The controversy Amy Chua ignited with her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has now gone global, sparking debates from Hong Kong to New York about the pros and cons of ultrastrict mothering. Chua’s revelations about the harsh measures she employed to force her daughters to master musical compositions have raised hackles, not least because she identifies the approach as a kind of archetypal Chinese-mother syndrome.
In the West the preponderant reaction has been to stress the cruelty and deprivation of such an upbringing, mixed with a modicum of awe and even fear at the impending competition. For example, in a recent international study of 65 countries, Shanghai students came out on top in reading, math, and science. Nicholas Kristof cited the study in a New York Times column titled CHINA’S WINNING SCHOOLS? and attributed the achievement to the legacy of Confucius, who lived circa 500 B.C. But those who conflate Chua’s “tiger mothering” with Kristof’s “Confucian reverence for education” should consider that the two principles contradict each other.
The Confucian system was nothing if not patriarchal, ultimately producing foot binding and female infanticide. In what fatherless universe did the tiger mother’s matrilineal discipline evolve? It’s notable that neither in Chua’s thesis nor in the sprawling debate that continues is there much mention of the father’s role. You cannot have a Chinese-mother syndrome of stifling control over the children unless the father acquiesces. Where is the father in this purported formula for assured success? If he’s out working, he must be making enough for the mother to be a stay-at-home martinet, which suggests a particular income bracket. At any rate, he would have to be overworking. The implicit narrative seems neither desirable nor indeed representative of the two-income-family developed world to which Asians evidently aspire.
Seen in context, Chua’s tiger-mother theory looks like an exercise in mythmaking, an attempt to craft a timeless archetype out of a temporary historical accident. Hyperachievement in conformist traditions can be a toxic combination when the system itself is a rotten one. This may console more liberal parents who equate freer children with greater intellectual achievement in liberalized societies and, conversely, failed societies with over-tough parenting.
The evidence, however, often suggests the reverse: the West has been through its own historical phase of success through borderline-cruel education methods. The Victorian era’s Dickensian schools produced the likes of Darwin and John Stuart Mill. The muscular austerity of traditional British boarding schools spawned a kind of lament genre in the memoirs of 20th-century authors such as George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene. In their day, the system was not designed to generate a happy or comfortable student experience. But it coincided with a world-class flowering of literary and scientific standards in that country.
This may be an equation that the liberal-minded Western world may no longer wish to acknowledge, and from the 1960s until very recently didn’t need to. As the economically dominant power in the world, it could reward underachievers and dilatory and eccentric routes to success. In short, it treated the pursuit of happiness not as a race to the finish but as a kind of lifestyle choice.
Things may change now that Asia can compete on equal terms academically and economically. In order to get to such a position, it’s no surprise that places like Singapore and South Korea—the other top achievers in the multination schools study—still don’t reward their children with freewheeling teenage indulgences as the West does. As in the Britain of yore, childhood is largely a time of preparing for the hardships to come in order to prevail over them.
There is no doubt that some Asian societies currently educate their children more effectively than much of the West. They have learned their lessons. The West could profit from relearning its own virtues from Asia’s example, but to seek them in ancient or newly minted myths seems like a fool’s errand.