The Tiger Mother In Us

Guest post by Helen Lee

By now, you’ve surely heard about the infamous Wall Street Journal article entitled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” based on Amy Chua’s new book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. As I read the WSJ excerpt, I cringed at Chua’s methods of imposing her brand of perfect parenting on her two daughters, such as never letting her kids go on playdates or calling them “garbage” when they displeased her. I thought I was hard on my own kids by making them practice their instruments every day, but Chua astonished me with the lengths to which she does the same, as she forces her young daughters to practice well beyond five hours on their violin and piano, threatening to throw away their favorite toys when they refuse.

It’s easy to jump on the anti-Amy Chua bandwagon that has emerged, as evidenced by the nearly 7,000 comments on WSJ website, many of which lambast her. But I wonder if we are missing the real problem in all of this. As New York Times columnist David Brooks notes, “[Chua] is the logical extension of the prevailing elite practices. She does everything over-pressuring upper-middle-class parents are doing.” Whether your methods border on the madness of Chua’s more draconian efforts, or whether you embrace a kinder, gentler approach, the fact remains that a vast majority of today’s middle- to upper-class families define “success” in fairly limited ways, achieved in large part by heavy parental involvement to ensure that their children have every opportunity to reach those ideals.

I confess to having some Chua-likeness in me; when my eldest son was 5 years old, his piano teacher told me that her strongest students were all Chinese-American kids, and her theory was that the process of learning Mandarin, with all the memorization involved to grasp the thousands of characters, gave them a mental edge. My competitive side kicked in, and before long my son was enrolled in Chinese school. We are not Chinese, and so the effort involved in trying to help my kindergartener to grasp this completely foreign language was substantial. At first, he had fun. As the years went by, it became torture. I kept pushing him onward, until finally one day, our schedule and lives at the breaking point, I sensed God challenging me on my motivations for this decision, which were not God-honoring at the core. My son was so thrilled when I realized this, as it meant he no longer had to go to Chinese school anymore!

It’s so hard to carve a different path in our culture that promotes the idea that success comes from achievement, that acceptance to a great college is the ultimate goal to which we push our kids, and that it’s critical to be groomed in extra-curriculars even at a young age to be positioned for future greatness down the road. How often have we heard the proclamation that every American deserves “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? As parents, it’s hard not to want for our children to be happy. But painful though it is to embrace, for ourselves or for our kids, Jesus never promises his followers happiness.

“Tiger Moms” are not the only ones who believe that if we have children, they are to be our first priority, the recipient of our tireless efforts. Many parents, Christians included, believe that our kids are our future, our legacy, the proof and pudding of our careful parenting. It all sounds so noble, even spiritual, the sacrifice and effort required to demonstrate this kind of devotion to your kids. Amy Chua doesn’t mince words: “Chinese mothers get in the trenches, putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating, and spying on their kids…they would give up anything for their children,” she writes. But whether you are a Chinese mother or any other kind of parent who lives first and foremost for their children, make no mistake: doing so is still a false gospel.

The irony is that Christians ostensibly possess the secret to lifelong fulfillment, which is our relationship with Jesus and obeying the call to follow him. Instead of living through our children, I’m realizing that the question is less, “How do I help my kids succeed?”, but instead, “Am I modeling the kind of person that I want my children to be? Am I demonstrating that following Jesus is about letting go of my dreams, both for myself and for my children, and giving them all to God?”

We often forget a key truth about parenting; as author Gary Thomas wisely notes, it’s “a process through which God purifies us—the parents—even as he shapes our children.” Meanwhile, we are called to trust that God is the shaper of our kids, although he allows and encourages us to play a role. We have a biblical mandate to teach our children, as expressed in Deuteronomy 6 (“Talk about [these commandments] when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up”). But let’s not mistake the mandate to teach spiritual truths for taking control over our children’s destinies.

And may we not be the kind of parents who misdirect our children to paths that God is not intending for them. If God should lead my kids one day to serve in a dangerous ministry, or to take a vow of poverty, my prayer is that I would have the courage and willingness to embrace the reality that the most “successful” parenting helps our children identify and embrace God’s calling in their life, whatever that call might be, whether it is to attain a well-paying job in a prestigious career or to serve the poorest of the poor in unfathomable conditions.

After the initial release of the Chua article, the Wall Street Journal polled readers with the question, “Which style of parenting is best for children? Permissive Western parenting or demanding Eastern parenting?” You might be surprised to discover that sixty-three percent of those who responded chose Amy Chua’s approach. For all the criticism the Tiger Mom has received, a majority of people still want the “successful” results that her children have demonstrated.

But God’s plans for our kids may not look the least bit desirable to a Tiger Mother’s eyes, or to anyone who pursues after a success narrative that is more culturally than biblically driven. The Christian approach is quite often the least attractive option, the narrow way, and it appears we still have a long way to go to stand apart and demonstrate that there is a different way to be a parent.

Helen Lee is the author of The Missional Mom: Living With Purpose in the Home and in the World. Visit her website at www.themissionalmom.com, or follow her on Twitter @HelenLeeAuthor and @TheMissionalMom.

(To read more of Helen’s perspective on the “Tiger Mother” debate, you can see her recent post at TheHighCalling.org.)

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20 responses to this post.

  1. Great post Helen – as ever, so clear-eyed and honest.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Wade Gardner on January 24, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Good stuff. My parents often called their “technique” on rearing my brother and sister and me “benign neglect”. Their tongue is firmly planted in the cheek, there, but they really tried to be hands off, in many ways. There was never any doubt that they were there for us, but they never pressured us to do anything that we hadn’t “chosen” to do. They did pressure us into doing music, but what instrument and at what level was up to us. they supported our decisions to play whatever sport we played, and at whatever level we wanted to achieve in each (for me, I think I understood that I wasn’t going to play in college – so I worked at it, but not past “fun”). They encouraged my involvement in the arts, Theatre, Painting, Writing, etc. But…in all these things, their foremost wish for me was that I was a good man. What I do “for a living” does not define me – what I do for others does. I saw that example daily – my parents were teachers, then grocery store owners. Grocery is not a high margin business, but dad made sure that those people in our small town who needed food but couldn’t pay that day (or that week, or sometimes ever – I think there were a lot of “accounts that were written off) got it. Mom and Dad were active at church, in the community, and in the school. Most of their “expectations” were from the church side – you are expected to go to church, Sunday School, Youth Group, Confirmation, and you are expected to pay attention! I try very hard with my three kids to do the same. I want good, God-fearing kids who treat people right, even when doing so is not “cool”.

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    • Wade, you’ve hit on something that I did not have a chance to explore in this post but that is a key point: that helping our children learn values and develop character is so much more important than making sure they get stellar grades and play an instrument well! (Not that there aren’t lessons to be learned from working hard in these areas, but sometimes we forget the point of doing so.) I’ve been thinking more about what the values are that I’d like them to exhibit, what are the character traits I’d like to see in them–and asking myself how well I am both teaching them about those values and traits as well as modeling in myself. And as you note, following Jesus is less about the dos and the don’ts, but about embracing and reflecting a vibrant faith that actually makes a difference in how we live. I appreciate your comment!

      Reply

  3. Posted by Laura Goetsch on January 24, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    Amen and Amen, Helen! (And I also loved your other blog post about your own and your husband’s childhoods.) You nailed it in that line about “doing so is also a false gospel.” Love it.

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  4. LOVE this post and the comments thus far. Also, the post comparing and contrasting the upbringings you and your husband received, with no need to point fingers or place blame.

    My children all are grown. I have, at times over the years, felt like a slacker mom in the presence of peers putting way more energy then I ever would into seeing their kids #1 in everything. In the end, I have felt the pain of both the children and the parents.

    I have seen this same competitiveness in the Church, among some, a jealousy over giftedness or opportunities.It’s a deep topic you are exploring here, a needed one. Thank you for your voice.

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    • Ah, jealousy over what our other friends’ kids can do…that is such a slippery slope, isn’t it Marilyn? Once we start doing that–a type of covetousness, for certain–it can lead to all kinds of damaging results, such as pushing our kids to be “as good as that family’s” or doing other things to make sure our kids “keep up” instead of letting them be who God intends them to be. As you can see in this post, I haven’t been immune to that temptation, and it’s something that parents need to continually be mindful of, if we are heading towards that slippery slope in our own parenting. Thanks for your comment and for the encouraging words, Marilyn!

      Reply

  5. Posted by Robyn on January 24, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    Am I the only one who really does just want my kids to be *happy*? Too many parents say they want their children to be happy, as long as that happiness is packaged the way they envision it. I think that parents of children with Down’s Syndrome or Autism (of which I am not one) are given a gift–the realization that happiness doesn’t mean money. It doesn’t mean achievement. When the ability to control your child is removed, one is able to simply celebrate him/her. I think, I fervently hope, that is what God does for us. Otherwise, I’m screwed.

    One more thing, sometimes giving up our “dreams” to God doesn’t mean sacrificing them on the altar of parenthood. Many dreams are God-given manifestations of the callings God has given us. Sometimes it means investing in those same dreams (instead of being in our children’s faces 24/7) in the secure knowledge that God, himself, is investing in our children. In other words, who and what our children become is far less due to our efforts than we would sometimes like to think.

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  6. I was reading about Chua last night and I found myself wondering how you would respond, so thanks for your thoughtful and wise perspective as well as your honesty.

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  7. Great piece, Helen! Thank you very much.

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  8. Adrianna and Ed, thanks for your comments! I was late to the party, as everyone might be tired of the whole conversation…but I thought it was a discussion worth extending!

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  9. Posted by Chris on January 25, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    There will always be people saying one parti

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  10. Posted by Chris on January 25, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    There will always be people saying one particular parenting style is better, (ex. Dr. Sears). I think it’s good to foster talents, but it’s more important to help your child acquire critical thinking skills, strong confidence and determination to resist peer pressure, a real sense of right and wrong, coupled with forgiveness, mercy, and humility in light of their faith. Our kids are facing a complex world that is ready to undermine any values they have learned. They must be rooted in that love that says, I am here for you as a person, not as a performer. Jesus is their salvation, but hand’s off is not an option when it comes to these things.

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    • Chris, I agree completely that being hands-off is not the solution, and as parents we are called to be the teachers of our children. The questions are, as you indicate, what are we teaching them? Biblical values or the pursuit of culturally-defined markers of success? I also don’t think that it’s wrong to encourage our children to develop their gifts, so I agree with your point about fostering talents, so long as we are doing so with the proper motivation (i.e., to help our kids realize their full potential for God’s glory, and not for their own), and with encouragement and support along the way. Appreciate your comment!

      Reply

  11. Posted by April on January 25, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    I agree that it’s false gospel to put our children above everything else. I am guilty of getting caught up in worry about whether my children will be “successful” and making sure they get “an edge.”

    At the same time I feel a tension to be true to the gospel rather than to my kids’ success. It’s counter cultural to live in a way that the Kingdom matters more than anything. I want my kids to grow up knowing how deeply they are loved by their Heavenly Father and helping others do the same. To me, that will mean I was a success as a parent.

    Reply

    • You’ve hit on a great word, April: countercultural. We as Christians are supposed to be countercultural in the way we live, and parenting is no exception. In the past I have looked at my own life and realized that there was too little difference between the way I was parenting and the way others parent. Part of the process of my writing the recent book I did was to evaluate those ways in which I had become blind to the cultural influences around me and to start standing against those influences. “The Kingdom matters more than anything”: I say amen to that, and may we truly help our children understand the truth of that statement. Thanks for taking the time to contribute here!

      Reply

  12. [...] debate, you can see her recent post at TheHighCalling.org. This article first appeared on The Mommy Revolution. Categories: Books, Culture Watch, Gender Tags: America, American, biblical mandate, border, [...]

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