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The Unexpected Legacy of an American Tiger Mother

The unexpected legacy of an American Tiger Mom is not that Chinese parenting is better. Amy Chua's memoir of her struggle to protect time-honored traditions while adapting to life in America captures challenges that are as old as America itself.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

by Seth Eisenberg

Amy Chua didn’t write Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother as a guide to parenting. As the author recently explained to TIME’s Belinda Luscombe, the book began at a time of family turmoil familiar to many who immigrated to America from diverse cultures:

“I didn’t write this book to tell people how to parent. In fact, I wrote this book in a moment of crisis. I was raised by extremely strict but extremely loving Chinese immigrant parents. To this day I adore them and I feel I owe them everything. I tried to raise my children the same way. My daughter rebelled against this kind of parenting and I felt like my family was falling apart.  So the book is about many of the strengths I see in that kind of parenting but it’s also about the mistakes.”

Although the Wall Street Journal headlined an excerpt from the book, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” making that case was not Chua’s intention as she completed the manuscript.

Wanting to understand the differences between western and Chinese styles of parenting didn’t begin with Chua’s Tiger Mother. I’ve wondered what Chinese parents do differently more than once since watching Valedictorian Michael Cho and Salutatorian Grant Ho speak at my son’s high school graduation last year.

Michael Cho
Michael Cho

In four years at Cypress Bay High School, the largest and one of the most competitive in Broward County, Cho, the son of Pyong and Ungin Cho, earned a 5.3378 weighted GPA (perfect 4.0 unweighted) and went on to Cornell University where he’s today studying Electrical and Computer Engineering. Ho, the son of Xudong He and Yinglia Ding, also earned a perfect 4.0 (5.25 weighted) and is now studying Computer Science at Stanford.

After completing his major in Electrical Engineering, Cho said he wants to “create novel inventions to help advance our economic growth, but also to improve the efficiency of our current level of technology so society can continue to live on our overcrowded, damaged home planet.” He said his favorite quote is Thomas Edison’s “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Grant Ho
Grant Ho

Ho calls himself a liberal, political junkie and said his favorite quote is one by Walter Winchell about friendship: “A friend is one who walks in when others walk out” He plans to earn a Ph.D. in a field that will help him contribute to improving America’s educational system. “Ultimately, without a robust education,” Ho said, “we are a species doomed to stagnation, and eventually rapid regression and extinction.”

Like Chua’s two daughters, Michael and Grant are also children born to immigrants after the traumatic events that took place in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, when as many as 1,000 unarmed protesters were brutally massacred by Chinese soldiers and many Chinese intellectuals forever realized their future would not be in China. The challenge of protecting diverse, time-honored traditions while adapting to life in America is as old as America itself.

Chua’s story of the personal decisions she made about raising her daughters in America and the lessons she learned along the way is worth reading as a memoir reflective of the challenges faced by many immigrant parents raised in very different cultures than our own.

Her story includes meaningful lessons about the struggle to help children be the best they can be, including many she herself would not repeat.

As she explained to Luscombe:

“It’s saying ‘I believe in you so much that I know you can be excellent, and I’m going to sacrifice everything and be in the trenches with you and I don’t care if you hate me while you’re a kid and I’m just not going to let you give up.’ That’s, I think, a positive message.”

Contrary to many headlines and news clips, Chua’s is not a story void of a mother’s love or a suggestion that her tactics should become a model for parenting in America.

“There are a lot of moments I’m not proud of,” Chua said, adding, “It goes without saying that love and understanding have to come first, without that it’s nothing.”

Seth Eisenberg is President of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation in Weston, Florida, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.

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