Tuesday, 25 January 2011

On Amy Chua, and Tiger Mothers

It has been astounding to me to see how the whole "Tiger Mother" furore has erupted in America, considering that the original text is so flawed. To be the cover story on Time magazine?

My first issue with the Amy Chua excerpt that was published in the Wall Street Journal is methodological. Setting aside the question of definitions of success, to extrapolate a whole category of behaviour by an ethnic group (which may or may not be an ethnic group, seeing how she fudges her definition of "Chinese" mothers) from anecdotal data is completely ridiculous. Having come from Chinese parents myself, I could state just as confidently from my 1-family sample that Chinese mothers are loving, supportive, and always listen to the child and give him the space he needs to grow. And that confidence would be misplaced.

The next concern is sociological. I fear that the Amy Chua article reinforces stereotypes of Asian education, and specifically that of Singapore's. I worry about promulgating the idea that somehow what all Asian parents want out of their children are automatons who do well in school through rote learning, and that that must be the cause of Singapore's good math and science testing scores. As anyone here in America doing "Singapore Math" knows, we hardly have a rote curriculum for math. Based on what I saw and knew of my mother's lifelong work as a teacher and at the Ministry of Education, there's a lot of thinking that goes on in Singapore about pedagogy, and how we can best reach out to students of all stripes.

So I worry that articles like Chua's paint all Asian styles of education with a broad brushstroke, when the reality is that the education systems of different countries are quite different. And in that vein I'm proud that Singapore has a system that is moving towards celebrating different modes of success. I'm also struck by the fact that we have invested so many resources in our Institutes for Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnics, to provide quality education for those who do not go to college.

And a final thought: I think I find it most disturbing for people to send around the article with comments like "oh it must be true - I was raised like that and look how I turned out!". To be in blinkered, unthinking awe of a piece that lacks rigour seems to call into question your intellectual grasp. Which makes me, dare I say it, judge how your parents raised you.

Edit: Larry Summers vs Amy Chua was quite interesting.



Hi Daryl,
I am not a mother, but I was a child of a very lax mother, who let me do whatever I wanted.

I am often grateful for that, but I wonder what it would have been like to have a father, or someone who was a bit more authoritarian. I wonder what influence that would have had on my life.

I haven't read Amy Chua's book, but I completely agree with you that using cultural stereotypes is damaging.

I wonder though, if the reason the book has become such a hot topic is not because of the racial stereotyping, but because the issue of using an authoritarian parenting style is so controversial.

Just my thoughts...


Hey Daryl,

Quick note, since you kind of touched the issue in your post, but didn't go into it in detail.

It turns out that the WSJ may have misrepresented Amy Chua's book as a how-to guide, when in actual fact it is a memoir about the lessons she learns from trying to parent her children "the Tiger Mom" way.

It turns out that the excerpt isn't really much of an excerpt, considering how excerpts tend to deal with one part of a memoir, not take several sections from different parts of the book and knit them into a misleading whole, and then put it under an inflammatory title.

Frankly it was quite a bit of fail for WSJ as much as it was for Amy Chua.


I totally agree with you that the article in WSJ lacked intellectual and academic rigour. But I do look on the bright side. It made people sit up and pay attention. It made them respond, and for sure, it started them thinking.

I would give the average man in the street some credit, that when faced with incomplete information, which according to journalistic tradition might be in danger of perpetuating stereotypes, the actual reaction could be much more moderate than that.

The conversation (on reviews of the book) has taken on a life of its own, and now the issue of parenting/ education philosophies and methods, is firmly in the public consciousness (at least from the media's point of view).

For me, I personally learned to look at the issue from a heart perspective. My conclusion from the whole issue is to wonder, "What motivates a parent?" And the answer I'm seeing is this: a mixture of fear and faith.


We all know she was trying to sell books, but in defence of much-demonised stereotypes (which are often true) - as an academic, Chua marshalls studies which support her claim:

"In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that "stressing academic success is not good for children" or that "parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun." By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way"

"Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams."


Errr majority of those in the polytechnics have degrees, and in fact many of them go overseas, for a better education.

Its no secret that the public universities of your country suck to high heavens and have a reputation for being good for nothing except begging for tie-ups and collaborations with prestigious top universities. This reputation is so widespread it's a common knowledge not just among the Singapore-born top students but also among overseas faculty members.

Maybe you didn't know all this cos you don't know anyone who did not go to jc?


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