The Bleat of the Pussycat Mother

What Women Really Think
Jan. 12 2011 2:18 PM

The Bleat of the Pussycat Mother

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As a declawed pussycat mother (my daughter would disagree, but Amy Chua would find me pathetic) I admit I’m fascinated by The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother ( reviewed by Ann Hulbert).  I had to examine why I felt so defensive when reading Chua’s account of her methods of raising high achieving children. Of course I want my teenage daughter to do well, and mostly she does (which I ascribe to her, not me). But I can’t imagine being punitive or flipping out – as Chua would – when my daughter has occasionally shown up with a bad grade. My daughter plays piano, but again, unlike Chua no way am I sitting by the keyboard, rapping her knuckles hour after hour. My problem may be that I think being able to play a musical instrument is a wonderful life skill, learning it brings a sense of accomplishment and discipline, and I also buy that it’s beneficial for brain development. However, where I fall down – in Chua’s worldview – was in my total lack of expectation that my daughter would ever play at Carnegie Hall.

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Chua has produced two lovely, accomplished girls, by all accounts. I’m sure they will end up having to make a difficult decision whether to accept the admissions offer from Harvard or Yale. But I found this Huffington Post story from the grown daughter of a Tiger Mother reassuring about my lax ways.  Patty Chang Anker was raised by two parents very much like Chua. "My mother once told me if I got a B to not bother coming home. My father drilled me in math until I developed a lifelong fear of math." She went to an Ivy League school, got a prestigious job, but was plagued with anxiety and almost had a breakdown. The biggest indictment of her parents' method is this: "I developed a fear of trying things that I couldn't excel at." That seems to me a very damaging possible consequence of the Tiger Mother method. If in the face of less than stellar performance a child is derided and ridiculed, how can that person grow up to be willing to try new things at which she might not be No. 1?

Then there is the question of the long-term relationship Chua has with her daughters. They are now teenagers and say they love and admire their mother and appreciate what she’s done for them.  But I wonder how their feelings might change as they break away from her, as they mingle with other equally accomplished young people (the Chua girls were not allowed play dates and sleepovers) who have relaxed parents. There is a danger for Chua that as these girls get older they will re-examine their childhoods and become deeply resentful of the years spent being her little performing dolls, of being told they were worthless unless they brought home all A’s.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. You can reach her at prudence@slate.com.