Tiger Moms: Is Tough Parenting Really the Answer?

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother author Amy Chua's proudly politically incorrect account of raising her children "the Chinese way" has revealed American fears about losing ground to China and preparing our kids to survive in the global economy

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Photo-Illustration by Jim Naughten for TIME

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Some react to an exceedingly strict household by becoming permissive parents, but not Chua. When she had children of her own, she resolved to raise them the same way. "I see my upbringing as a great success story," she says. "By disciplining me, my parents inculcated self-discipline. And by restricting my choices as a child, they gave me so many choices in my life as an adult. Because of what they did then, I get to do the work I love now." Chua's path to her profession was not a straight one — she tried out the premed track and a major in economics before settling on law school — but it was made possible, she says, by the work ethic her parents instilled.

All the same, Chua recognizes that her parents' attitudes were shaped by experiences very different from her own. Her mother and father endured severe hardship under the Japanese occupation of the Philippines; later they had to make their way in a new country and a new language. For them, security and stability were paramount. "They didn't think about children's happiness," Chua says. "They thought about preparing us for the future." But Chua says her children's happiness is her primary goal; her intense focus on achievement is simply, she says, "the vehicle" to help them find, as she has, genuine fulfillment in a life's work.

The second thing Chua wants you to know is that the hard-core parenting she set out to do didn't work — not completely, anyway. "When my children were young, I was very cocky," Chua acknowledges. "I thought I could maintain total control. And in fact my first child, Sophia, was very compliant." Then came Lulu.

From the beginning, Chua's second daughter was nothing like her obedient sister. As a fetus, she kicked — hard. As an infant, she screamed for hours every night. And as a budding teenager she refused to get with her mother's academic and extracurricular program. In particular, the two fought epic battles over violin practice: " 'all-out nuclear warfare' doesn't quite capture it," Chua writes. Finally, after a screaming, glass-smashing, very public showdown, the tiger mother admitted defeat: "Lulu," she said, "you win. It's over. We're giving up the violin." Not long after, Chua typed the first words of her memoir — not as an exercise in maternal bravado but as an earnest attempt to understand her daughters, her parents and herself.

That was a year and a half ago. Today, Chua has worked out some surprising compromises with her children. Sophia can go out on dates and must practice the piano for an hour and a half each day instead of as many as six hours. Lulu is allowed to pursue her passion for tennis. (Her mother's daughter, she's become quite good at the sport, making the high school varsity team — "the only junior high school kid to do so," as Chua can't help pointing out.) And Chua says she doesn't want to script her children's futures. "I really don't have any particular career path in mind for Sophia and Lulu, as long as they feel passionate about it and give it their best." As her girls prepare to launch themselves into their own lives — Sophia goes off to college next fall — Chua says she wouldn't change much about the way she raised them. Perhaps more surprising, her daughters say they intend to be strict parents one day too — though they plan to permit more time with friends, even the occasional sleepover.

Most surprising of all to Chua's detractors may be the fact that many elements of her approach are supported by research in psychology and cognitive science. Take, for example, her assertion that American parents go too far in insulating their children from discomfort and distress. Chinese parents, by contrast, she writes, "assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently." In the 2008 book A Nation of Wimps, author Hara Estroff Marano, editor-at-large of Psychology Today magazine, marshals evidence that shows Chua is correct. "Research demonstrates that children who are protected from grappling with difficult tasks don't develop what psychologists call 'mastery experiences,' " Marano explains. "Kids who have this well-earned sense of mastery are more optimistic and decisive; they've learned that they're capable of overcoming adversity and achieving goals." Children who have never had to test their abilities, says Marano, grow into "emotionally brittle" young adults who are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Another parenting practice with which Chua takes issue is Americans' habit, as she puts it, of "slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks — drawing a squiggle or waving a stick." Westerners often laud their children as "talented" or "gifted," she says, while Asian parents highlight the importance of hard work. And in fact, research performed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has found that the way parents offer approval affects the way children perform, even the way they feel about themselves.

Dweck has conducted studies with hundreds of students, mostly early adolescents, in which experimenters gave the subjects a set of difficult problems from an IQ test. Afterward, some of the young people were praised for their ability: "You must be smart at this." Others were praised for their effort: "You must have worked really hard." The kids who were complimented on their intelligence were much more likely to turn down the opportunity to do a challenging new task that they could learn from. "They didn't want to do anything that could expose their deficiencies and call into question their talent," Dweck says. Ninety percent of the kids who were praised for their hard work, however, were eager to take on the demanding new exercise.

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