo by Vanessa Fitzgerald.
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26 Comments

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26 responses to “The Tiger Mother, the Western Father, and the Sweet Spot In Between

  1. I believe there is a third style, too. This strict way of treating your children can only contribute to the changes in their behavior once they grow older. I think the milder approach is always more effective.

  2. Another great post, Amanda! I, too, cringed when I read a review of Amy Chua’s book.

    My husband spent most of last year in Ghana, West Africa and marveled at how well-behaved the children are. Children there are trained to politely and immediately do whatever any adult asks of them. I think he wondered how we failed to produce such quietly compliant children. (Our youngest is 15 and constantly questions why he must do what we ask him to. As an educator, I know that this is developmentally normal behavior for a teen.)

    My husband also observed that children in Ghana are routinely beaten, and that it is understood that if a child is misbehaving, that any adult has a right to beat the child of another parent.

    The connection that I’m afraid my husband failed to make is that children *will* behave out of fear. But by beating them (or shaming them, or threatening them) we instill fear, anger and resentment. And we guarantee that these children will grow up to parent the same way, perpetuating bullying (if not violence) as a parenting style.

    I agree that a balance between extreme strictness and extreme permissiveness in parenting is what’s called for. I believe the key to successful child rearing is loving firmness, with *consistent* expectations, consistency being key.

    • notjustcute

      Thanks, Sarah. I actually thought of you and the discussions we have had a time or two while writing this. What an interesting observation from Ghana. It is important that we, as parents and teachers, not separate the “end result” of child behavior from the tactics that bring them about. “Any means necessary” isn’t acceptable. There are ways to teach children obedience that do not involve inflicting physical or emotional pain.

  3. We have a Chinese family in our preschool and their 4 year old daughter was once a part of my classroom. She loved to play in the dirt, and I am a huge advocate for tons of outdoor exploration, so I would let her play. We would always make it inside to wash her up and fix her hair before her parents arrived. One day they arrived early and I witnessed her mother very, very firmly reprimanding her for being so dirty and disheveled. It was heartbreaking! From that moment on, I carried a washcloth with me outside to clean her up quickly if I saw her mother coming!

    • notjustcute

      What a heartbreaking image! It is important to remember that these different parenting styles, while they may be more prevalent in certain cultures, are not predetermined by ethnicity or race. There are many “Western parents” who advocate authoritarian parenting and many “Eastern parents” who are more comfortable being authoritative. Parenting practices are influenced by the wider concept of culture, but we also create our own familial culture as well.

  4. Kirstie

    As a foreigner, (British), leaving aside issues that stem from poverty, compared to other cultures, I don’t think educated, caring American parents are doing too bad a job! If you want to assess child rearing cultures, I think its more instructive to look at the grown-ups than to judge the ‘obedience’ of the children. Still, the author certainly seems to have learnt some publicity skills – maybe picked up in America?

    • notjustcute

      I think, just as Baumrind points out, there are many styles of parenting. Your point about child-obedience vs assessing adults is an interesting one. Some cultures do place more value on strict obedience, while generally in the Western culture innovation, autonomy, and creative thinking is valued. That’s not to say there isn’t some obedience in the mix, but it does lend some perspective to why different cultures may view child rearing so differently.

  5. I was hoping you would address this, Amanda, and I think you do a wonderful job of advocating that sweet spot between two extremes. And like you said, far too many parents identify positive parenting as permissive parenting, and it is so frustrating!

    Okay, I just erased a huge comment because it’s turning into a blog post here and I don’t want to hijack your blog. 🙂 Thank you for addressing this so succinctly and for continuing to advocate healthy, loving discipline approaches that rely on both firm boundaries and thoughtful correction that truly encourage growth and autonomy in our children, not merely robot-like response.

  6. Parenting is so humbling, we all grow into being the best parents we can be — and most everyone wants the best for his or her child. It’s so unfortunate to compare because it stops communication before it can begin and we can learn from each other.

    I still need to see that movie about babies from three cultures – have you seen it?

    Melissa

  7. Sarah C.

    Interestingly, my husband read your post before I did (I’d pulled it up onto my computer while fixing breakfast, but hadn’t had a chance to read it), and had several insightful comments about both articles while we were eating. We have been talking about the Tiger Mama article this weekend. Thank you for your balanced reply.

    I really appreciate your words as we try to work through our parenting style with our almost-three-year-old, with another one on the way. My parents were very authoritarian, and that has been my default (though I’ve been fighting against it, usually vacillating between authoritarian and permissive). It isn’t working for us, but we’re growing.

    Thank you.

    • notjustcute

      Thanks so much for sharing, Sarah. Hearing that what I write sparks thoughtful conversations (particularly between parenting partners) is one of the best complimnets I could hope for.

  8. Nollie

    Just a thought: Are upper middle class Western “Helicopter Parents” and Eastern “Tiger Mothers” two sides of the same coin? The aim of both parents is for their child to succeed and have all possible opportunities. But the Tiger Mother does it through enforcing hard work on the child’s part, which seems admirable, compared to its alternative. The Helicopter Parent hovers over their child, puts them in millions of classes, sports, and lessons, shells out tons of money for tutors, private school, traveling teams, etc. and often relies on connections and money to ensure “success” and entrance to schools or careers that aren’t available to many other families. Parents are afraid to let their kids fail so they don’t make them accountable for their work or habits and might be overstretched money and time-wise. While it seems that both parenting approaches may lead to stress, it appears that the children of Eastern parents can find success in their accomplishments, even though they might not have enjoyed the journey. They didn’t rely on anyone else to get them there.

    • notjustcute

      Interesting comparison, Nollie. I think these two parenting types are very similar in that they both take away a lot of the child’s independence and exercise a degree of vicarious living. I think without an appropriate amount of autonomy and intrinsic motiviation, either approach robs the child of self-satisfaction and true competence, regardless of how much “success” they achieve.

      Each style has it’s positive elements, it’s the extreme that causes the problem. Every parent wants to give their child the advantages they can, and we should all teach our children the value of hard work. But when the methods we use become negative, or rob our children of choice and its partner, responsibility, we’ve done more harm than good.

      In both scenarios, the parents need to remember that outwardly observable measure of success (pay scales, medals, honors, classes) are actually by-products of success, not success itself. That’s found more in the internal motivations, personal habits, and executive functions of individuals. That can’t be bought or coerced.

      And in both scenarios, parents must also remember that children need to be allowed to experience failure now and then. “The greatest barrier to success is the fear of failure.” And those who feel their parents’ love is based on “success” or who have never been allowed to experience and recover from failure, will likely never feel the satisfaction of genuine success.
      (Sorry this response turned into its own post! Loved the question!)

  9. You said exactly what I’ve been thinking. It’s not an either-or thing!

    Barbara Coloroso also talks about the three types of parenting in her wonderful parenting book, “Kids Are Worth It.” I think she classifies them as jellyfish parents, brick wall parents and backbone parents.

    The essay just made me sad, and reinforced my own commitment to giving my children a well-rounded childhood where they have a say in their own lives.

    My priorities are so different from the Tiger Mom’s. I want children who love life and learning, help others, know how to do many things, and make the world a better place. So far, they’re EXCELLING at all of those things.

    Playdates, sleepovers and all. 😉

  10. As a Christian, I use God’s Word to pretty much direct my parenting philosophies. I do believe in spanking my children. The Bible clearly states in Proverbs 122:15 “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him”. BUT- it also clearly says in Proverbs 13:24 “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is CAREFUL to discipline him ” (emphasis mine). Please don’t get the wrong picture….I’m not constantly beating my children. Spankings are reserved for serious offenses or blatent disrespect/disobedience. They are never given in anger or implusively in a flood of emotion. As a former 1st/kindergarten teacher, I fully believe in developmentally appropriate practices regarding young ones. There is DEFINITELY a middle ground! Isaiah 40:11 says, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he GENTLY leads those that have young” (emphasis mine) If the Almighty God of the Universe can find it in His infinite wisdom to gently lead us with young ones, can’t we in turn do the same while guiding them?

    Great post!

    • notjustcute

      Thanks for offering your insight, Kristen. I too am a Christian and ponder the words of scripture as I raise my boys. I’ve thought a lot about the “rod” spoken of in Proverbs in fact, it’s the topic of a post in progress. I’ll cut to the punchline for you. I found it interesting as I did a little research, that in Biblical times, the term rod could refer to the club type rod the shepherd’s used to beat wolves away from the herd, but also to the staff they used to gently guide their sheep. Spanking is a tool with diminishing returns. Those who use it too frequently find that the intensity must increase in order to garner a response (check the position statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics for more info here: http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/reprint/pediatrics;101/4/723.pdf). Spanking isn’t a practice I’m personally comfortable with in my own home, but I know a lot of really good parents (including my own) who have used it. The key is that these good parents don’t rely on it as their only tool for building discipline in their children. (Insert shameless plug for ebook here :0) It sounds like you are an incredibly mindful mom who knows how to find the balance between the extremes of parenting.

  11. Hey Mandy,
    I saw your update on Michelle’s blog and wanted to read what you had to say about that WSJ article. I coudn’t agree more that there is another way to parent that strikes a balance between the two styles mentioned by Chua. Now that we have two teenagers, I know that an authoritative approach to parenting works. My husband and I have always set our expectations high but allow our children to strive to accomplish what they will on their own time table. They are expected to work hard (but not burn out), set priorities, choose wisely (friends, classes, activities – but they make the choices), be responsible and dependable (“owning” their missteps), and learn from their mistakes.

    Now, after parenting like this for several years, we are seeing the benefits. Our oldest son who is a 15 year old sophomore decided on his own that this term he could get a 4.0 (he had always recieved high honor roll and very close to 4.0, but this time he had the desire to truly accomplish his goal). It was so gratifying to me to see the pride in his eyes when his grades were posted last Thursday. He knows we would have been just as proud with anything that reflected his earnest efforts (and we still would have taken him out for dinner and a movie – our family tradition to celebrate grades), but because HE chose to go the extra mile and see if he could really pull it off, it meant so much more and now that he has accomplished his goal, he is ready to keep it up and do it again!

    I honestly would be afraid of losing a precious, close relationship with my children if I chose either style of parenting. Children need to feel respected, and in turn they will respect you and the direction you give as their parents. Neither parenting style focuses on that most important value.

  12. Well, this post made me feel uneasy. On one hand, I agree we all want to do best for our kids and we might not know how challenging this will be until we are facing real life situations rearing our children. So I cannot say I´m athoritarian, permissive or authoritative… I´m a mix of all of it! Pretending being perfect is something I cannot afford any longer. Being an educator I thought I knew a lot about motherhood, poor me. “I´m as simple and common as a mother can be” is a discovering that took me long time and it has helped me to become humble and others as well (coincidently I wrote about that in my last post!).
    On the other hand, reading comments, I really worry for the oriental girl who is in the middle of a “silent cultural war” between her parents and her teacher. Why do that to a 4 years old? I firmly believe we teachers should absolutely not stand against parents culture, ideas and needs. If we detect any problem, it should become a conversation between adults, not a hidden washcloth to wipe the girl´s face so mother won´t discover she has been exploring and playing in the dirt.
    Amanda, sorry for a long comment again, but I needed to say this. I really love reading your posts, I learn a lot and they put me to think and rethink parenting and education. Love, Fernanda

  13. Jill

    I really enjoyed reading all the responses . My husband and I had a great discusison after we read the article. What kind of parents are we??? perhaps “too permissive”??? But upon further discussion we examined our lives and agreed how much we love spending time together as a family and how much we value each child’s indivuality. The joy for us is being a happy family… gently guiding our children with lots of family together time and encouragment. We are happy and I hope that is what our children take with them in the future.

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  16. I was raised by a Tiger Mother, and I’m glad to see Amy Chua’s book raising dialogue about the virtues and vices of different parenting styles and cultures. I came across your blog from your Simple Kids interview, and I’m glad I found you. Great stuff!

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