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The Rise and Fall of the Tiger Mother

by Lila Allen

February 27,2011

Amy Chua has two children who are accomplished, smart, and with whom she claims to have a healthy relationship. She’s an established professor at Yale, a Harvard graduate, and a successful author. But thanks to her recent Wall Street Journal article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” she’s one of the most hated women in America. So which one is she: Voldemort or Dr. Spock?

Chua’s widely disputed parenting style, which she discusses in the “Chinese Mothers” piece, forbids her daughters from making any grade less than an “A,” participating in a school play, play dates, and of course, complaining. This demanding and rigorous parenting method differs in its assumptions about children from the namby pamby handholding of contemporary “Western” parenting, according to Tiger Mom. As she states in the article, “the solution to substandard performance [in children] is always to excoriate, punish, and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.” Oh boy. Pitchforks and torches? Check and check. Commence witch hunt.

Chua’s editor clearly perceived how much such an article would play into cultural zeitgeist, and capitalized on the opportunistic overlap of Chinese-American relations, generational issues, and the subjective definitions of “good” and “right” in parenting. With a taunting and provocative title, the column was ready for mass consumption – and with that, mass rebuttal. The article has received more than 7,000 comments, most of them vitriol towards Chua. No one can predict viral success, but “Chinese Mothers” pushed enough buttons for it to have a fair shot. And overnight, seemingly everyone had an opinion. Chua hit the hornet’s nest, hard, whether or not the swing was aimless. (Let’s be serious, though – would the Tiger Mother ever make an aimless swing?)

To Chua, a debate on parenting was hardly the point. “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” is only a short excerpt from her much longer memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and she has commented that the WSJ title did not reflect the true message of the novel. She defines the book as a self-aware and often tongue-in-cheek examination of cultural confluences in her life as she raised children, made mistakes, and learned lessons – including the idea that a one-size-fits-all parenting strategy doesn’t work. In each interview Chua gave on the subject of Tiger Mothers, she encouraged audiences to read the book in its entirety to better understand her message.

Not a bad marketing strategy, it would seem. Battle Hymn has already been on the NYT Bestseller list for several weeks, and there is little doubt that this success is largely due to the incredible exposure that resulted from “Chinese Mothers” and its subsequent self-defensive media campaign. The viral effect that served as such an ally for Chua, though, may also be her worst enemy: writing that she intended as satire and earnest self-ridicule has been interpreted as prescription, at the expense of its author and integrity as memoir.

The method to Chua’s parenting madness is the assumption that being visibly successful, the leader of the pack, will lead to an enriched and satisfying life. But if Chua promotes success above all else, one is left wondering about her personal idea of the concept. If her intention in writing was merely to sell books, she achieved her goal. She also managed to launch an entire nation into a debate on parenting in the 21st century; not a small feat. But if Chua’s hope was to construct poignant, true memoir and not a prescriptive parenting book, she may have fallen short – a painfully ironic concept, given the subject matter. In the end, effectiveness of content is determined by reception, not intention.

Viral phenomena burn fast and hot. Even now, only a few weeks after the Tiger Mother-pocalypse, Chua’s story is already spent. I fear that this arc sadly mirrors the product of the Tiger Mother parenting style: a great splash, but little depth. In both viral media and Chua’s parenting, success depends on chasing the next fleeting win. To the Tiger Mother, success and happiness are interchangeable. The concert finishes, the book hype wears out. Then what?

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