The Parents’ Perspective: Reactions to Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mom” Tactics

Welcome to the fifth installment of The Parents’ Perspective – a mini blog series for parents by parents, to lend advice and share stories about raising musical children. For this post we’ve taken a slight detour in format.

Blogger Katheryn Rivas approached us with an idea that we adapted for The Parents’ Perspective. Katheryn wrote an article (below) about Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor who recently published her parenting memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” You may have heard of it, or seen the Wall Street Journal article about her parenting methods.

We asked our Parents’ Perspective contributors to read Katheryn’s article and react to the tactics Amy used with her daughter Lulu, a young pianist.  There are many perspectives on this subject and we hope this provokes further conversation.  What do you think about Amy’s tactics? Comment below and keep the dialogue going!

Part 1: Should Parents Go “Tiger Mom” on Their Musical Kids?
By Katheryn Rivas

Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor who has received an enormous amount of media attention following the publication of her parenting memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” is now nothing short of a household name.

An article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal excerpting her memoir and detailing her strict parenting methods garnered over 7,000 comments, mostly negative, and became the most talked about article ever published in the Wall Street Journal online.

One anecdote from the excerpt described how Chua forced her seven-year-old daughter to practice playing a particularly tricky piano piece until she got it right. Chua tried insults, threats, and finally, she noted:

“I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.

“Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing just like that.

“Lulu realized it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming.”

Chua uses this anecdote to reinforce the notion that children, not yet having developed self-discipline, should have it foisted upon them by their parents. She argues, “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”

Cultural stereotypes aside, is there something to be said for parents who go to seemingly extreme measures to nurture their children’s musical talents? As unpleasant as it may be to get young children to practice, will taking coercive measures now, as Chua advises, mean that your children will thank you for it later?

In his blog entry “Tiger Mothers and the Future of Classical Music,” renowned computer programmer and writer Charles Petzold argues that the dedication required to achieve a high performance level in classical music necessitates forceful parenting.

He notes, “I’m sure the process creates some emotional wrecks. But most of the students that I’ve seen on stage exhibit a great deal of joy in the music and take pleasure in their ability to play it. I now have the nagging thought in my head that if classical music survives as a vital living performance tradition, we have Tiger Mothers to thank.”

What do you think? Should parents of musically talented children take pushy or coercive measures in getting them to sit down and practice? Is there such a thing as going too far when it comes to playing classical music at a highly competitive level? Is there a real connection between successful musicians and strict/pushy parents?

This guest contribution was submitted by Katheryn Rivas, who specializes in writing about online universities. Questions and comments can be sent to: katherynrivas87@gmail.com.

Part 2: From the Top Parent Reactions

From Barbara Nakazawa:

I truly believe that the Wall Street Journal article was a great way for her to sell her book! Upon reading the follow up to that article in subsequent weeks, I do not believe that she tortured her kids. Her relationship and personality must have allowed her to seemingly humiliate her kids. I prefer rewards (extrinsic motivation) to threats but that could be because it is my personality and parenting style.

Limiting sleepovers and other activities is a must. I agree. One sleepover would set my son back for days and actually make playing sports dangerous. Oh…yes, playing sports..perhaps that was on her not to do list. I actually went against the norm on that and allowed sports. I thought it actually helped my son “get his energy out” and focus better.

I can feel Amy’s exasperation as she tried to get her daughter to learn the Ibert piece. Her daughter ripped up her music as my son once wacked me, somewhat jokingly, with his bow when the hair popped out! Encouraging and helping our kids push through difficult intellectual, musical, technical moments might just give them strength in their lives to push themselves through all sorts of difficult times. We, parents, just try to do the best we can. My parental recommendation is to get away with as much as you can while you can!

Barbara is a flute teacher in Massachusetts. For more information on her studio, please visit www.newtonfluteteacher.com

From Naomi Aldort:

Manipulative parenting breeds emotional suffering, whether seen on the outside or not. Dependency on parental approval, fear of lack of it, fear of failing and anxiety to fulfill parental expectations, are the source of confusion, depression, suicide, addictions, unhappiness, inability to trust, aggression and illness.

In addition, a person growing up oppressed is unlikely to be the musician who emotional expression delivers in concert halls. We must raise musicians who use music to express themselves with the music alone being the discipline. They must have the egos out of the way. Being concerned with pleasing and being the best, hinders such musical and emotional freedom.

Obviously, Lulu might not even like the piano. While being so busy fulfilling her mother’s dream, she has no awareness of her own aspirations. She is becoming a sheep.

However, there is merit in Chua’s criticism of hands off parenting attitude…If you confuse freedom with doing nothing, then, yes, you may want to consider taking a more proactive direction with your children, in music and otherwise. But you need not resort to control and coercion. It is possible to raise children who strive for excellence of their own. In fact, it is their nature to do so.

©Copyright Naomi Aldort. You can read the full text of Naomi’s article on Amy Chua here. Naomi is the author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves. Her advice columns appear in progressive parenting magazines worldwide.

From Vicky Robbins:

Wow, what a different way of looking at how to learn!  I would be very interested in Amy Chua’s daughters’ view on the subject when they are adults. They must surely be aware of both Chinese and Western cultures.  She certainly gives proof that strong arm tactics work. Certainly there is a cultural difference and maybe one needs to be brought up that way and within that culture to understand.

From my cultural perspective, (to use Amy Chua’s terminology “western parent”) put-downs and name calling is counter-productive. I prefer to use positive example, mentoring and a supportive atmosphere. At times, my son seems to respond better to me and other times from my husband or a teacher.  My way is to guide, to model,  to show the way and provide opportunities. Because as Ms. Chua says, “Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them.” I believe the same.

These are two very different methods of motivation towards achieving goals. I acknowledge that humiliation and shame can be powerful motivators and I choose a more intrinsic way as opposed to outward coercion.

From Susie Wuest:

I disagree with the notion that children on their own never want to work. My son Eric was motivated within himself [very competitive with only himself, not others] to succeed in music. He was brought up in a structured environment so that there was time for music, and he turned out to be a very well-rounded individual which had always been my goal. If having strict/pushy parents is what it takes to be a child prodigy, then I do feel sorry for the child. Yes, they might be very successful but at what cost? What is the rest of their life like? I would not wish forceful parents like Amy Chua on any child.

From Charlotte Kufchak:

No matter what we do in life, hard work is required to be successful.
That’s a great lesson to learn. BUT, it should be accompanied by nurturing
love, respect, lots of hugs, and care for the whole child. I agree with
some points of this article, but strongly disagree with the more negative
ones.

Thanks to all the parents who contributed to this post! It’s a very interesting topic and we’d like to continue the discussion, so please leave your thoughts in a comment below!

3 Responses

  1. As a young musician, my automatic reaction to this was “why would a mother do that?” I read the entire article, and took notice that at the end, Lulu was indeed pleased with her accomplishment. Or glad to be released. While I admire that Amy Chua taught her children to only accept the best or not to stop until you really have gotten it, I can’t ignore some of the irrationality of this article. Things such as eating or using the restroom are necessities. Especially for a 7 year old and by taking those away and using them as punishment, I had to wonder what type of attitude that motivated towards music in general. I too played piano at that age, but was in no way forced to play something above my level and in turn miss dinner or have necessities taken away. I have to say that if such measures had been taken, though I would have complied i don’t feel that I would have the love for music I do today.

  2. I have read the article in the WSJ and when I read it I was saddened that any mother thinks this is the way to ‘teach’ their child anything. We learned in the 70s that controlling parenting methods were not healthy, how sad that today a segment of society so bent on competing is embracing such an archaic notion. It explains a lot of why so many children play music with more perfect technique but a complete absence of emotion. It’s rote musical performance to please the mommies. You do not create heart through bullying.

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