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The Question No One Is Asking in the Tiger Mom Debate

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How do you define success for your kids? This is what the Tiger Mom debate boils down to. What do we want for our children, and what does their success (or lack thereof) mean for our own identities? No matter how you feel about Amy Chua, author of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" and ground zero for the current battle over the best way to parent, you have to give her credit for being willing to ask these hard questions, and you have to really examine her answers.

Chua readily acknowledges how she defines success in her children: accomplishment. She says that Chinese mothers assume that their children are strong rather than fragile, as Western moms assume, and that they know that there's "nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't." This mantra inspires a cycle by which the mother pushes the child by any means necessary to succeed (these means are the most controversial points of Chua's book), and then that success makes the child work harder and become even more accomplished.

You can't argue with her results. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- not being allowed to watch TV, play video games, see movies, attend playdates, participate in theater or get any grade less than an A, and not to mention being yelled at, threatened and slapped by their mother, Amy Chua's daughters Louisa and Sophia are both well on the path to being prodigies. Sophia has already performed at Carnegie Hall, and she's not even out of her teens. Louisa, or LuLu, is the "rebellious" one whose disobedience is manifested by cutting her own hair and quitting the violin to become a tennis star. Many parents would give their left arm for kids like those.

Chua, writing in her characteristic humorous and engaging style that "the understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud" seems particularly invested in the idea that her children's success is an integral part of her own identity. If they fail, then she is a failure. If they succeed, it is to her credit. For me, following a more stereotypical Western mindset, I see my job as being the catalyst to my children's growth, but not the driving force. From the second they were born, I have seen them as independent beings that would shape their own futures.

For my own children I define success a little differently: the only thing I want them to achieve is true happiness. Granted, that's a pretty nebulous concept, and there are many different paths to happiness, but if their road doesn't take them through Carnegie Hall, I'm okay with that. As a former sort-of child prodigy (I was reading at a college level by second grade and skipped that grade, starting University classes at 15), I am acutely sensitive to the pressures heaped upon young achievers. My own breakdown came in graduate school as a two-time valedictorian giving my university-wide valedictory address with an IV tube still taped to my hand. I'd had to go straight to commencement from the hospital, where I was being treated for a variety of stress-induced maladies ranging from a severe kidney infection to panic attacks to an ulcer. So when my young son was tapped for an accelerated class at school and he said he didn't want to do it, I simply said, "Fine."

Clearly Chua's authoritarian style does exactly what she promises it will, but the question becomes: Is achievement really the best measure of success? A quick run-down of some famous child prodigies and what became of them later in life brings up some interesting points:

  • Bobby Fischer, who became an international chess master at age 13, left the world of competitive chess after beating the U.S.S.R. champion in 1972 and becoming number one in the world. He ending up ostracized and bouncing from country to country, fleeing his debts until he died in Iceland in 2008.
  • Mozart, perhaps the most famous child prodigy of all, lived a difficult life beset with familial and financial difficulties. He died alone of what was likely rheumatic fever at the young age of 35. His work earned him more fame and fortune after his death than during his life.
  • Tiger Woods precociously appeared on the golf scene at age three, pushed by his infamously strict father, making numerous television appearances and winning every title available by eight. And while professionally, things have gone well for him (he is the highest-paid athlete in the world), his personal life has not been as successful, as multiple accounts of his infidelity have tarnished his public image.
  • Sufiah Yusof, the only modern female prodigy so far identified in the field of mathematics, was remarkable for being accepted into Oxford at age 12. Her life in the las decade has not been as illustrious, however, as she dropped out of college, working as a waitress before ending up in prostitution.

And what of Asian child prodigies in particular? Recent statistics show that "Asian-American women ages 15 to 24 have the highest suicide rate of women in any race or ethnic group in that age group. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Asian-American women in that age range." Pressure from family and parents in particular is noted as a large factor in this. Researcher Eliza Noh explains, "In my study, the model minority pressure is a huge factor. Sometimes it's very overt -- parents say, 'You must choose this major or this type of job' or 'You should not bring home As and Bs, only As. And girls have to be the perfect mother and daughter and wife as well."

Certainly not all child prodigies end up prematurely dead, engaging in prostitution or isolated in foreign countries, and all children experience trauma and disappointment in their lives, but there does seem to be a greater risk for those who are pushed the hardest.

Chua would say that I'm settling for mediocrity with my kids. What would you say? Is being achievement-oriented a bad thing, especially in our culture that so rewards high achievers? What's your personal parenting philosophy?

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