Beware of the Tiger Mom

For the last few weeks, the internet has been abuzz with talk of the Tiger Mom.

Amy Chua, a professor at Yale University and mother of two daughters, ignited a firestorm with her opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” Chua uses the term “Chinese mothers” to describe an ultra-strict parenting style which is prevalent among Asian-American immigrants. She described how she never allows her daughters to attend sleepovers, have playdates with other children, watch TV or play computer games. She does not allow them to get any grade less than an A. She expects them to be the number 1 student in every class, except gym and drama. She forces them — using physical restraint if necessary — to put in long hours of practicing piano and violin. Any sign of disrespect toward their parents is met with swift and severe punishment. She described how her own father once became angry at her and called her “garbage” in his Chinese dialect, and she has done this to her own daughters as well. While western parents are horrified by this, thinking that it damages the child’s self-esteem, she believes that it can be healthy, productive and useful. She regards this parenting style as superior because it leads to achievement and success, ultimately allowing the children to experience the joys of accomplishment. She defends her practices as an expression of motherly love.

As I was reading Chua’s essay, this is what went through my head.

  1. She’s got to be joking. This piece is tongue-in-cheek.
  2. No, she’s serious.
  3. She believes what she’s saying, but only to a degree; the piece is full of comic exaggeration.
  4. No, she’s completely serious. Lord have mercy!

Later I discovered that the truth is closer to #3. It seems that Chua was exaggerating. It wasn’t really comic exaggeration, because she appears to have little or no sense of humor. But she intentionally crafted the piece to be controversial, because she was hoping to generate publicity for her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which was going to be released a few days later. Her plan worked. The internet lit up with chatter about Chua’s piece, and heated discussions are continuing today.

Here is my own take on it. I think Chua is being disingenuous when she claims that this parenting style is motivated by pure, selfless love for her daughters. Surely it has something to do with the her desire to avoid shame and bring honor to the family. And I didn’t buy her view of what a successful person is. One doesn’t need to be a doctor, a professor, or a famous concert pianist to live a happy and fruitful life. Achievement is good, but at what cost? It will be very hard to convince me that this kind of parenting does not do psychological damage and impair the children’s ability to have loving relationships with other people and with God.

Sharon and I have four children — two of whom have significant learning disabilities — and we do not apply these kinds of practices in our home. Our parenting style is much, much looser. Undisciplined and chaotic, some would say. And we can’t help but wonder. “Are we doing something wrong? Shouldn’t we be getting tough and pushing our kids more?” We live in a university town that is full of high-achieving youngsters. We serve in a ministry filled with high-achieving second gens. It’s impossible not to compare our children to them and agonize over whether we are doing a good job.

Later I ran across a wonderful series of articles on this by a Christian blogger named Tim Dalrymple. He seems to know what he is talking about, because he married into an Asian family and has for many years been deeply involved with Asian-American Christian ministries. (And, I found out, he has a small UBF connection: He was a college friend of Dr. John Yoon of University of Chicago.) Tim unpacks and analyzes Chua’s article from many different angles. He talks about what western and Asian parents can learn from one another. He makes many valuable observations, too many to mention here. But after reading his posts, I felt much better about what has gone on in the Schafer household. I received much comfort and food for thought. And I learned something about how parenting style can help children experience the gospel of grace.

I’m sure that many of you have encountered this debate over Tiger Moms and the alleged superiority/inferiority of that strict parenting style. What were your reactions? What are you thinking now?


  1. I was also interested in this article and share many of the same concerns that you and Sharon have had.   As the parent of an amazingly intelligent and talented yet overwhelming unmotivated teenager, I have often wondered how I could have “encouraged” him to develop his talents more.   I know that he will be disappointed at some point that he did not accept the offers of art classes and music lesson when he goes to college and discovers like I did, that other people “do” stuff.   They identified themselves in some ways by their talent.   I could do a lot a little.   I danced, played instruments, acted, a little.   I had no “talent” in any area.
    I came to UBF when my son was 9 years old.   I witnessed a very different parenting style in the Korean families around me.   But one thing I have learned and that I will consider while raising my younger children, is that while American parents what their children to find out who they are and organically gravitate towards their interests, there is a level of expectation that is good to have for children.   A high expectation shows kids that you believe they can do it.   In some ways, it helps them to understand that they can do and be more than they thought.
    I hope to find the secret to helping my kids find what they love and to muscling through the boredom and frustration that naturally comes with “learning” something.   But I doubt very much that it will include calling them insulting names or physically forcing them to do something.

  2. Joe, thanks for your observations. There are so many sides you can tackle the parenting issue. But from reading your post, her parenting is law-centered. As you mentioned, it appears her motivation is to avoid bringing shame and honor to the family. Ultimately, it is self-motivated. Is success defined by your position, the money you make? As a parent, I come to God everyday with fear and trembling. My prayer is for mercy and grace to raise my children pleasing to Him. Two resources that have helped raise my children is the The Quest for Authentic Manhood – Men’s Fraternity by Robert Lewis and the Prodigal God by Tim Keller. In many cases, parenting can be damaging to our children when we don’t unpack and resolve issues within our own hearts. As we discover the biblical view of manhood/womanhood, we can guide our children in the way of the Lord. The other resource was Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God. I was moved by the Father’s love for each of his sons. He respected both sons in spite of their blindness. After the youngest son shamed the father, his father loved him unconditionally. He ran to his son instead of waiting for his son to beg for forgiveness. The father absorbed the debt and the shame because of his youngest son’s actions. These two resources have helped to guide my children through gospel-centered parenting.
    In many ways, I try to give the gospel message in my words and actions. The gospel is not about what we do, but what God has done. Ultimately, I want my children to be motivated to work hard, set high standards as their expression of love for Christ. To serve them with the gospel is not so easy. I find myself falling into law, “Obey or else…” I try to motivate them by manipulation or guilt. Robert Lewis said parenting comes in stages. I don’t remember exactly what he said but to paraphrase, when they are pre-teens you are their coach, when they are teenagers you become their mentor, when they are adults you become their advisor.  Now that my children are teenagers, I’m at the mentor stage. I can give them advice and they have to make their own decisions. I can be there to comfort them if they fail or doesn’t work out. I won’t always be there for my children. But one thing, as a parent I can leave them is the gospel message expressed through my life. Ultimately, the gospel can sustain them as they enter marriage and parenthood. As Paul beautifully expressed in “1 Cor. 15.10. “10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. ”

  3. I think Timothy Dalrymple’s article does a great job in critiquing the WSJ article and discussing some important issues.  One strong point he brings up is how this style of parenting can affect children’s view on God’s love.  It might be difficult for a person to understand or accept the unconditional, one-sided grace that Jesus offers when he/she grew up in a home where it seemed that love needed to be earned and was based on achievement.
    I’m not sure if this true, but I read a little more about Amy Chua and heard that she didn’t like the way the Wall Street Journal portrayed her book.  According to one article, she intended her book to be a memoir, not a “how-to book,” and she supposedly includes her own regrets on some mistakes she made regarding parenting.  
    But I haven’t read the book myself, so I’m not really sure.
    Although her methods are extreme, (such as the example of forcing her daughter to learn a piano piece), I did like one quote from the article, “But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.”

  4. Joshua Brinkerhoff

    I’m not sure how this comment fits into the previous ones, but reading this posting reminded me of something my mother did when I was about 7 or 8 years old. I was very eagerly anticipating a family trip to the movies. However, something happened that resulted in me being grounded. I remember going to bed crying because of the stiff rebukes and lecturing I had received. Then my mom woke me up in the night, wrapped me in a blanket, put me in the car, and we drove and watched the late showing together (me in my pajamas). She didn’t say anything until the drive home, when she said something like, “Joshua, you didn’t deserve this privilege. You didn’t earn it. But I gave it to you anyways. That’s what God has done for us.” I can’t remember any of the lectures or rebukes I had received, but that simple expression of undeserved grace really made a lasting impression. It really motivated me to honor and obey her, and I think that it gave me a simple picture of God’s love and grace that I could understand as a young child. To this day, I think about that event. I pray to display God’s love and grace to my girls as clearly.

    • Josh. Thanks for sharing that beautiful story. Your mom understood the gospel story. Her parenting reflected God’s undeserving love for us. Thank God for this simple act of grace that has remained with you to this day. God bless your family and ministry in the New Year!

  5. i haven’t read the book as a whole but from the interviews I’ve seen of the author, I do believe she does what she does out of love. I don’t agree with the story that supposedly her daughter gave her a card and she tossed it back saying it wasn’t “good enough”…but I do see SOME similarities in this style of parenting from that of Korean missionaries.
    When I first when to Korea for World Mission 1997, most 2nd gens from Chicago were SHOCKED that I went to Prom and school dances. I should probably note that I didn’t grow up in a typical Korean UBF family but, every free afternoon I had more or less was either spent it at a tutoring place or taking violin, piano, viola or flute lessons.  Now I’d have to say I was the “rebellious” one in my family so any rules that were set, I always broke or disobeyed them. If I was the daughter of Amy Chua I probably would have been thrown out of the house and left to starve.
    But most of the 2nd gens mentioned how they weren’t allowed to go to sleepover parties, denied going to any school dances/Prom and were all forced to spend their saturday evenings at orchestra practice. Not to mention SOGUM writing training. Some of the “Tiger Mom” practices to me seem very UBF-esque. Granted maybe most UBF parents weren’t as verbally abusive but I’m sure more 2nd gens will attest to the fact that they’re parents probably said something along the lines of …”If you don’t get straight A’s you won’t go to a good college  – and you’re life will be ruined”.
    While I do think in some ways this is why some of my friends may have left the ministry because of their broken relationships with their parents, I have to give it Korean missionaries. I don’t think there is one 2nd gen that isn’t academically and/or professional successful that I can think of. We have doctors, pharmacists, professors/teachers, counselors, graphic designers and oh, yea and a person who pretends to be a TV meteorologist. and all grew up under some what “Tiger Mom” standards.
    I don’t really have a point except to say that obviously parenting is the most challenging task in life and one day I do hope to experience it but I AM scared/worried that I might just be a “Tiger Mom” – demanding success from my own children.

    • Don’t forget about Tiger Brothers.
      By the way, how come there’s no discussion about Tiger Dads?
      Side note: Joe, this was an ingenious way of getting more females to blog. Good work.

    • Many thanks to James Kim, who suggested this topic a few days ago.

  6. Tiger Mom-esque qualities probably do show up in Korean culture as well.  And no parents are perfect..  But I think  God really blessed the children in UBF families (American and Korean families alike), despite their weaknesses.  I also think that despite the flaws in parenting (which every family has), there are a lot of beautiful and strong families in our ministry among shepherds and missionaries.  One of my friends in my ministry said that seeing the families in our chapter, especially after seeing many broken families growing up, was the most convincing testimony to her about godly marriage, and she learned more by observing them than from listening to a sermon about it.
    I wonder how to find the balance, between challenging children and also demonstrating God’s grace through the parent-child relationship..?  I guess it’s something that many parents grapple with.
    btw  I do love that TV meterologist!  :)

  7. In this week’s Time magazine Tiger mom was the top cover story. It was very interesting article. There was one psychologist’s quote at the end of the article (Marano). “Kids can grow and thrive under a wide variety of parenting styles—(American parenting) combines ambitious expectations and a loving environment with a respect for each child’s individual differences and a flexibility in practical roles and behavior. I also read Tim’s article and it was well balanced Christian view of both sides of the Chinese and the American education.
    My wife also had an ambitious expectation from my four children. We jokingly told them they become either MD or Ph D (And two of them became MD!). My wife wanted them to learn musical instruments like piano or violin at their early age. The first two children learned piano and violin at the age four or five, but later they gave it up. On the other hand the other two children liked playing musical instruments like violin and cello.
    My daughter thinks her mom was too strict in disciplining her academically and in learning musical instrument. So my daughter after having her own children does not want to be too strict on her own children. We have to wait and see. Amy Chua is ABC (American born Chinese) yet she was extremely strict on her two daughters. And surprising thing is that her two daughters also intend to be strict parents one day too.

  8. I do believe that God blesses those who seek his kingdom first (Mt 6:33). And I do believe that God has blessed, and is blessing, the children in our ministry.

    But  as a statistician, I feel it is my duty to point out the presence of selection effects. Tim Dalrymple notes that immigrants like Chua are a very special group.  Before coming to  America, they were  some of the most intelligent, able and highly educated people in China. And by coming to America, they demonstrate a forward-looking, independent and entrepreneurial spirit. They already have abilities, values and habits that foster the kind of success that Amy Chua is seeking for her daughters. To attribute the success of these children to tiger-mom parenting could be a fallacy. If Amy Chua hadn’t pushed her daughters so aggressively, would they have ended up playing at Carnegie Hall? Probably not. But I suspect that they would  have still turned out to be  bright, talented, successful young women, and possibly happier too. And perhaps they would have blossomed in other areas.

    I’m sure that similar effects are present in our ministry, because Korean UBF missionaries are immigrants too.  There were many mechanisms of selection  by which they came  to America. They were not representative of all people who live in Korea, and they are not representative of people in America. If the children of UBF parents  do better in certain respects than the children of non-UBF parents, it could be misleading to attribute their success to UBFish values, practices and parenting styles.   It is in  our human nature to look for reasons to pat ourselves on the back. Before doing this, it is worthwhile to play devil’s advocate and think about other possible explanations.

    What Susan said about families in UBF is true. There are lots of remarkable families among us. But as I interact with people in the community of State College (the small city in which I live), I see many families whose lives are inspiring, beautiful and strong. They are caring and loving people who give sacrificially  to the community.  Some of them attend church, some don’t. Yet I see many good and praiseworthy qualities in them.   I’m sure that if you  could peer deep inside their lives, there would be many problems and elements of darkness there. But the same is true for all of us. In one way or another, every family is a broken family and needs restoration.

    Speaking for myself, I need to spend a little less time comparing one child to another, one family to another, one group to another. And spend a little more time seeing the likeness of God displayed in all people. And meditating on God’s prevenient grace which made me what I am. And praying that in my life, my family, and the church, the fruit of the Holy Spirit may be more evident — the supernatural work of God’s grace that cannot be explained by any kind of parenting practice or human effort.

  9. Generally Asian family put much emphasis in children’s education. For example, in South Korea people spend billions of dollars every year for children’s education, which is more than health care dollars. Good education to get a good job and comfortable life has not much meaning. But good education with clear mission of God is very meaningful.
    Once, M Samuel Lee gave us a prayer topic to raise 1,000 Ph D shepherds in America. In America I see college professors and scholars give strong influence on the society in general. So I thought 1,000 Professor shepherds in American campuses potentially could give a positive impact to the society. I thought about another aspect. In the US medical school about one third of students are Asian origin and the number is increasing. Considering the Asian population in America is only five percent, it is a very larger proportion. Imagine one third of American populations are to be taken care of by Asian doctors. It is not a small matter. If the majority of them are Christians, the positive impact will be great.
    In 1960’s South Korea was dirt poor. The per capita income was a little more than $1 a day. After the Korean War (1950) the whole country was devastated and the economy was rock bottom. She was the poorest of the poor Asian countries. In spite of the extreme poverty Korean parents determined to give their children a better education. For the sake of children’s education they sacrificed a great deal, selling their lands, cows to pay the tuition. After fifty years, we can see a miracle happened in Korea. The per capita income is more than $20,000, one of the top 10 economic powers of the world. Again material prosperity without God’s mission has not much meaning.

  10. Yongha Lee

    I saw the Time article… Parenting is much harder than I imagined, and it seems getting tougher these days. As a parent,  yes, I would be  proud if my  two boys  make professional careers. But  what I am praying for them is that they be a man who  calls God as their true Father (not like professional pharisees),  respects and helps  neighbors (instead of becoming a mundane leader),  responsible for himself (prior to being responsible for others), and  happy in whatever he does (even in failures),  although he  chooses  to become a plumber  without  a piano at home. So,  he can  visit  an Asian doctor’s office  without envy or a sense of failure, and while in  the waiting room listening  to  a classic music piece played by an ABC musician  with much  appreciation of life in the grace of God.

  11. Hannah Love

    Looking back, my parents did their best in being servants of God taking care of us, God’s children. There were times that they were very strict and I took it very personally. This strictness was evident through the ministry at times.  
    When I was a senior in high school, all I liked to do was listen to music, research music, and go to concerts. I didn’t find much interest in anything else so my parents weren’t happy when I told them that I didn’t want to go to university. Of course I was young without any clue of what I was doing in life, yet it was highly discouraged for me to even apply to a community college. I applied and was accepted by God’s divine intervention ! So I’m thankful that my parents wouldn’t allow NO for an answer and really pushed me to apply.  
    My parents enrolled my sister and I in everything like dance, ice skating, swimming, piano & violin lessons and so much more. I’m thankful for the opportunities I had as a child, yet I was unable to remain faithful to any of them. Though my parents were not strict and were somewhat flexible with certain rules, I still felt a pressure to do well in school and become successful.  No one wants their children to become failures. Whether Western or Asian, parents want their children to live the best life possible. But my  parents never told us what to be or what to do, but I know that they wanted us to be living well and doing well relatively. Thankfully, they have been 100% supportive in every decision I’ve made so far. I know that any hint of pressure or objection to my ideas come out of a deep concern and love for my future life. I have recognized that my parents are humans who, at times, have no idea what the best/right thing is to do. However, I’ve been blessed to have parents who were more concerned with my spiritual life more than my professional life. All they want is for us to love the Lord, abide in Him, live by the Holy Spirit and live as prayer warriors. I believe this is the most important thing. I don’t know what will happen when/if I become a parent because I grew up with parents who were very Korean but also parents who struggled and strived to live for God more than anything else.
    I also did not agree with her term of success.
    And I didn’t buy her view of what a successful person is.  One doesn’t need to be a doctor, a professor,  or a famous concert pianist  to live a happy and fruitful life. Achievement is good, but at what cost? It will be very hard to convince me that this kind of parenting does not do psychological damage and  impair the children’s ability to have loving relationships with other people and with God.” Thank you for writing this.
    The term success should be used loosely. I graduated 2 years ago and on the outside, I look like a restless wanderer. I went to Bolivia, back to Waterloo, Korea for 9 months, back to Waterloo for another 5 months and now I am back in Korea. I am not professionally working anywhere, I gave up on grad school and am unsure if I even want to pursue further education. Yet, growing up and being in UBF I feel this strong need to do what everyone else is doing. Most of my second gen friends are professionally doing so well (as mentioned above, so many people have been abundantly blessed) and I feel the need to make sure I’m not the only one outside of this circle. I’m slowly coming to terms that I most likely will not be like the rest of the kids in UBF professionally, academically or musically.
    While I fully believe that God is willing to and will prosper me while on earth, I wonder in which way and wonder if we expect it to happen in a certain way. From some of the above comments, it seems that we’re measuring and deciding on a successful life with a very limited standards and many will fall short. I think I have diverged from the main topic (parenting style) over to what success is, but I think they are relatable. I, too, want to make sure that my successes weren’t because of my own efforts or what my parents did, but by the power and leading of the Holy Spirit.

  12. Joshua Brinkerhoff

    Ha ha ha ha !!