01/21/2011 10:07 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Tiger Mothers Do Wrong (And Right)

Have you read the Wall Street Journal article by Amy Chua, a Chinese-American mother and law professor at Yale? If not, then you probably don't have children. I realize that discussion of this piece has lit up the blogosphere. However, as the author of three parenting books and the father of two girls, I just couldn't resist tossing my two cents into the cyber-well. Chua's story both mesmerized and appalled me. Reading it is like driving past a horrific car accident and wondering whether anyone survived.

To be honest, I'm not sure how much of the article is intended to be Asian stereotype-baiting tongue-in-cheek (Margaret Cho has nothing to worry about), sensation-seeking exaggeration to promote book sales (mission accomplished) or true-to-life parenting advice. A recent article about her posting suggests that the content of Chua's piece was taken out of context, edited and titled without her knowledge -- a distorted portrayal on Chua's book (on which the article is based). Sounds like backpedalling in the face of blistering criticism to me. But whether taken in or out of context, her words are hers and seemingly difficult to misinterpret. So, until I learn otherwise, I'm going to assume that what she wrote accurately reflects how she raised her children.

If you don't have time to read her article, here is the CliffsNotes summary of what Chua hasn't allowed her children to do:

  • Attend a sleepover
  • Have a play date
  • Be in a school play
  • Complain about not being in a school play
  • Watch TV or play computer games
  • Choose their own extracurricular activities
  • Get any grade less than an A
  • Not be the top student in every subject (except for Gym and Drama)

Let me start off by debunking a myth: Not all Asian-American children are intellectually or artistically gifted. Not all go to Ivy League schools, and, believe it or not, not all reach superstardom in their chosen field (law, medicine, computer science or engineering). We just happen to only hear about those who do, thus distorting our perceptions of Asian Americans.

So where do I start in debunking Chua's parenting recommendations? She claims that "nothing is fun until you're good at it." Well, children seem to have a great time being lousy painters, sculptors, soccer players, etc., don't they? And this is true of adults, too... unless all of those golfing duffers are hating life on the links.

Another tip from Chua: "To get good at anything, you have to work, and children on their own never want to work." Personally, I work with all kinds of young people who are incredibly motivated (and intrinsically motivated at that!) to achieve their goals in school, sports and the arts. The difference is that Chua doesn't allow her kids to develop that motivation because, it seems, she doesn't respect or trust them enough to allow them to find their own reasons to achieve. (That's not to say that parents shouldn't push their children, but it should be a secondary motivator.)

Chua: "I told her [daughter Lulu] to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic [because she didn't think she could play a piano piece]. Jed [her husband] took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu -- which I wasn't even doing, I was just motivating her." Chua continued to threaten and verbally abuse her daughter until, yes, Lulu finally learned the piece. So the ends justified the terrible means? Perhaps if Chua had either broken the piece down into more manageable pieces or give her daughter a break, Lulu might have learned it without the resultant battle scars. Just about all child-development experts and research on self-esteem suggest that insults are incredibly harmful, and shame is not a way to motivate children. How would you feel if the person you love the most said you were worthless?

Chua: That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home." I guess Chua isn't up on the research on conditional love, or maybe it just doesn't apply to Asian-American children. As I note in my upcoming parenting book, "Your Children Are Listening" (sorry for the shameless plug), children exposed to conditional love are highly self-critical, show strong negative emotions, judge their performances severely and demonstrate less persistence following setbacks. Additionally, children who received conditional love from their parents said that their joy in their successes was short-lived. They also experienced considerable guilt and shame for their shortcomings. In the end, these children resented and disliked their parents.

Chua: "Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything... Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud." That might be true of Asian people with a Confucian sensibility, but there is something strikingly self-serving in all of Chua's efforts with her daughters. I see so many parents in my practice whose own self-esteem is so highly invested in their children's achievements that those successes (or failures) become their own. What a crushing burden for children to bear. When Chua's husband suggests that kids don't owe their parents anything, she responds, "This strikes me as a terrible deal for Western parents." Yes, how decidedly Western -- and terrible -- to help your children develop into strong, confident and caring people!

Chua seems very intent on instilling high self-esteem in her children -- an admirable objective. And, yes, competence is one part of the self-esteem puzzle. But by focusing so maniacally on daughters' accomplishments, she is undermining their self-esteem in several ways. Through her impossible-to-achieve standards, Chua is creating perfectionists who, according to the research, will feel anything but competent. When impossible perfection is the only acceptable measure of competence anything less -- even excellence -- is incompetence. So, despite her daughters' significant current and future achievements, being competent is different from feeling competent. Chua is likely ensuring that her daughters will be successful in their lives. However, the cost of insecurity, self-criticism and the inability to experience true joy and pride in their successes (all likely outcomes, based on the research) is far too high for my parental tastes.

Relatedly, the verbal abuse these children receive from their mother when they "fail" (e.g., get an A-) is likely instilling in them a profound fear of failure. Wouldn't you be terrified of failing if you knew you were going to be yelled at and insulted? Research shows that children with a fear of failure demonstrate low self-esteem, decreased intrinsic motivation, lower grades, cheating, physical complaints, eating disorders, drug abuse, anxiety and depression.

Chua's concern for her daughters' self-esteem omits two other contributors to healthy and resilient self-esteem. First, children need to feel loved by their parents. Though I'm sure Chua loves her daughters as much as the next parent, it appears that she doesn't express that love in healthy ways. Second, children need to feel secure. In contrast, Chua has created a family environment that is not only very insecure, but also downright threatening: "If a Chinese child gets a B -- which would never happen -- there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion." Living with that ticking time bomb of a mother would feel as safe and secure as living in Baghdad.

Chua is so fixated on guaranteeing her daughters' academic and artistic success now that she appears to neglect the other essential contributors that are equally important for later success (and don't forget happiness!). No playdates, sleepovers or friends will certainly interfere with their social development. By using rewards and punishment (mostly the latter, it seems) to motivate her daughters, Chua doesn't allow them to find their own internal motivation to work hard in their achievement activities. By not allowing her daughters to play sports, she is depriving them of gaining the well-documented psychological, emotional, social, and physical benefits of athletic competition. By controlling and deciding on every aspect of her daughters' lives, Chua prevents them from learning to make decisions, see the consequences of their actions and gain ownership of their achievements and their lives.

This is not to say that Chua has it all wrong. I totally agree that many Western parents are far too indulgent and not nearly tough enough on their children. But giving children the freedom to define themselves (with guidance from their parents) is not being indulgent. And being tough doesn't mean being abusive. Yes, parents of all cultures should set high standards and push their children to achieve. Yes, parents need to instill the value of hard work in their children. Yes, parents need to place significant limits on children's exposure to media. Yes, parents must establish reasonable expectations, rules and regulations, based on their values and the kind of people they want their children to become -- I don't mean doctors or lawyers, but value-driven, hard-working, caring people.

In an interview following the publication of her article, Chua states that "the book is about the journey, and that the person at the beginning of the book is different from the person at the end -- that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model." That's all well and good, but that epiphany doesn't absolve her of responsibility for her repugnant treatment of her daughters. Nor does it heal the wounds that she likely inflicted on them that they will likely carry throughout their lives... along with the advanced degrees from prestigious universities.