01/31/2011 07:43 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What the Tiger Mother Can Teach Us About Resilience

I'm two-thirds of the way through "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" and I vacillate between being horrified and simply sad. The book is a compelling read -- I will say that -- and the author is a gifted writer.

But (you knew that was coming) it is terribly painful to read her words, and to read between the lines as I allow my imagination to flesh out what isn't described. How did it come to be that 16-year-old Sophia ran home from school to make more time for her piano practice? Or how did Lulu, the younger and more rebellious daughter, endure her mother's relentless prodding, pushing and shaming -- in an attempt to extract ever higher levels of performance from her daughter -- before finally refusing to go along with the plan? How did these girls feel when they laid in bed at night, reflecting on their day, and the tension in their household? How did they awaken in the morning? Excited to be alive? Eager to move into a new day? Or already feeling the burden of trying to meet their mother's impossible expectations?

Still, there are important points that are being raised in Amy Chua's book. Here is an example of one:

Today, I went to the gym. I don't like working out. In fact, I very strongly don't like it. I go two to three times a week, and then take off for weeks, or even months when I'm "busy." Last week, for the first time in my life, I hired a trainer, realizing that the way I generally fool around on the machines and stroll on the treadmill wasn't likely to make a significant difference in my fitness level. (It took me about three years to figure this out.)

So I had my official training session, and today I actually devoted a solid hour and a half to implementing it. And here's where Amy Chua comes in: I could see that I needed prodding to push beyond my comfort zone. In my case, because I have made the commitment to get into great shape, the prodding came from within me, but it helped that C (the trainer) was in the gym at the same time, taking note of what I was up to.

At one point, I sat on the knee thingie machine (don't know what it's called) and decided that eight repetitions was plenty. And then I thought of the Tiger Mother, and her theme about Chinese parents pushing their kids past "easy," and I have to say, it affected me. I decided that maybe it wouldn't kill me to do eight more reps. It didn't. More importantly, I did feel kind of good about myself, using the experience to fuel a more determined approach on the other machines, and in my aerobic bit, as well.

I think that Professor Chua has hit a nerve when she asserts that some Western parents are too easy on their kids. Some of us do cave in when our children have meltdowns over a candy bar in the market, or back down when our youngsters complain about doing chores. I happen to believe that kids need strong, confident parents to be what I call the "Captain of the Ship" in their lives, parenting not from fear or a desire to be liked by their children, but by a commitment to guide them toward successful and satisfying lives.

So the notion of encouraging kids to push past easy doesn't bother me. Nor do I think we harm them by requiring them to do things they don't feel like doing. That does not mean I believe children should be forced to play instruments they hate, do hours of homework that has no inherent value, or subjugate their will in any way to their parents. And I absolutely do not believe that it's ever, in any way, justifiable to use the kind of emotionally damaging tactics that Chua describes utilizing on a regular basis with her girls.

But I do maintain that parents should inspire and motivate their kids to stretch a little. In "The Quality School" by William Glasser, children are encouraged to grade their own papers, emphasizing quality over quantity. When my own son was homeschooled, I occasionally used this approach, with great results.

Ultimately, we want to instill in our children a natural love for growing and stretching so that they can live full and fulfilling lives. What can never be justified is using techniques like Amy Chua used: brutal, abusive and shaming methods sprung from her own fear and desperation. But I do believe that we have to be careful about tiptoeing so much around our kids that they don't develop the resilience and grit needed to take them past life's inevitable challenges.

In the end, there's nothing like a strong, caring "trainer," like C, to help us kids go the extra mile. It does feel good to feel the burn. As long as there's no flame.