01/25/2011 07:52 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Western Tiger Mothers: Lessons from an Italian Matriarch

There has been a lot of discussion in past weeks about Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." Aside from the controversy generated by Chua's parenting choices, I find that there is a great and unnecessary hype around the difference between the "Western" and the "Eastern" way of raising children.

I live in Hong Kong, and I have developed deep friendships with many Chinese moms. In front of a cup of tea, we have often discussed their philosophy and the way they endeavour to raise their children. Not all are the same, and most of them have a much softer approach than my own parents did while I was growing up.

I was born and raised in a Western country -- Italy, to be precise. Beautiful, sunny, slow, deeply cultural, pleasure-oriented Italy. But my mom was a Tiger Mom. She was a young Italian woman with little life experience, having given birth to me when she was 20 years old. She had gotten pregnant immediately after she married my dad, an Army lieutenant seven years her senior. As a teenager, in the rare occasions when I was allowed to go to a party, my curfew was always a couple of hours earlier than that of my friends. Whenever I got home on a Saturday afternoon, which I used to spend strolling in the town's main street (in true Italian fashion), I would pay a penalty if I got home late: For every minute of lateness, I would have to come home 10 minutes earlier the following Saturday afternoon.

I was not allowed to go out every day, even in summer during the school break. Once every two days was enough, and I had to spend the rest of my summer afternoons at home -- unless a family outing was scheduled. During those endless summer afternoons, my parents asked me to write and submit essays that they would then read and correct. Luckily, this torture ended after the first couple of years of high school, when my passion for reading overtook anything else. As a learning-addict, the level of books I would read was too sophisticated even for my mom.

Don't get me wrong -- I was allowed some fun activities. I took regular dance classes, a passion that I have continued pursuing throughout my life. I loved acting, and I was allowed to participate in the yearly school play. These activities were fine with my parents, as long as I kept my straight-A record.

Every evening I would have to give my parents a detailed account of what I had done during the day, what grade I had obtained in this or that test. I remember these conversations as interrogations rather than dialogue. Whether I was happy, sad, troubled, confused, angry or joyful, no one asked.

The weird thing is, I remember my early childhood as being happy, sunny and normal -- without all these crazy rules and restrictions. Without any need for external pressure, I have always naturally been a success-driven person. I liked achieving goals, and I loved to learn. In elementary school, I was the top student in my class without any need for coercion to study. At age 11, when we moved to the U.S. for two years because of my dad's Army job, I was thrown into local U.S. junior high school -- not knowing one word of English. I underwent a couple of months of fuzziness and worried concern from my teachers. At the end of the second quarter, however, I was getting straight As. Two years later, I was given a prize for being the best student of the whole school.

In short, I really wasn't in need of strong external pressure to achieve. I had that drive on my own. My parents, probably unsure of how they should handle a vivacious, quick, talented teenager, decided to stick to a strict, serious education policy that was unnecessary and painful. Being as goal-driven as I naturally was, what I would have really needed to bloom into a happy, balanced, emotionally confident young woman was a playful, supportive, explorative environment.

As I see them now, goo-goo-ga-ga-ing with their first grandchild (my four-month-old son) and being playful, fun, tender grandparents, I cannot help but wonder if some alien force possessed them during my formative years. Nevertheless, I learned a good parenting lesson from them on what not to do.

The need to achieve -- to be the best you can be -- is a natural tendency for human beings that just needs to be unleashed and set free, not forced or coerced. I see that with my clients every day. And my little one is no exception. He laughs out loud in pure delight every time he learns some new trick. Every time he stands up on his own two feet with some help, he looks at me with a look of deep satisfaction, laughing with bright eyes.

Will I be a Tiger Mom? Yes, if it means ensuring that my son will always think big and bigger. Yes, if it means ensuring that he will develop confidence in himself and the ability and drive to achieve all his dreams, whatever they are. No, if it means disregarding his emotions, not hearing his voice and not helping him develop his playful, fun side.