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Po Bronson takes on the Tiger Mom

The "NurtureShock" author talks about how self-proclaimed Tiger Mom Amy Chua got it wrong (and how American parents can get it right).

By Leslie Crawford

In 2009, Po Bronson's book (co-authored with educator Ashley Merryman), NurtureShock, rocked the parenting world, presenting a new body of scientific evidence that upended many of our most cherished notions about child-rearing. Now another book is sending moms and dads into new spasms of parenting doubt.

Baring her tiger mom claws in her best-selling memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua makes the audacious claim that if American parents would follow her iron-fisted "Chinese mother" approach, their kids would be straight-A, concerto-playing, super-achievers like her two daughters. Her timing couldn't have been better. Chua's book appeared on the heels of the recent revelation that American students are scoring dramatically lower in key academic subjects than children in countries like China and South Korea, according to the international comparative PISA tests. "America's number-one status is no longer so apparent," says Bronson. "That has opened the door to an international perspective."

That American parents are responding to Chua's take-no-prisoners' method makes perfect sense, says Bronson. "American mothers and fathers are dying for permission to be a little tougher on their kids," Bronson wrote recently in New York Magazine. Bronson argues that the controversy, while understandable, has created a breeding ground for cultural misconceptions. Chua's self-proclaimed old-fashioned Confucian-style parenting "is no longer the norm in China." In fact, he says, many American parents who are suddenly wondering if they need to get tougher with their seemingly undisciplined, under-achieving kids have "misinterpreted" the Chinese method, which is looking more and more like “Western” parenting.

GreatSchools talked with Bronson about the tiger mother phenomenon and whether we have reason to worry that, once again, we're doing it all wrong.

Why are people saying they they're horrified by Amy Chua's parenting techniques, but meanwhile buying her book in droves?

I don't think parents are reading the book because they want to imitate that kind of maniacal drive to push your child. What they are responding to is the tension between the self-esteem movement and putting more pressure on your child. . . . Parents are tired of the constant cheerleading we're expected to do. It feels hollow and vacant to be doing it, and people suspect it's not really helping the kids.

The misunderstanding is why kids today feel pressure. There's a stereotype of the pressuring parent. But you don't see it that often. . . . Very often, kids are feeling pressure even when parents aren't giving them pressuring comments. The pressure and depression our kids are feeling is the result of feeling like high expectations have been set for them, but they haven't been taught the steps to get there. Kids get nervous about what kind of college they'll get into. . . . But one thing they aren't told is, "This is what you have to do to get there." Your kid brings home a B+. You don't have to praise them or criticize them. The parent whose kid feels so much pressure and says, "You're doing fine, don't worry about it" – that doesn't reduce the kid's stress. What kids want is to know how to do better.

So we should be asking more of our children – getting stricter with them and less indulgent and permissive?

I don't want parents drilling their kids, out of context, with flash cards. You don't have to push. Amy Chua was pushing them with a firm hand to the piano keys and violin. Harshness and cruelty never have to be part of it. This is where we get into this false tradeoff: where we have to be this cuddly parent who is always encouraging and praising – and the alternative is the harsh and cruel Amy Chua-type person. We can be kind, smile, be affectionate, and never raise our voice, even as we lead our kids to do better. Even when I've talked with Amy personally, she told me those moments did happen. She did cuddle. But she didn't write about it.

How do you explain the recent high PISA scores of students in Shanghai? Do those kids all have tiger mothers and fathers?

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/7/2011:
"We have too many new age ideologues in our education system. They labor under similar leadership, and it is bad, weak, indecisive leadership. Our majorities and their cultural traditions have been systematically attacked by the social liberal ideologies of the current regime: and that is why China is ahead. They know it at the top of the Politburo. And we need to recognize that our own leadership has become disloyal to foundational American national identity, one that honors all immigrant ethnicities new and old, not just the new out of some misguided self-immolating guilt. The change has to happen at the top, and the ideologues of social liberal ideologies have to be fired. There's no other way to clean out our system and start over."
02/23/2011:
"Seriously, there is no right or wrong method for parenting. All you need to do is show-up for life, love, and don't take parenting too seriously. Cherish your offspring!"
02/14/2011:
"There is a difference between being strict (as in no tv or no sleepovers) and being verbally abusive (calling your children pathetic) or mentally abusive (taking their favorite dollhouse and saying your getting rid of it simply because your child hasn't perfected a piano piece to your liking). I don't think Ms. Chua is getting the difference. Her strictness isn't what is qualifying her as a monster, it is her abuse. Furthermore, showing nearly grown children as examples that abusive parenting works doesn't cut it. There are plenty of abused children that grow up to be quite successful adults. That doesn't justify the abuse."
02/14/2011:
"In my opinion, I would not look to China to be the authority on children's well being or to give accolades for over acheiving test scores. You are comparing billions of people who must compete for jobs many who subject their children to sweat shop environments to produce cheaply made exports for the United States to import. Shame on us for purchasing these items which have no standards for safety and shame on us for chasing all of our jobs to other sweat shop mentality countries for our ever increasing desire to own things we simply don't need. Too much emphasis on competing in a 'Global economy' where some children will never be college bound nor do they want to be. We should provide trade schools which have a devotion to producing students who will eventually offer a meaningful job which in return will offer them a productive salary. Specifically I am talking about electricians, plumbers, nurses, physicians assistants, things which do not require a 4 year degree at a costly institutiion requiring thousands of dollars in debt. We need to create meaningful jobs, spend less on importing or taxing the imports heavily and providing for our children's futures instead of focusing on the model of a communist country's success or lack of."
02/14/2011:
"In the Central Valley of California, some parents support their disruptive children by acting like an adolescent friend 'having their back.' Last week one parent said to several teachers, 'You need to respect my child. If you had respected her, she would have shown respect.' The parent-teacher conference was called because the student is not doing her work in several classes and being very disrespectful about it. The parent is not insisting the student do the work, she blames the teachers for wanting respect and productivity. Another parent complained about all of his children getting bad reports concerning behavior from a certain teacher as they passed each year through her classroom. He says he will not support the teacher on having his children behave -- it is her fault for having a class 'like that.' Part of the problem with low test scores is not just that schools are forced to educate those that don't want an education, but also many students and parents have a lack of respect for America, the school, the teachers, and other people, including other students. Some parents actually teach their children to be disrespectful, as these parents did."
02/7/2011:
"What I can't believe is that ANY parent is lacking so much self confidence that they have to totally rely on studies, research, books, etc. to figure out how to parent. Every child is different and responds uniquely to different styles of parenting. Hello...kids don't come with owner's manuals nor does the book store or internet have the almighty last word on parenting. If these parents are that uncertain of how to parent, why did they have kids in the first place?"
02/7/2011:
"Honestly, I could care less that my kid is a straight A student. It's more important to me that I raise an accepting, compassionate individividual. My son would rather ride his bike then play the violin. I am here only to embrace and encourage him. I'm not here to mold and sculpt him in to what I want him to be. I think that the American society should be up in arms about the book, or rather, ignore it completely. I have no idea why people are buying it, perhaps because of the media attention it has recieved. I have no inclination of reading the material in her book, and have no desire to spend money on it. Overall, I think parents need to be strict with their children. Simply to keep them on a straight path. But I do not think it is the parent's responsibility to CREATE that path. I feel that I must be aware and open so that my children feel comfortable coming to me with important issues in school as well as life. I don't care to 'explain' the scores in Shanghai. Because again, I do not feel that scores are the most important focus for adolescents. I will always supply the best learning methods for my child, and will create relationships with school staff to insure I make my child's school experience as beneficial and least frustrating as possible. Being a doctor isn't on my list of things I want my kids to do. And luckily I'm in America. So if he does want to be a doctor, he can make that decision later."
02/7/2011:
"Honestly, I am sick of hearing about what we 'should' be doing to raise our kids. Believe it or not, many of us parents are quite comfortable and have no interest in buying this book for advice. If so many Americans are worried about raising your child with low self-esteem, then maybe they are insecure and need this book, but not all of us are."
02/7/2011:
"I don't know why everyone is up in arms about this book. I have 4 sons (3 adults and 1 pre-teen) and as my mother used to say, 'we all had different personalities, so she had to deal with us differently'. There's no book written yet on how to be the perfect parent; if there was, there wouldn't be so much child abuse and failing children. Each parent raises their child(ren) as they see fit and unfortunately, children don't come with instructions nor do parents get a manual when they welcome a child into the world. You raise your child(ren) the best you know how and expect nothing less than their best as they grow up. I could care less about how this woman raised her children, that was her way and the way I rasised my sons was my way. They had the best of everything growning up including in their education. They're not what I thought they'd be, but that's ok. I good with the fact that they're productive adults living their own lives they way they want to and not my idea of what they should've or could've been. I gave them the foundation on which to build on and let them fly. I don't need a book or a lecture on what I should've done. I did what was necessary to make strong men out on my little boys, and they've turned out ok."
02/7/2011:
"Two weeks after Amy Chua's book was released, I listened to her on the Larry Mantle show on public radio in LA. Both Amy and the host of the show emphasized that her book was a tongue in cheek look on old school Tiger parenting and was never meant to be taken seriously. In fact she said that although you might have some results from this type of parenting but it did not necessarily work for her own kids... So other than reading the book for myself... I am not sure who I am to believe anymore. "
02/7/2011:
"America is one of the only countries that educates everyone. Every child gets the same opportunity to get an education and that is one reason why our scores are lower. ALL Children deserve to have an opportunity to an education. Many European and Eastern countries separate the education of their brightest from special needs children. American parents need to know what their children are doing and support their children's interests and education. Time for downtime is essential, creativity is important for kids to develop. The greatest inventors were given time and tools to create."
02/7/2011:
"I agree with my friend who, referring to Amy Chua's article in the Wall Street Journal: 'Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,' said: 'In my mind, it would be no different if the WSJ had printed an opinion piece justifying the physical abuse of children.' As a professional educator and owner of a private school in Aliso Viejo, California, she knows what it takes to motivate and educate children. She posted two video blogs on the subject. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcBQIN09paI and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37xzGU0NGhw My own daughter, educated at the VanDamme Academy, will go to college at the age of 15, so I can personally attest that the philosophy of education that Lisa follows, works."
02/7/2011:
"Two weeks after Amy Chua's book was released, I listened to her on the Larry Mantle show on public radio in LA. Both Amy and the host of the show emphasized that her book was a tongue in cheek look at old-school Tiger parenting and was never meant to be taken seriously. In fact she said that although you might have some results from this type of parenting but it did not necessarily work for her own kids... So other than reading the book for myself... I am not sure who I am to believe anymore. "
02/7/2011:
"tiger parenting is alive and well in Howard Co, MD. I take my kids swimming a few times a week. They are laughing and playing. All of the Asian kids (down to kids 3-4 yrs old) are doing laps with parents standing at the end barking orders. Making them redo tje stroke, climbing on the diving board to fix the child's hands.. This is not swim team practice, this is every day, different families."
02/7/2011:
"I live in San Francisco now, and before that, in Cupertino, CA. I am friends with many chinese mothers of high achieving kids, and I strongly agree with Po's assessment that Amy Chua's parenting style is not typical of the chinese mothers I know. Extra-curricular activities, as well as well-controlled play dates are very much part of our reality. I'm also quite sure that the book is quite selective in its stories, and since it is written intentionally to provoke, it leaves out the balance of the events, that would possibly show a softer side of parenting. The big point, however, is that what A.C. describes is pretty much the recipe one needs to follow to raise a child prodigy in *any* area. By definition, you have to narrow down activity choices,enforce a grueling practice schedule and make sure -- to the best possible -- that the child manages to at least keep up with regular school. That is where the polemics should go. This is not chinese vs us style of parenting. It raises the question of 'what to do with a child who is amazingly talented in one area?', 'how far should you go to enforce that talent?', 'what are worthwhile goals for your talented child's education?', 'how early do you start encouraging that talent to the detriment of other activities?', etc... To me, as someone who has grown in Eastern Europe, in a country where only super-gifted children had access to musical education and sports, to the detriment of everything else (remember Nadia?), what AC is describing is not a parenting style that encourages life success. It is a chance she has taken on one facet of her daughter's personality, and a gamble that she apparently has won, as far as the book goes. The questions above remain, however, and need to be answered with every new semester throughout the youth of any gifted child. There is no recipe here, only hard choices. "
02/7/2011:
"I truly believe that the reason children in China perform better in China on the PISA test is that there is greater respect for teachers and education in China. Students look up to education. Also education means more in China. An educated person earns more in China and is treated with more respect. "
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