'Tiger Mother' isn't about parenting. It's about declining American exceptionalism.
The parenting questions Amy Chua's book raises are the questions facing the US. Should America be more hard-working and disciplined like China? Do Americans value free-expression and self-fulfillment too much?
Virginia Beach, Va.
By now, everyone has heard about Yale law professor Amy Chua’s new book about Asian parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The book has been hotly debated in news reports, on-line, and in neighborhoods and PTA meetings across America. But I’d like to suggest that Ms. Chua’s book is actually not about parenting at all. It’s about something much deeper than that.Skip to next paragraph
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As a political analyst, I was struck by two ideas which appear to underlay Chua’s analysis of the world: 1) the notion that there is no such thing as “giftedness”; there is merely hard work, and 2) the notion that the “third generation” is the one headed for trouble. These two statements are problematic for Americans, since they have implications for our own position in the international system as well.
In the international system, America has always behaved like a gifted child. Here, the child labeled gifted is defined as uniquely endowed with special abilities. He is intrinsically motivated and equipped with the potential for high level achievement. Similarly, the rhetoric of American exceptionalism explains the “miracle” of America’s rise to power with reference to America’s superior genetic endowment. America is described as “blessed” with a huge land mass, natural resources, good harbors, and citizens who are uniquely hard-working.
But where Western educators embrace giftedness, Asian educators stress hard work and determination. Analysts who describe the rise of the Asian tiger economies do not stress unique endowments or gifts but rather hard work, rational strategy, and the willingness to forgo short-term gratification to achieve goals.
What happens next for America?
Here, it appears that both types of strategies can produce success. But the more interesting question Chua’s book raises is this: What happens next? The danger for the gifted child (or nation) is that at some point, raw talent and luck will not be enough to carry him forever. For the diligent student (or nation), the danger is that hard work is not enough to reach the next level. Here analysts argue that China’s draconian childrearing methods leave their students (and their nation) ill-equipped in the areas of creative thinking and problem-solving.
In her memoir, Chua describes three generations of Asian families: The first generation works and sacrifices, and the second generation works hard, buoyed by the advantages bequeathed them by previous generations. The third generation, however, risks losing that drive and becoming soft.