Yang: I’ll Take An ‘Otter Mom’ Over A ‘Tiger Mom’ – Part 1

I’ll Take An “Otter Mom” Over A “Tiger Mom” – Part 1

The “tiger mom” is stirring up another storm, and this time with a partner. Amy Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, both law professors at Yale, have a new book that just came out in February. The title of the book is: “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.” 

The New York Times published their synopsis on the book, under the title, “What drives success?” Jan.25 (link below); the paper then offered a book review Jan. 31 (link below), and finally a profile of the “tiger couple” in the Sunday magazine Jan. 29 (link below). For a starter, I’d like to know how many other authors get such red carpet treatment by the New York Times, and more importantly for what reasons? 

Their article, “What drives success?” certainly offers plenty for discussion, and the pre-publication publicity of the book has already stirred up quite a slough of critiques and criticism. This is certainly going to help the sales of the book.  Marketing of a book is important. What authors wouldn’t want to see a healthy sales record? However, a popular book, a controversial book, or a well-liked book isn’t the same as a masterpiece of literature, a well-researched book, or a seminal work. Like Chua’s previous book, a memoir of her parenting journey, “Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother,” the current book, of more academic orientation, is also thought-provoking. Yet, are thought-provoking arguments automatically cogent arguments based on sound studies and thorough analysis? 

Before I discuss the “Triple Package,” I feel compelled to first discharge my reactions to the “Battle Hymn” memoir so that I can have some appreciation of Amy Chua’s background, philosophy and principles. I save “Triple Package” for after I discuss the “Battle Hymn,” in today’s and next week’s columns.  

The controversy surrounding the “Battle Hymn” is old news by now. I didn’t wade into it when it was first published in 2011 because I considered the publicity overblown and her implicit thesis – that tiger moms are the reasons for many Asian success stories – tiresome.  However, I do have reactions to the “Triple Package,” or more precisely, the NYTimes’ article, “What Drives Success?” So I did some digging into “Battle Hymn” for a better grasp of who Amy Chua is and perhaps some of her foundation for the “Triple Package.” 

Chua now says that the “Tiger Mother” book was written in tongue-in-cheek, and her conversational writing style, which offers some humorous sketches of her strict parenting principles, may bear out her claim. However, the scene of her younger (of two) daughter’s row with Chua in a Moscow cafe (smashed glass and public yelling) protesting her mother’s strictness might not have been amusing to all parties at the time. 

Though a second-generation American of Philippine immigrant parents (of Chinese descent), Chua seems to have adopted her parents’ disciplinarian principles and then some. She contrasts the “Chinese parenting” against the more “permissive” western style throughout the book. Ms. Chua states in the opening that while she doesn’t want to stereotype “Chinese mothers,” or “Western mothers,” certain features do distinguish between these two generic parenting approaches. For instance, Chinese parents are not afraid of using negative words and scolding tones on children; in comparison, Western parents coddle their children too much. Chinese parents are strong in their beliefs of their children’s abilities while Western parents give up all too easily. There are, of course, degrees of differences within each category and some overlapping between these two broad styles. Nevertheless, while “Western” parents claim that they impose stricter discipline upon their children relative to their peers, they are nowhere close to the “average” Chinese parenting’s strictness. 

The above disclaimers now discharged, the author portrays “Chinese parenting,” her parenting, in her book “Battle Hymn” in a manner that’s both familiar in principle, and vastly foreign in its exact execution. 

By now the most cited examples include: no playdate, no sleepover, no TV and no computer games, no participation in school plays, and no complaints about not being in school plays. The daughters could choose only between piano and violin, and not playing music instruments was not a third option. Getting anything less than A was not acceptable. Not being #1 was acceptable only in sports and drama; it’s otherwise non-negotiable. 

So far, these criteria are familiar to me, but not the degree to which they are applied. 

It was certainly shocking to read that one daughter had to practice 2,000 math problems a night to regain her supremacy over a Korean classmate. It was disheartening to picture a young girl’s leaving teeth marks on the piano from 3-4 hours of daily practice, including weekends. Chua would even arrange practices during family vacations, renting a piano and lugging along the violin. However, to send a hand-made card back to her four-year old because it was not good enough?  It should not be a surprise, then, that the very same daughter, now age 13, who screamed at Mom in the Moscow café, “I’m not what you want – I’m not Chinese! I don’t want to be Chinese. Why can’t you get that through your head? I hate the violin. I hate my life. I hate you, and I hate this family!” (emphases by the author)

Ultimately, it was this dramatic scene that made Chua stop and reflect…and write the book. A kind of atonement? The older daughter is now a senior at Harvard and the younger one is heading for Yale after high school.

Many have criticized Chua’s parenting, and yet many Asian-American offspring of Asian immigrant parents relate to Chua’s descriptions, mostly in kind if not in degree. The positive reception has focused on her engaging writing style and her courage to poke fun at herself. In addition, many western critics agree that western parenting can be too permissive and sugar-coated, for example, celebrating a kindergartener’s “graduation.” On the negative side, there have been quite a few whose reactions to the content of her parenting are, “I feel sorry for her children,” or, “Her daughters must have tremendous amount of psychological problems,” or, “Serve her right if her daughters don’t want to speak to her again.” Such reactions may be hyperbolic, not unlike some of Chua’s own passages. 

Next week I will provide my reactions to the “Triple Package” book, and address why I prefer “otter mom.” Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.