Yang: I’ll Take An ‘Otter Mom’ Over A ‘Tiger Mom’ – Part 2

I’ll Take An “Otter Mom” Over A “Tiger Mom” – Part 2

Otters are smart and playful. I am sure most people are familiar with the image of a baby sea otter lying on mommy otter’s tummy, bobbing up and down on a bed of kelp. One scene in a nature film showed a group of river otters in the winter landscape at Yellowstone, doing sliding. It was clear that they were playing since they would purposefully climb up a slope just so they could slide down, again and again. 

I never get tired of watching otters, of any type, on film or alive. At a wildlife sanctuary, we learned that a couple of resident otters had gathered twigs and logs – which they evidently deemed objectionable – and left them by their pen’s entrance for the keepers to haul away. The anthropomorphized interpretation was, “Thank you very much, we have our own idea of how to decorate our environment.” Needless to say, this particular sanctuary was located in the “permissive” west because these otters were allowed to exercise their own “will.”

Amy Chua adopted traditional Chinese parenting philosophy that (1) children are extension of parents, (2) parents know their children better than the children know themselves, and therefore (3) parents are the supreme authority for what’s good for children’s welfare and future. In this framework, children should never challenge parents’ will and directions. I am familiar with all these arguments, and I have never witnessed, in Taiwan or in the U.S., the “exact” execution of these points. What’s more, if “A-“ is unacceptable, why do Chinese students, in Taiwan and in China, still perform to the statistical bell curve?

Chinese students in the States might be skewed slightly to the right-side of the bell curve in academic performance, but they are still not uniformly A students. So, for the B and C students, would their parents know that that properly represents their children’s abilities? If a parent accepts her child is of B or C calibre, she’d stop pushing that child beyond her accepted ability.  R-i-g-h-t.  Not even most of the “permissive” Western parents would easily accept a pre-determined limitation on their children. However, Western parents are more willing to allow their children to explore and define their own abilities. Why is that deemed “weak!” in Chua’s and others’ eyes?

Both Chua’s daughters excelled in their “chosen” music instruments. The grueling hours of practice certainly had impact, but if they didn’t have some innate talent, they could not have won a chance to play in Carnegie, or received the tutelage of world-class masters. Like untold number of Chinese parents (and parents of most cultures), Chua firmly believed in her children’s talents. However, her “firm belief” was manifested in: writing detailed notes for how the daughters should practice, demanding strict numbers of hours of practice … sometimes accompanied by threats to “donate” a daughter’s doll house or to “burn” the stuffed animals one by one, insisting on practice while on family vacations, etc. Would she have the same zeal if one of her children wanted to pursue acting? Oh, right, the daughter probably wouldn’t get Chua’s permission.

However, after the Moscow public row with her younger daughter, Chua relented and allowed the younger one to drop violin and take up tennis … and, without Chua’s supervision and interference. Still, Chua managed to (backdoor maneuvering and communicating through the coach) vicariously give her daughter some tips on how to practice her backhand or hold her racket. Chua certainly congratulated herself for instilling the same intensity, devotion, and competitiveness in her daughter as she transitioned from violin to tennis. 

The problem with accepting Chua’s claim that she writes “tongue-in-cheek” is the murky boundary between ironical tones and facts. Did Chua really call her older daughter “garbage”? Or was she being ironical?

The most revealing passage about Chua herself is this: “As the eldest daughter of Chinese immigrants, I don’t have time to improvise or make up my own rules. I have a family name to uphold, aging parents to make proud.  I like clear goals, and clear ways of measuring success.” 

What many critics find fault with Amy Chua’s assertion is that her parenting is the ultimate definition of Chinese style.  Parents of many immigrant groups have similar intensity on driving their children to “success.”  Here is the real crux of the issue.  What is “success?”  To many immigrants, it does mean a very good education, a high-paying job, preferably with some power, and ultimately a respectful marriage (meaning with a partner of similar standing).  I will discuss more on this dimension in following posts where I will focus on Chua’s co-authored book, “Triple Package.” 

I mentioned last time that many Asian immigrants resonate with Chua’s depiction of her strict parenting.  Indeed, somehow, immigrant Chinese seem to notch up the disciplinarian principles a lot more than what Chinese do in Taiwan and in China.  In the States, I have seen immigrant Chinese parents falling out with children who refused to continue their PhD studies (probably because the parents were not the same degree of “tigering” as Chua). 

I have heard stories of parents disowning their children for abandoning their “respected” degrees or jobs and undertaking writing, acting, or other “unconventional” (read, “unsavory”) career choices. Jeremy Lin, the NBA player, is one in million, and even that only because he has made it big. (sidebar: I found it amusing that the majority of immigrant Chinese, who would normally ignore professional ball games, would glue themselves to the TV watching Jeremy Lin’s games when he first burst onto the scene.) How many immigrant Chinese parents would allow a son to forgo a Harvard degree to take up basketball? Not Amy Chua, I am certain. In fact, throughout “Battle Hymn,” I never got the sense that Chua really wanted her daughters to be a concert pianist or violin virtuoso. If the daughters could be, would she allow them?    

While Chua’s blanket assertion that “this is how Chinese parents do” is dubious, there is one aspect where I stand with her: Let us (Chinese) be brutally honest with what we do, in the name of Chinese “practices,” so that we can have some genuine discussions. As long as we hide behind our “restrained” manner, even with other Chinese, we stand little chance to improve … however we define “improvement.” And I believe this “sunshine” principle transcends cultural boundaries. 

As for people who think that Chua’s children would distance themselves from their “tiger mom,” they reveal a very one-sided Western perspective. Certainly, those children raised under more “permissive” parenting principles, would find Chua’s ways abhorrent and bolt from her the first chance they get. However, Chua’s daughters might find Western parents lazy and indecisive, and wrinkle their noses at these adults (after all, they have been taught to respect the elders). It is always much easier to simply judge. In this regard, Chua’s “Battle Hymn” is full of judgment, and I think that’s one of the main reasons for some over-the-top criticism. 

Perhaps it is inherent in legal professionals to make forthright arguments and believe being forthright equals owning the truth. I wonder if that’s the tone in which Chua and Rubenfeld wrote the “Triple Package?” I will examine their arguments in the next few posts. 

Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

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.