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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So should we all be following Chua's example? She wrote a memoir, not a manual. She does make it clear, however, that Chinese mothers don't have to be Chinese: "I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too," she writes. The tiger-mother approach isn't an ethnicity but a philosophy: expect the best from your children, and don't settle for anything less.

Among those who are decidedly not following Chua's lead are many parents and educators in China. For educated urban Chinese parents, the trend is away from the strict traditional model and toward a more relaxed American style. Chinese authorities, meanwhile, are increasingly dissatisfied with the country's public education system, which has long been based on rote learning and memorization. They are looking to the West for inspiration — not least because they know they must produce more creative and innovative graduates to power the high-end economy they want to develop. The lesson here: depending on where you stand, there may always be an approach to child rearing that looks more appealing than the one you've got.

Marano doesn't see us whistling Chua's battle hymn just yet. "Kids can grow and thrive under a wide variety of parenting styles," she says. "But American parenting, at its best, combines ambitious expectations and a loving environment with a respect for each child's individual differences and a flexibility in parental roles and behavior. You can set high standards in your household and help your children meet them without resorting to the extreme measures Chua writes about." Western parents have their own highly effective strategies for promoting learning, such as free play — something Chua never mentions. On a national scale, the U.S. economy may be taking a hit, but it has far from collapsed. American secondary education may be in crisis, but its higher education is the envy of the world — especially China. We have not stopped inventing and innovating, in Silicon Valley or in Detroit.

There's no doubt that Chua's methods are extreme (though her stories, she hints, may have been slightly exaggerated for effect). But her account, arriving just after those unnervingly high test scores from Shanghai, has created a rare opportunity. Sometimes it takes a dramatic intervention to get our attention. After the 1957 launch of Sputnik, America did rise to the Soviets' challenge: less than a year later, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which invested billions of dollars in the U.S. education system. Within five years, John Glenn was orbiting Earth, and less than a decade after that, we put a man on the moon.

Clare Boothe Luce, the American playwright, Congresswoman and ambassador, called the beeps emitted by Sputnik as it sailed through space "an intercontinental outer-space raspberry," a jeer at the notion that America had some "gilt-edged guarantee of national superiority." Think of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother as a well-timed taunt aimed at our own complacent sense of superiority, our belief that America will always come out on top. That won't be the case unless we make it so. We can get caught up in the provocative details of Chua's book (did she really threaten to burn her daughter's stuffed animals?), or we can use her larger point as an impetus to push ourselves forward, the way our countrymen often have in the past.

For though Chua hails the virtues of "the Chinese way," the story she tells is quintessentially American. It's the tale of an immigrant striver, determined to make a better life for himself and his family in a nation where such dreams are still possible. "I remember my father working every night until 3 in the morning; I remember him wearing the same pair of shoes for eight years," Chua says. "Knowing the sacrifices he and my mother made for us made me want to uphold the family name, to make my parents proud."

Hard work, persistence, no patience for excuses: whether Chinese or American, that sounds like a prescription for success with which it's very difficult to argue.

Paul's latest book is Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives.

The original version of this story, published in the Jan. 31, 2011, issue of TIME, incorrectly stated that President Obama's "Sputnik moment" education speech in December was given "in response" to international test results showing American students faring much worse than their Chinese peers.

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