Seattle's Child

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Crouching Tiger, Hugging Panda: The Dad Next Door talks about Amy Chua and his own Chinese mother

For weeks now, it seems like I can't go anywhere without hearing about Amy Chua. Friends come up to me and say, "So what do you think about that Tiger Mother woman? Pretty intense, huh?" They choose their words like resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied France – carefully gauging my allegiance before they reveal their own. They want to know which side I'm on.

Make no mistake – Chua's book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has started a full-blown war. Everywhere you look, people are coming out for or against her. Some call her abusive, and say she wants to turn our children into emotionless, robotic super-kids. Others say she's rousing us from the torpor of complacency that keeps us from competing in the global economy. She's like a human Rorschach test. It's gotten so bad the Los Angeles Times coined a new phrase for our fascination with her: "Obsessive Amy Chua Disorder."

Though her publicist is probably dancing in the streets and popping champagne, Chua's own reaction to this maelstrom seems to be genuine dismay. In interviews, she wonders out loud why people don't see the self-parody and painful soul-searching she poured into every page. It's been reported that after an excerpt appeared in the Wall Street Journal under the title "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," she received death threats. This prompted one writer to say that she's "clearly struck a nerve."

Gee, ya think?

Since I've got a Chinese mother of my own, I thought I'd call her up, and get her take on all of this. Her first reaction was, "I wasn't like that. Was I?"

Well … yes and no.

When I was growing up, I always had the feeling that my parents held my brothers and me to a higher standard. When our neighbor, Mrs. Thompson (a.k.a. "Hawk-Eye"), came over to discuss some incident that had left her little Johnny in tears, my mom would immediately turn on us and demand: "What did you do to him?" We always wondered why our parents were so quick to correct us, and so slow to take our side.

What I figured out later (though it took a while) was that they were on our side. But for them, that didn't mean being cheerleaders. It meant being Knute Rockne. Nowhere in their job description was there any mention of making us feel good about ourselves. They had their hands full just making us be good.

Like most of us, my own parenting style is part imitation and part repudiation of everything my parents did. One minute, I'm setting limits and pushing my daughters to excel, and the next I'm obsessing about their happiness and their self-esteem. And though it sometimes feels like a jive-ass, shoot-from-the-hip approach with no guiding principles or rules, it kind of works. My kids know I adore them, but they also know I expect a lot from them. They get a little Yin and a little Yang. And maybe the two sides, when taken together, will help them live better lives. That's all I really care about.

And you know what? I'll bet that's all Amy Chua cares about, too. If you actually hear her interviewed, or read her whole book (instead of angry rants from people who probably never read it themselves), you'll find that the Tiger Mother isn't all that different from the rest of us. She didn't design her parenting approach as a springboard to a nationwide book tour. She chose a difficult, demanding path full of pitfalls and wrong turns, and she looks back on it with both pride and regret.

As far as I can tell, she's trying to answer the same questions the rest of us are. How do I help my kids be happy? How do I help them succeed? How do I know when to push them? How do I know when to take them in my arms?

The reason we are so quick to judge Amy Chua is the same reason moral zealots get busted doing embarrassing things in public restrooms. We judge others so we don't have to face our own uncertainty, and the shame of our own immutable flaws.

My mom is worried that Amy Chua is going to give Chinese mothers a bad name. I doubt it. I think the conversation she started, for all its vitriol and hyperbole, is a good one. As parents, we need to stretch and struggle a little, because the questions are hard and the answers keep changing. If you get too comfortable with the status quo, you stop fighting the good fight.

Vive la France! Vive la Résistance!

Jeff Lee gets his Yin and Yang on in Seattle, Wash. He is the author of Catch a Fish, Throw a Ball, Fly a Kite: 21 Timeless Skills Every Child Should Know (and Any Parent Can Teach).