Confessions of a Failed Tiger Mom

by Tess Gerritsen

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting on a literary panel with Jed Rubenfeld, a soft-spoken and charmingly self-deprecating novelist whose debut historical thriller, The Interpretation of Murder, had just been released.  After the panel, he invited me to an address in uptown Manhattan, where his daughter was giving a violin recital, which unfortunately I couldn’t attend.  I thought it an unusual invitation to get from a fellow novelist — until he told me that his wife was Chinese.  And then I thought: “well, of course,” and the invitation no longer seemed at all surprising to me.  Because I’m the daughter of Chinese parents, and lord knows, I endured a childhood of countless violin and piano recitals, to which everyone my family knew was always invited.  

Rubenfeld’s wife is now in the news, and in a big way.  Her name is Amy Chua, she’s a Yale Law School professor, and she’s just released a memoir called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about being a Chinese mother.  She also wrote an essay that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, which resulted in a storm of publicity and criticism about her rather strict style of parenting.  That essay has generated over 7200 comments and counting, some of them from people who call her an abusive control freak.  I haven’t read the book yet (although I’m looking forward to it), but based on what I’ve seen of newspaper reviews, Chua’s book is funnier and more thoughtful than the essay makes it seem, and Chua’s two daughters have reportedly matured into happy, talented young women.  Yet the criticism continues, because the American public is both astonished — and somewhat appalled — by Chua’s hard-driving parenting.  For instance, her children were not allowed to:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

For most Americans, that looks like a shockingly autocratic list of demands.  All I can say is, welcome to my childhood.  

When I was growing up in California, all the Asian-American mothers I knew were Tiger Moms.  Every single one of my childhood cohorts played the piano or violin or both.  It wasn’t as if my parents said, “You want to play the piano?” Instead it was: “Your first piano lesson will be on Tuesday.”

So now I play the piano and the violin.

I was also told, like Chua’s kids, that anything less than an A was an unacceptable grade in school.  Then, after my parents found out that there was an even better grade, called an A plus, they were no longer satisfied with a plain vanilla A.  My grades all had to be A pluses.  Except for physical education class, which was an exception that Chua also made for her kids.  Chinese parents don’t really care whether their kids are jocks, and they consider team sports a complete waste of time.  However, if it’s an individual sport where you can shine and make them proud — such as figure skating or gymnastics — that’s okay.

As for sleepovers? Dates with boys?  No way.  My dad absolutely forbade me from dating until I was a senior in high school.  That doesn’t mean I actually followed the rules. Chinese kids learn early how to get around those rules.  

I’m glad that my parents weren’t as strict as Chua when it came to some school activities.  I was allowed to perform in school plays, which was my biggest pleasure in high school.  I acted, wrote, and directed, which helped me learn the basics of drama — lessons that helped me as a writer.  I’m also grateful that my parents let me watch TV.  I can’t imagine a childhood without “Star Trek” or “Gilligan’s Island” or — hanging my head in embarrassment — “Mr. Ed.”  Those were cultural touchstones that made me into a real American.

But in so many ways, mine was the classic Chinese-American childhood.  For the most part, I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful that I play the piano and violin, that I was accepted at a top university, that I earned my medical degree.  

But there’s also a dark side to growing up with tiger parents.  I’ve heard from too many Asians whose dreams of careers in the arts were thwarted by their parents.  One 45-year-old computer engineer wrote me, mourning the fact he was now too old to pursue a fashion career.  “I have only one life, and I’m spending it at a job I hate.  Because it’s what my parents wanted for me.”  I heard the story of a young man whose parents wouldn’t let him pursue a singing career, and instead demanded he became a doctor.  The day he earned his medical degree, he called his father and said, “I’ve done what you wanted.  Now I’m doing what I want.”  And he became one of the top opera singers in China.  

My own childhood, with its emphasis on staying home alone and studying, probably led to my continuing feelings of social ineptness.  I still feel awkward in cocktail parties.  Small talk is beyond me. I never learned to be comfortable in social situations — and I wonder if other Asian Amerians feel likewise.  

When it came to raising my own children, I have to admit, I’m a failed Tiger Mom.  My husband is Dutch, and you know how lenient those hang-loose Dutch are.  Anything goes!  I managed to hang onto a few Tiger Mom practices.  My older son plays the violin and my younger son plays the cello.  I never asked them if they wanted to play an instrument; I just told them it was time to start.  But all the rest of it?  Demanding they practice their instruments?  Get straight A’s?  Get into Harvard?  Way too much work for this laissez-faire mom.  Instead, I’m the mom who waited in line with my kids for the midnight showing of “Star Wars, Episode I” and wrote them this excuse note for school: My sons couldn’t make it to school yesterday because they were exhausted from watching the premiere of the new “Star Wars” movie, which I felt was an important cultural event.  Yes, I really wrote that note.  My sons still talk about it.  

As a Tiger Mom, I failed.  I’m no good at demanding obedience from anyone.  And my boys have been allowed to pursue their own dreams, even if those dreams are wildly impractical.  

After all, it’s what I did; I wouldn’t expect them do do any less.

 

 

40 thoughts on “Confessions of a Failed Tiger Mom

  1. Ellen Pober Rittberg

    You sound like a terrific parent. Perhaps that's because I share your philosophy, which I detailed in my "35 Things Your Teen Won't Tell You, So I Will," which was published in 2010 (Turner Publishing)
    And I'm sure your kids turned out great.And although my kids went to the Ivies, that wasn't my aim in life for them. And if they didn't, i would have been okay with that too.
    Ellen Pober Rittberg

  2. Ellen Pober Rittberg

    Don't know if my comment posted but I said good work. We share the same philosophy (ahthough my kids played sports and one of them sang. I detail my phisosophy in my book "35 Things Your Teen Won't Tell You So I Will, (Turner Publishing)

  3. JD Rhoades

    I have to say I'm puzzled by this "only the violin and/or piano" thing. Why no love for the brass or the woodwinds? Do Asian moms hate the bassoon for some reason?

  4. Laura Jane Thompson

    I read about the Tiger Mom in a couple news articles, and although her parenting style seemed rather strict, only one thing really bothered me: The articles said she called her kids names, though the actual words she used weren't specified.

    Your parenting style sounds more like what I grew up with, Tess. My parents expected me to do my best, but they also expected me to figure out who I was. I guess what I'm saying is that they gave me a childhood, and for that I'll always be grateful. I got to screw up, then make them proud, then screw up, and by the time I left home I felt like they taught me what I needed to know.

  5. Eric Graham Reviewed

    Pretty good posting here,. I never thought about that I will catch any information like that ,but your post really help me. Awesome things are sharing here. I like your post ,Now I am waiting for your next post.So keep writing.

  6. Sara J. Henry

    I do wonder what Tiger Chinese mothers managed who happened to have twin children – clearly, they couldn't BOTH be #1 in their class.

    Hey,for the right age group, "Mister Ed" was pretty damn funny. No need for shame πŸ™‚ … and now, of course, that tune is rollicking in my head … "A horse is a horse of course of course … unless his name is MISTER ED!" Thanks, Tess!

  7. tess gerritsen

    Dusty,
    I have no idea why Tiger parents demand either piano or strings. A curious thing, isn't it? Maybe it has to do with the fact that Chinese is a tonal language.

    The reason I started my sons off early on strings (both were about four years old when they began lessons) is because I knew that perfect pitch must be established early, and strings require rigorous ear training that the clarinet, for instance, doesn't require.

  8. Debbie

    I believe in experiences first, choices second. How can a child decide to do or not do something they cannot comprehend? I also think that sticking it through to a certain point teaches perseverance, and allows a childs skills to develop to a point where they really can decide if they are interested in continuing.

    We don't offer our children a choice to read, we expect it, and a certain level of proficiency at that. TheTiger Mom simply has additional expectations, and considering that many kids are bored and watch TV because that's the choice (expectation) presented to them, is our parenting style really any different?

  9. Sylvia

    What a wonderful post, Tess. I read the piece in the NYTimes and some of the comments. All I can say is the following – parent your kids as you will since you have to live with them. Most of the time this refers to the crappy discipline parents don't have with their children that leads to wildly inappropriate behavior in public settings (reader: if your kid is the one who walked over to my table at the restaurant and picked up my roll and began eating it, yes, this is for you).

    While I'm not Chinese (far from it growing up in northern Michigan) my mother insisted we play a musical instrument (she was the orchestra and choir director) hated school sports (why do jocks get all the school funding and college scholarships) and pushed us on grades – except PE.

    I can't get around the name-calling but in many ways, no matter what ethnic group you come from there is guilt and pressure. Do this, do that. Be this, be that. Either aggressive or passive aggressive. I'd rather take the aggressive to know where I stand.

    I have three kids and they watch tv, one plays violin because she asked if she could (she is horrible and it is painful to listen), they have playdates and the grades are pretty darn good. One teacher stated "you know, she can get straight-A's and better". So I asked the 10-year old about this. Her response "I'm in the 5th grade. When grades become really important, let me know." Deal. Freshman year she needs to get A's if she wants a choice in where she'll go to college. Her choice.

    Parenting is tough in any country, in any city. Being a parent who cares – even if your caring is misunderstood by others – we need more of that, not less. So I'm pretty cool with flavors of Tiger Mom (not to be confused with Mama Grizzly)

    Now… off to get all the kids up for Chinese lessons before breakfast (just kidding).

  10. MJ

    I had pretty much the same upbringing in my Caucasian American family – something at some point turned my Mom into a ferocious striver for 1) me to be prestigious and wealthy and 2) for my parents to bask in my glory. So, piano, violin, lots of outrage when I got less than an A, lots of outrage when I wasn't valedictorian (who, last I heard, was working at a coffee shop), lots of demands that I win everything all the time.

    It had its dark side, and I'm still working out my belief that I have to be achieving 24/7 to be entitled to live, but it did have some good too. Namely, it kept me out of the worst parts of teen girl culture. I never wanted to be dumber, or sold myself short for boys, or floundered in school because it was uncool to be smart and cool to be fixated on what the "pack" valued. That helped me tremendously to be confident and strong in being myself and going my own way – so missing some sleepovers, etc. isn't the end of the world. I see my sister in law now, still trying to be the cutest, and prettiest, and pinkest, and very disappointed that she didn't get Prince Charming and a perfect life, and wonder if her huge pack of girly-girl friends weren't unhelpful influences on her.

    I never got to be in a school play, and regret that a little – but all of our plays were musicals, and my singing is useful only for comedy (I can't stay on pitch and apparently sound like Alfalfa from the Little Rascals oldie show). If only they hadn't set that up to accept only girls with pretty voices….

  11. Joni Rodgers

    Tess, this is the best response I've read to the tempest in the Tiger Mom teapot. I did skim the book and felt that the WSJ article — or more specifically the title "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" (Chua never said that) — was not at all in the spirit of the book as a whole.

    Also, the Star Wars note — I did the same thing! When the assistant principal went off on a "you need to get your priorities straight" diatribe, I said, "Hon, I just got out of chemo. That's like a masters degree in priorities." No regrets.

  12. Karen in Ohio

    Growing up, my parents didn't give a hoot what I did, as long as I didn't leave the house, didn't make noise or fight, ate what they put in front of me, and did the chores my mother assigned. Everything I accomplished was on my own, since I had virtually no guidance, and it sucked wind.

    My own children were raised with way more intention, and they did very well, the youngest two getting full, four-year academic scholarships to good colleges, and the youngest now in a doctoral program that pays a stipend. I credit their early piano lessons for their mathematical ability, and limiting TV to weekends for their intellectual focus. They were in lots of sports, excelling at none, but able to enjoy themselves, and I encouraged them to participate in almost every single extracurricular they wanted to try: piano, marimba, acting camp (six years' worth), trumpet, orchestra, band, French lessons, magic lessons, gymnastics, Space Camp, engineering camp, Brownies, Girl Scouts, sewing, drawing, calligraphy, chorus, marching band, school government, Civil Air Patrol, whatever. And we went to the library often, visited museums and national parks, took wildflower and wildlife hikes, and went swimming at the local pool. Yes, I drove tens of thousands of miles without leaving town, but it was well worth it.

    Parenthood is a commitment, and if we don't expose our kids to possibilities, how will they know what they excel at? The so-called Tiger Mom may go too far, but at least she is giving her children a basis for excellence, rather than mediocrity.

  13. Rob Gregory Browne

    "Small talk is beyond me."

    I'm not sure that's a product of your environment as a child, or simply a case of having a shy gene. I, too, have a difficult time at social gatherings and with small talk, although I do my best to bluster through such situations. It's always awkward for meβ€”although I'm sure my friends and colleagues would disagree (maybe not?).

    And, of course, I've never sensed that awkwardness in youβ€”so I guess we both manage to hide it to some degree.

    As for parenting, my parents were quite liberal in their method and I carried on the tradition.

  14. tess gerritsen

    I'm loving all these childhood and parenting stories! When I was a kid, the only non-Asian kid I knew who was expected to take violin lessons was a Jewish girl,. From what I gather, Jewish and Chinese moms are very similar.

  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Bravo, Tess, for being a failed Tiger Mom. I would have rebelled or lived a miserable life if I was forced to have the highest grades or become a doctor. My father was a doctor and, although it defined who he was, it also controlled him. I'm thankful for the freedom I had as a child to choose for myself. I don't know, but the message I want to convey to my kids is this: you are perfect as you are. I think it's the best message for success in all things we do in life.

  16. Murderati fan

    Hmmm! What happens if a Tiger Mom has a child with severe mental or physical challenges?
    I've wondered what America would be like if it hadn't been so founder-ingrained with puritans. I love the Aussie's ability to enjoy life. Some of the goals for my children were to be responsible, contributing citizens, gentle and caring persons, and personally fulfilled.

    My daughter-in-law was born in China and she seems able to blend multiple cultures. I suppose that's what's best about America. We're a marvelous melting pot.

  17. Mary

    Huzzah for parents who understand the balance of limits and freedom. How else will children grow to be themselves. I chuckled over the Star Wars note. I had a students practically falling asleep in my class after that premier. I pointed out that, if he didn't feel well, the school nurse could let him nap. It took some effort from his friends for him to decipher the code and admit to a headache. Then he decided to go to the nurse the next hour because "I like it here." He sat back in the comfy chair a neighbor had discarded, and with a little smile, replayed the movie in his mind.
    That was the same week that one student finally understood the "Metaphors Be With You" t-shirt from the Poetry Alive! performing group.

  18. Kagey

    Once, while I was in college and stuggling to decide on a major from the envious position of doing well at all the electives I'd tried, my father lamented that in his own life, he had been perhaps too much of a generalist, and had passed that problem on to me. Parents can provide experiences, can demand time on a topic, but they can't provide the ingredient that takes it from a fun activity to an ambition: passion.

    I have only read only read reviews of Tiger Mom, not the WSJ article or the book, but I wonder if her demands of her daughters created people who can find their own passions, and then apply the discipline learned from girlhood to whatever that may be. THAT would be useful in my life now.

  19. Chris Hamilton

    My daughter goes to an IB high school. It's her thing. She loves it and wouldn't choose any other program. She has almost mathematically clinched valedictorian. My son is different. He's doing very well at the math-science middle school, but he keeps talking about IB. I hope he doesn't decide to go there. It's not his thing. I think he would be more motivated by going to a math-science magnet for high school or to the sports management magnet high school. (Yeah, they have one of those.)

    When I told a co-worker it was his choice, she was stunned. It's his life, though, and as long as he fully exercises his abilities, it seems inappropriate to push him another way.

    So says "sloth dad."

  20. Cornelia Read

    My mother was pretty much the antithesis of Tiger–laissez-faire except for the things she saw as the most essential survival skills I'd need as a female: an endless font of chirpling inoffensive small talk, effervescent enthusiasm–perennially described as "making an effort"–on demand (especially in the presence of men), and the cultivation of an extensive social network.

    I disappointed in all these areas as a child, being naturally morose, intellectual verging on Aspergers-y, always short of friends, and acidly sharp-tongued.

    That I was not from birth a superbly gifted jock was also horrifying to both mom and my maternal grandmother. They felt there were two orders of people in the world: "athletes" and those of my ilk, described as "[sigh] not an athlete." Junior varsity didn't count, although I played field hockey, basketball, and lacrosse as a solid JV chica throughout high school. Perhaps it's not surprising that one of the most frequently told jokes about female students at my college was "Why did the Sarah Lawrence girl cross the road? For gym credit."

    So, WASP Mom vs. Tiger Mom? Equally cutting, I think. Just different goals.

    I realized most deelply that the scathingness crossed cultural boundaries when a very, very dear friend of mine committed suicide at age fifteen, just after I'd graduated from boarding school.

    Her parents, both doctors, were Korean. They'd informed her that they would not pay for her college education unless she was pre-med (three years before she'd even be applying to college.) She wanted to be a poet. And she was tremendously gifted–a genius with language already, as a mere sophomore in high school.

    She took forty Percodan, a few nights after the end of the school year.

    All that year, she'd been pestering me to read the short stories of J.D. Salinger, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" most of all.

    I kept blowing it off, since I'd disliked Catcher in the Rye so much.

    I read everything else he'd written that summer, in her memory. And felt like shit, because of course "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"–first thing I read–described the events leading up to Seymour Glass's suicide. Jeanne had been trying to tell me where she was headed, all year long.

    I still miss her, so goddamn much.

  21. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Cornelia…yes, such a sad story. Beautifully told. You captured me. I miss her, too, just from the way you tell it.

  22. lil Gluckstern

    I liked your post, Tess, because balance seems to have a notion for hundreds of years, and sometimes this woman seems abusive, and weird-tearing up unacceptable birthday cards, for example. Cornelia, what a terrible story. As parents, we need to guide, but certainly not tone deaf. The article from Caucasian Dad-Tess' link at least is clearly tongue in cheek. Having kids requires a sense of humor, doesn't it?

  23. tess gerritsen

    Funniest line from that Caucasian dad piece:

    "But parenting isn't about giving children what they want. It's about giving them what they need. It's about preparing them for the future. It's about distracting them with electronics so you don't have to interact with them."

  24. Fran

    My best friend's parents were of the "all A's all the time; A+ is best, but A is acceptable. Nothing else" variety, and as an adult, she only did things she could excel at. If she wasn't successful at something after the first couple of tries, she walked away and never looked back. I thought that was sad.

    However, in high school during our senior year, she deliberately failed a Home Ec. class. It wouldn't count on her transcript so it didn't jeopardize college, and she learned everything from it, just didn't turn in any of the homework, which she had done.

    When her mom questioned her about it, Lou's response was, "I worked harder for that F than any of the A's I ever got, and I'm proud of it!" and her mom just nodded.

  25. Reine

    Hi Tess,

    Great blog. Very interesting. For a very brief period of time (somewhere between bio-parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, and Auntie-mom), I had a Chinese step-mom. After being totally ignored for my whole life up to that point, Chinese step-mom didn't have a chance — lasted about an hour and a half.

  26. Reine

    Cornelia, I am crying. Your friend… you… such an difficult thing to bear… to have… to carry along. xxxxxxxxxx

  27. JT Ellison

    I was pushed, for sure, but in a good, constructive way. And intensely driven, so much so that I had schoolbooks taken away because I wouldn't stop working ahead. But I was blessed, because my parents and teachers realized I needed something more challenging than their curriculum, so put me in as a test case for the new G&T program for our school system. Thank goodness for meddling parents.

    I've never seen anything wrong with pushing your kids to excel. Better than plopping them down in front of video games and ignoring them, right? Of course, there's a balance in everything, and Chau does speak to the fact that she realized her kids were different, and allowed her youngest to follow her dreams to tennis instead of violin. Balance, balance, balance. But really, I hate seeing these kids coming up who are functionally illiterate because their parents don't bother to educate them. There's more to a child's education than sending them to school.

    But damn it, I always wanted to play piano. I got stuck on Clarinet instead.

  28. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Tess

    My parents allowed me to leave school when I was twelve, so I think they're terrific ;-]

    Later, when I was five months into a six-month college course (that I wasn't enjoying) and was asked to be the navigator on a yacht coming back from the Canary Isles, my parents were the ones telling me to go for it – I could always study later.

    One thing, though – can you teach me to play piano?

  29. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Tess,
    I've heard about this book and want to read it since I lived that year in Hong Kong. Living and breathing Chinese culture — at least the HK version of it — was an astounding experience. I remember my roommate had earned recognition as the top Accounting student at the Chinese U of Hong Kong.

    I asked her if she was happy to have achieved such an accomplishment.

    She looked at me as if I was raving mad. When she realized I really wanted to know, that from my cultural perspective the success had a different meaning, she said, "No. Not really. All it means is that I have to study that much harder to keep my place."

  30. KDJames

    My dad (a well-known respected high school teacher in our smallish district) once sent a note to school with me saying I'd been absent because I had bubonic plague. Back then, we had to take our notes to the principal's office and get a pass. They all thought it was hilarious. I was mortified. I was six. Pretty sure my warped sense of humour comes from my dad. Along with my contempt for authority for its own sake.

    I think "effective" parenting comes not from whether you're strict or lenient, but whether you're consistent. Kids need boundaries — they need to know that if something was unacceptable yesterday, that same thing will be unacceptable today and tomorrow as well. My parents expected me to get straight A's and I did (except for PE; I could swim and do hundreds of sit-ups but at everything else PE-related I completely sucked). But I was capable of getting A's and they knew it and so did I. My parents were stoic Scandinavians, though, so there wasn't any yelling or name calling or harsh lecturing. Just the weight of silent disapproval. It was very effective. I was more verbal with my kids. It was also very effective. Well, that's what I tell myself.

    When my kids were both here over the holidays, one night at the dinner table my daughter said to her brother, "Remember when mom used to send you to your room and I'd go into the bathroom and we'd open the windows and hang halfway out and talk to each other the whole time?" Both of them laughed hysterically. "Did you know we did that, mom?" No, I had no idea. Those windows are three stories off the ground; there would have been dire consequences. But I love it that they had that solidarity and feel comfortable now telling me and laughing about it. Really, love it. Just wait until they have kids.

  31. Tammee

    I guess my black grandfather was a Chinese mother in another life since my mother had to play the violin and played through her entire childhood and then entered a conservatory of music after she graduated from high school. She started me on the piano as a small child ( i also played flute for a year) and I played until I was about 15, then blew music off. Of course I'm sorry now, but that's the way it goes.

    I read the first 100 pages of Chua's book and found it humorous for the most part. I thought it was done tongue in cheek, though the way she told of the differences between Chinese and western parents managed to be insulting to western parents, thus the backlash I believe.

  32. Deborah Piccurelli

    Tess,

    I posted on your other blog, too, but I just want to add, here, that it seems you took a good road to parenting: the middle of the spectrum. Not too much, not too little. Your sons are blessed.

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