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Roaring Back At The Tiger Mom
Jewish mothers get in some parenting licks in favor of guilt, play, community.
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I recently learned the expression “Shanghai Jew” and, political correctness be damned, I just can’t resist using it to describe Amy Chua.

Chua is the Yale law professor and “Tiger Mother” who has quickly ascended to Sarah Palin levels of notoriety — no small accomplishment in a week when Palin herself was getting oodles of publicity for whining about “blood libel.”

Now, I’m not calling her a Shanghai Jew because she is a first-generation Chinese American married to a Jewish man. Rather, because “Shanghai Jew” is an admiring Chinese term for one who is “clever in business” — and while Chua’s Harvard graduate degree is a JD, not an MBA, the woman is not just clever, but brilliant.

By tapping into two of America’s biggest sources of anxiety —parenting and the loss of our superpower status to China — Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (Penguin) ranked No. 6 in sales on the day it was released, virtually unheard of in publishing. (A feat that no doubt disappointed her father, who she wrote once told her she’d “disgraced him” by winning a second, rather than first, place.)

Sure, she’s made herself loathed, even garnered some death threats if ABC News is to be believed, but as she notes in her book (think “Mommie Dearest” but from Joan Crawford’s point of view), she’s accustomed to being hated.

To be a “Chinese” parent, “you have to be hated sometimes by someone you love and who hopefully loves you, and there’s just no letting up, no point at which it suddenly becomes easy,” she writes.

Reading “Battle Hymn” and the excerpt that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last week (a stringing together of all the most inflammatory lines from the book), it’s not always clear whether Amy Chua, whose musical prodigy, bilingual, straight-A daughters are now 17 and 14, is for real or whether she’s simply doing whatever it takes to sell books.

My husband Joe, who is neither Jewish nor Chinese yet nonetheless bright and high achieving, insists the whole “tiger mother” thing is a ruse designed to make us “Western” parents feel better about ourselves. “Sure, I’m a helicopter parent, but at least I let the girls attend sleepovers and never threatened to burn their stuffed animals,” we’re supposed to think, according to Joe, who himself was raised on a steady diet of television. Or, “OK, I may be a little permissive, and Junior is an academic failure, but at least he’s happy, unlike those miserably hectored Chinese kids.”

Chua herself acknowledges in the (surprisingly entertaining) book that Chinese parenting is not perfect, that she’s come to believe in a “hybrid” approach melding the Chinese and “Western” strategies, and that “Battle Hymn,” in which she is ultimately “humbled by a 13-year-old,” is more memoir than how-to.

Of course whether it’s strictly factual or more “A Million Little Pieces” ultimately matters less than the far more important question: How does the Tiger Mother compare to the Jewish Mother?

It’s worth noting here that Chua’s two daughters, Sophia and Lulu, identify as Jewish, so technically she is both a tiger mom and a Jewish mom. In fact, she writes in the book that in the run-up to Lulu’s bat mitzvah, husband Jed Rubenfeld “handled the major responsibilities, but I was the one constantly haranguing Lulu to practice her haftarah portion — I was going to be a Chinese mother even when it came to Hebrew.”

Never ones to suffer in silence, and not ones with such a shoddy reputation when it comes to rearing accomplished offspring, Jewish mothers quickly appeared on the scene to do battle with the tiger.

Just days after Chua’s Wall Street Journal debut, Wendy Sachs, editor of the parenting site, lobbed back in the Huffington Post with “Chinese Moms vs. Jewish Moms: Who is Mother Superior?” According to Sachs, while “Chinese” moms insist on obedience, Jewish moms encourage argument. Where Chinese moms achieve their goals through “almost pathological” strategies, the Jewish style is “decidedly more passive aggressive.” And while Chinese moms forbid sleep-away camp, Jewish ones “tour the camps a year in advance to make sure it’s the perfect fit for their kvetchy camper.”

Within a week Ayelet Waldman, the Jewish mom who together with novelist hubby Michael Chabon (whom, she’s famously written, she loves more than she loves the kids) has made a career of publishing every detail of the parenting experience, had her own piece in the Wall Street Journal: “In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom.”

As a third-generation Jewish American mother of a 4-year-old and 7-year-old, I have to admit I find the tiger approach cruel and overly controlling even as I agree that too many American kids are coddled. I am troubled by how spiritually empty, joyless and, let’s face it, selfish, Chua’s nonstop and highly competitive push for achievement feels. If it’s all about making sure my child is No. 1 at all costs, where does that leave everyone else’s children? What about community, social justice, repairing the world? What about art and creativity? What about rest, relaxation and friendship?

I decided to talk to some Jewish mom experts: Joyce Antler, a history professor at Brandeis who is the author of “You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother”; Lenore Skenazy, the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Kids (Without Going Nuts with Worry)”; and Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children” (which has been translated into Mandarin and Korean) and “The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers.”

How do Jewish moms (or at least the stereotype of them) compare to Chinese moms (or at least Chua’s portrayal of them), I asked?

In many ways, Antler said, the stereotypical Jewish mother is “outwardly very similar” to the Chinese mother, in that she is “the original helicopter parent,” imposing high expectations of academic achievement.

But “Chua works by discipline, tyranny, a harshness that’s even cruel,” Antler said, while the Jewish mother method is “much more subtle,” using guilt, or “controlling through smothering with love” rather than controlling with threats.

At the same time, Jewish mothers, even back in the striving immigrant-generation days, have had a reputation for being nurturing, enabling, even “permissive,” Antler said.

Skenazy, a Jewish mom who achieved near-Chuaian levels of notoriety three years ago when she wrote a column in the New York Sun about allowing her 9-year-old son to ride the subway alone, told me that she likes Chua’s “base assumption that our kids are competent and can do things well,” particularly as it contrasts to the prevailing “my child can’t look at a train schedule or get himself to school or make lunch for himself” overprotective attitude.

But, she said, she is troubled by the limited choice and free time, not to mention the enormous amount of adult supervision that the Tiger Mom model entails.

“I’d like our kids to have more free time, some of which should be spent in what looks like completely worthless ways,” Skenazy said.

What about playdates, which (along with sleepovers, bringing home a grade lower than an A or participating in a school play) are verboten for Chua’s daughters?

Unstructured playtime, Skenazy said, encourages kids to be creative, to communicate, to cooperate and to “self-regulate.”

Playing “seems to me a far more pleasant way to hit all those developmental milestones than to be dragged to lessons,” she said.

That said, Skenazy is hesitant to jump on the bandwagon of Amy Chua bashers because she feels there is already too much judging and comparing and “microplaning of differences” among today’s American parents.

“Even if you’re off by a millimeter from the way your best friend does things, you’ll roll your eyes at that millimeter,” she said. “I can’t believe she still feeds her child non-organic pasta or makes him take piano or let him quit piano; everyone weighs in, and the reason is because we always wonder if we’re doing it right.”

Wendy Mogel, who draws on a wealth of rabbinic and biblical texts in her books, told me she admires some aspects of Chua’s parenting, particularly the emphasis on “honoring adults” and “not over-praising children for doing nothing or giving them trophies just for participating.”

But like Antler and Skenazy, she’s bothered by Chua’s harshness — particularly the frequent yelling, even calling her daughter “garbage.”

And the so-called Chinese value of “extreme achievement” violates rabbinic teachings about “not being prideful” and about the need for moderation over perfection and asceticism, Mogel said.

“There is a terrible epidemic of perfectionism in American girls,” she noted, adding that anxiety about being physically perfect and academically accomplished has triggered eating disorders and other destructive behaviors in many teenage girls.

Mogel is also troubled by Chua’s inward focus.

“There’s a general cultural phenomenon that’s going on right now that seems so pronounced in reading this book,” Mogel told me. “That’s the displacement of our worries about global warming, violence in public places and other [community-oriented] things we feel like we can’t control. We ignore all these things and instead narrow our focus to the one thing we think we can control, like whether our child gets the ‘good’ second-grade teacher.”

Not only does Chua fail to mention community in her book, but she “even mocks community celebrations at school,” Mogel said and she leaves out “self-expression/creativity/imagination and goodness.”

“How do we develop empathy, how do we make a contribution to the communities we’re in?” she asked.

“The Jewish formula of celebration, sanctification and moderation is such a good angle for parents to take, even in our dangerous, unsettled, excessive world. We need community, and we need to think of each child as b’tselem elohim, in God’s image.”

Interestingly, even Chua’s daughters’ bat mitzvah celebrations, described in “Battle Hymn,” take place at home, rather than in a synagogue.

And the bat mitzvah serves as a turning point in the relationship between Chua and her younger daughter, Lulu.

When Chua forces Lulu to play violin at the ceremony, the 13-year-old, who “has always had a strong Jewish identity” and “insisted on observing Passover rules and fasting on Yom Kippur,” protests that it’s “completely inappropriate” and that a bat mitzvah is “not a recital.”

Chua threatens to cancel the party if Lulu won’t play, and Lulu ultimately gives in, enchanting all the guests with a beautiful rendition of Joseph Achron’s “Hebrew Melody.”

But that night, after all the guests have gone, when Chua tells Lulu how proud she is, that her playing was “brilliant,” Lulu is polite but chilly.

“She seemed distracted, almost impatient for me to leave, and something in her eyes told me that my days were numbered,” Chua writes.

Last Update:

12/05/2013 - 07:41
Amy Chua
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American Jews have become fat an lazy. They have lost the values of the old country, and the values which are appreciative of free market capitalism, and what America stands for: freedom. But to be free and to be successful you must have discipline and work hard. Amy Chua shows the way. But lazy second generation Jews are losing everything their forefathers achieved. As a result, Judaism is declining rapidly, and a love for Zionism has also declined. I doubt whether Jews will achieve in the next century what they have achieved in the last. Why? Because they have become fat and lazy, like the family of the above author.

"Worse, this pandering extends into the Jewish education, which explains why so many Jewish children have turned against Israel and are marrying non-Jews." Please identify how many Jews who are "highly educated" in Judaism (Orthodox, not simply your C-level Reform) are simultaneously "highly educated" in the secular sense. A love of secular learning, financial success, and prestige was NEVER an innate part of Judaism, but merely a survival mechanism that served a time and place in the Ashkenazi community here and abroad. I think you're a little confused.
Today, the medical schools are filled with Chinese and Indian students, with several Arab students tossed in. The number of Jews in medical schools, and in the sciences has plummeted. Jewish children are taking the easier route of law school, or are taking simple majors in undergraduate school, wherein they then find jobs in retail stores. Putting in bluntly, due to pandering and pampering, Jewish children, well integrated as the average Americans, are underperforming. Worse, this pandering extends into the Jewish education, which explains why so many Jewish children have turned against Israel and are marrying non-Jews. On a larger scale, less tv, less sleepovers, and more discipline would serve both the US and Israel better. Ms. Chua may be a bit extreme, but she is fundamentally not wrong. And yes, I am an attorney but I have an undergraduate degree in microbiology, and a master's in Biology from Johns Hopkins, so I did not take the "easy route."
I agree with you. I am a conservatory trained classical violinist and an attorney, so I have a good perspective on these issues. It is the dominant, surrounding American culture of dumbing down, under-performing, and taking-it-easy that has done the worst to our youth. Sadly, this mediocrity gets picked up as children, in the emphasis in schools on sports and fashion, at kids' sleepovers, in school classrooms, and mostly, on tv. When we were a community of immigrants, we were part of the "other," not yet Americans, group. Our parents/grandparents found their identity by excelling in school, went on to places like City College, got scholarships on the GI Bill after the war and filled top schools (where they were admitted). They pursued fields that required top scholarship and rigor, and now hold seats in places like the Supreme Court, the Mayo and the Cleveland Clinics, etc. Today's Jewish youth, no longer immigrant outsiders, on the whole have blended into the dominant culture, and have shied away from pursuing fields requiring the rigor shown by earlier generations, of which high intellectual and academic standards, self application and self-denial, delay of gratification, and devotion to the family's needs first, were central. Today's youth are more selfish, identify more easily with self-promotion, and align themselves with peer dominant culture. This seems to include aspiring to Wall Street, but sadly embraces more deriding Israel and other Jewish causes, even identifying with those who would destroy Israel. I too am distressed at this cultural trend among acculturated Jewish kids from 'liberal' (non-Orthodox) families. Jews appear less and less at the doorsteps of the top professions. In my field of music, I am also witnessing fewer outstanding American Jewish music students at conservatories, taking seats in the top symphony orchestras, or as star soloists. Indeed there are far more Asian rising musical stars now. It is certainly a reflection of the same trend of high achievement stipulated by Asian child-rearing models. Following Jonathan's line of thinking, I think our successful "absorption" into American culture spells our greatest existential danger. Tomorrow's Jews will nearly exclusively sport black-coats and shtreimels, and the rest of American Jewry will have for the most part disappeared, I predict. They certainly don't allow their children to attend sleep-overs or participate in school plays, except of course Purim schpiels. But they also don't allow the [frivolous] study of musical instruments.
I think Tiger Mom is nuts. Your article was nice, but it failed to mention traditional sources, specifically Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe's recent classic Building and Planting in Parenting which espouses a gentle, and non violent path in child rearing.
Julie, What an excellent piece. I love how you brought in some Jewish experts. I tend to especially admire Mogel's take on parenting issues. Thanks for visiting my blog on the same issue. Nina
I AM SOOOOOOOo ENVIOUS. I read her book last month and the piece in the WSJ. I generated a item on about the book comparing Tiger Mothers to Wendy Mogel's Jewish mothers. I asked Ms Mogel for a comment and got bupkas. You got more than bupkas! I sit in awe :-) Sigh But seriously, the book is very honest and poignant. And in the chapters on their dogs, on the Bat Mitzvah, on cancer, and on LuLu's rebellion, the reader sees that even Tiger Mothers realize that they must tailor their method's to that of their children. Even Amy Chua's own parents, who were born IN CHINA (and are not Chinese American), criticized their daughter for going overboard, as did her Jewish husband. Best of all, even though Amy was top of her HS Class, Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, Exec Editor of Law Review at Harvard Law, a federal clerk, an associate at a top Manhattan firm, and author and a professor at Yale Law.... her husband, Jed, was a top student at Princeton, grad of Harvard Law, a federal clerk, an associate at a top Manhattan firm, an author of a celebrated mystery, a professor at Yale Law, AND HE spent two years at Julliard Drama exploring his Arts side... and he was raised the Jewish way, not by a Tiger Mom. So... the proof is in the kugel. You get the same results as a Jewish parent =Larry
Actually, for people under 35 in the US, Asians have a higher suicide rate than whites.
I like this review's focus on community. A lot of the discussion I've read is about whether Chua's daughter's are happy or emotionally adjusged. I aske myself also what kind of members of society they will be. As Ms. Wiener asks, if my kids must be number one, where does that leave everybody else's kids (or most kids for that matter since the vast majority will have to be something other than number one and therefore, according to Ms. Chua's paradigm, worthless losers)? It seems to me that Chua is trying to raise highly competitive, self-absorbed individuals who try to assert their supremacy at all costs and do not care about others or the good of the community. These people do not seek cooperation and collaboration but rather inevitably create conflict and tension and even destruction in their struggle for supremacy. Do we not have enough of that already in our society. Do we need more of it? Perhaps we should ask these superior Chinese mothers to raise their tiger cubs in China and not unleash them on American society. And I guess, thank you, Ms. Chua, for pointing out that "American" parents do not have the monopoly on raising self-absorbed, individualistic and pathologically competitive children.
Monika, you prove both Amy Chua's point and yours in your comment. On one hand, your comment has some conspicuous typos, so clearly you could have benefited from the discipline and focus Amy Chau tries to instill in her children, as well as the extra effort she expects from them. On the other hand, there's no denying that if all parents expected their children to be nothing but the best in everything (minus sports and drama), most children would become abject failures no matter how hard they tried, and that would lead to a hostile and harmfully competitive society. At the end of the day, it's important to have the strength to discipline your children and pressure them to apply themselves even when they don't feel like it. But at the same it, it's just as important--for them and the community-- to accept their best effort and not lead them, intentionally or unintentionally, to base their whole self-worth on their place in any given hierarchy. One a last note, I don't think it's necessary to frame this up as an " us versus them" debate, even if Chua seems to set herself up for it. We're all Americans and even Chua tried to explain that she's using "Chinese" and "Western" more as psychographic than demographic characteristics.
White Americans have the highest suicide rate in the US, and Asians have one of the lowest, if not the lowest. To say that Westerners are happier is unfounded. The Asian parents, at least those similar to Amy Chua, seem to got it right.

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