01/19/2011 12:51 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Chinese Mothers: Superior, Or Just Successful Marshals?

There are so many places to challenge Yale law professor Amy Chua and her new book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," that one barely knows where to start.

It almost takes a mother driving her kids into a river to galvanize this much mother-generated controversy on the blogosphere and in the press. I don't think it helped her at all that the article she wrote for The Wall Street Journal was titled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." Forget the racism and chest-beating -- it also attempts to take a segment of the Western world down in one false statement.

If you want to make people a little upset, say something mean about their husband. If you want to make them angry, pick on their pets. If you want them to attack you from all sides, criticize their parenting.

Now, one place -- and one place alone -- where I agree with Ms. Chua is that American parents can be lax with certain things. We often give into demands too soon. We could be stricter and set more limits. We could be less indulgent with material things. And there is nothing wrong with letting our children make mistakes and not fixing everything for them.

Ms. Chua believes differently. She feels that mothers from her culture are superior parents and that on no level can Americans compete with their strict style and tough-love techniques. However, to throw a real arrow into her theory, one of the most indulgent, loving, accepting parents I have ever known is Chinese. He has raised two Ivy League graduates who now lead full, happy, successful lives. And he did not use any of the techniques Ms. Chua alleges make for superior parenting.

It almost seems too easy to question her assertion that all Chinese mothers do not allow their kids to:

  • attend a sleepover,
  • have a playdate,
  • 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 No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama,
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin,
  • not play the piano or violin.

What on earth can this kind of marshal, maternal methodology turn out except automatons who will one day look back on their childhoods with regret and, I expect, anger at their "superior" mothers?

My biggest beef with Ms. Chua, however, regards her theory -- one of the cornerstones of her parenting process -- that "[n]othing is fun until you are good at it." Not only does this undermine a child's ability to explore all avenues in life, but it also basically tells them, in one of her favorite terms, that they are "garbage" unless they are the best at something. What about all the things in life that give us pleasure that we are not good at, for both grownups and children alike? I do all sorts of activities that I'm not the best at. Few people are the best at anything, and if they are, it's usually limited to just one thing.

Children learn who they are and who they want to be by trying on all sorts of different hats -- this is the foundation of growing. Most of the time in life we wander into our bliss and our careers by finding out what we are not good at and what we do not like.

News flash: sometimes it takes longer than 16 years!

And how many activities may we not be the best at which nevertheless provide us with pleasure, exercise, connection to others we wouldn't otherwise know, and an evolved sense of self? Both my daughter and I play tennis, and neither one of us is that good. Lucy takes class once a week, and she loves it -- she loves her tennis friends, the indoor exercise is good for her during the cold months, and, if she desires, she will be able to play for pleasure for the rest of her life. Should I forbid her to play because she is not a burgeoning Serena Williams? Or should I make her play 40 hours a week and deprive her of her drama, film and singing classes -- none of which she is the best in either? But she loves all of these things and derives great satisfaction from learning new things and seeing herself improve.

One of the big stats that Ms. Chua leaves out of her book and articles is the high suicide and depression rates that over-programmed, maternally marshaled Asian children suffer from, which are higher than the average American, according to reports this month from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. She also doesn't address rates of college burn-out, which sharply increase when students come from families born outside the U.S. But I suppose that if she were to address these stats, she could no longer make the claim that she and her fellow Chinese moms are so superior.

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