battle-hymn-of-the-tiger-motherOnce in a while, I will publish a Guest Post from a fellow blogger, examining a particular Trait or highlighting an individual who is deserving of special attention. The following book review was contributed by Mary Dodd.  As she says, it’s “A moment of reflection from a mom in the trenches….”

It is a cruel irony that parents of small children have the greatest need for advice about parenting, but have no time to read or reflect on any of it.  I consciously took time out of my day (out of my sleep, to be honest) to read two books this week in an attempt to remedy that situation.   In a study of contrasts, I looked at both Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Good Among the Great.

[Below is a video of Poosie Orr of Pittsburgh on “letting kids do what they want to do…” And her comments on helicopter parents.]

Tiger Mom and Helicopter Parenting

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a brutally honest book that examines the parenting experiences of Amy Chua, a Yale law school professor, and the family dynamic she fosters with her husband, fellow Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, and their two young daughters Sophia and Lulu.

Chua believes that a traditional Asian parenting model of rigid academic success, extremely high expectations, and intense parental involvement is superior to the Western parenting style, which is presented as unstructured, creative, and somewhat lazy.  The author was raised by Chinese parents who used a traditional immigrant parenting perspective of cultural assimilation through control and success.

Chua forces her daughters to succeed both at school and classical music.  By denying them sleepovers and forcing them to practice their instruments for hours at a time, she creates musical prodigies who play at Carnegie Hall and star in solo concerts.  Sophia, the elder daughter, plays the piano and tends to bend to her mom’s demands to practice and study.  Lulu, the younger daughter, rebels more, refuses to practice the violin, and even jaggedly cuts her own hair at one point in the story, in a demand to be heard.

This is less of a how-to book than a cautionary tale, as the author learns that not all of her methods are perfect in every circumstance and for every child.  In the end, she ultimately stands by her belief system and believes the ends justify the means. She presents a look at what worked for her and her family; her daughters are currently teenagers, and only time will tell whether they are successful (or happy) as adults.

As a mom of two young sons, I was particularly interested in reading this book.  I had seen televised interviews and read enough newspaper articles to be intrigued to the point of buying a brand-new hardcover, which is a rarity in our house.  I sat down and read this entire memoir in one sitting, which is also extremely rare.  Chua draws the reader in and writes with a brisk pace that commands complete attention.

When I learned about Chua’s own childhood, I felt sad for her and how her parents’ rigid choices had limited her life.  As I read the anecdote where she discarded her daughter’s handmade birthday card because there wasn’t enough effort in it, I cringed and wanted to look away from the scene.

It seems at times that the author is excessively confident and immune to all criticism and input, even from her husband.  She is, like all of us, trying, doing the best she can, and mirroring the parenting style that she experienced as a child.   Chua clearly loves her daughters, makes immense personal sacrifices for their activities, and feels that “helicopter parenting” will ensure that they have success.

After reading the book and all the surrounding hysteria and controversy that ensued, I feel it is easy to judge others, particularly from afar.  I make mistakes every day, but don’t do it under a microscope.  Many of the techniques Chua used are not unique to Chinese parents or immigrants, and seem to reflect parenting in a modern and stressful world.

Still, I kept wondering how these choices will affect her daughters in the long term, and whether the writing of this book will have unintended consequences for them as they navigate friendships, school, the media, and eventually, the world.

The Good Among the Great and Hands-Off Parenting

In addition to reading Tiger Mom, I also had an opportunity to read an advance copy of Donald Van de Mark’s book, The Good Among the Great, which chronicles the hows and whys of people who are fortunate enough to combine happiness with extremely high levels of success.

The book examines the nineteen traits of admirable, creative, and joyous people, and can be feasted on like a buffet, reading individual chapters of interest randomly at will.  Van de Mark alternates between anecdotes, teachings of Abraham Maslow, and reassuring practical advice.   One can see his reporting background shine through in his eminently readable style.  Reading this book was like yoga for my soul.  By absorbing the chapters in manageable and highly readable chunks, I felt informed and inspired to incorporate small but meaningful changes into my own life.

If you contrast Chua’s parenting style with the more relaxed or hands-off parenting approach discussed in The Good Among the Great, there are striking differences.  A relaxed, easy-going parent would never put her daughter outside in 20-degree weather as a punishment until she agreed to practice her musical instrument.  A calm and reasoned parent would not scream at her children or provide pages of detailed notes for their music lessons.

Hands-off parents believe that children require independence and an ample dose of happiness.  In Chapter Two (Loving), Van de Mark examines specific examples of hands-off parenting and cites one mother, Poosie Orr, an ordinary woman who has an extraordinary ability to infuse joy and independence into her four childrens’ psyches.

“Nowhere is this philosophy better manifested than in Poosie’s own parenting style. As a mom she made a point of ‘loving [her children] for what they wanted, hoping to help them follow what they wanted to do.’ Instead of imposing her personal set of goals and ideals on her children, she respected them enough to let them have their own.”

I wonder what everyone in the world could accomplish if they had a mom like Poosie in their corner to support them.  I admired Poosie’s ability to stand back and love without judgment, and to impose no rules beyond those for health and safety.  I was somewhat concerned about its practical applications when faced with the realities of my own life.  It is wonderful to stand back, calmly reserve judgment and let your kids revel in their creativity, but very hard to put into practice when confronted with a child who has purposely emptied a bottle of maple syrup onto the kitchen floor.

I loved Poosie’s stance that life should be enjoyed and not endured. I felt energized by her spirit, but worried that it is difficult to sell that sort belief system in all circumstances to my intellectual and somewhat cynical children.  Nevertheless, I resolved to try to incorporate some of her optimism in the hopes that something positive would take hold.

Which Parenting Style is Better?

In the end, I think there is a huge chasm between all parenting styles, and our criticism of others somehow validates our own choices.  While helicopter-parenting has received a lot of criticism in the media recently, I am not ready to fully embrace free-range parenting and let my child sail the Indian Ocean or ride the New York City subway alone.

I appreciated that these two books made me think seriously about my own parenting style and intentions.  At this point, I would have to say I am “throwing spaghetti against the wall.”  By that, I mean that I am exposing my boys to a large number of activities to see which ones they will choose eventually for themselves.  I don’t believe in cruelty, but I think that kids need a certain amount of discipline and manners to successfully navigate in the world.  I will play Go Fish for hours with “creative interpretations” of the rules if that is what my kids are excited about on a particular day.  On the other hand, I make my sons accountable and force them to attend swimming lessons through to the end of the season instead of dabbling and quitting when times get tough.

I don’t want to be “friends” with my children; I am happy to be their mother and know that the job description requires occasional conflict and tension.  I am proud of my sons’ academic success, but try to let my kids take the lead. Freedom, choice and experimentation I think are important for children, because building one’s own autonomy requires exploration.  But discipline is also critical to truly knowing oneself–discipline in terms of following through, doing one’s work and knowing that true self-knowledge and real freedom comes with responsibilities.

– Mary Dodd

Mary Dodd is a mother of two boys, ages 5 and 4, and a food blogger who writes at Popsicles and Sandy Feet. She lives, writes, and cooks in coastal Connecticut.

I want your feedback!  Which of the 19 traits are you studying, and how are you incorporating them into your daily life?  Connect with me on:
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About the author

Donald Van de Mark
Donald Van de Mark is the author of The Good Among the Great: 19 Traits of the Most Admirable, Creative and Joyous People.

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8 Responses to “Are You a Helicopter Parent, or Laid Back? Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother Book Review (Trait #2, Loving)”

  1. Kristen says:

    Great essay, Mary! I’m glad you don’t want to be “friends” with your kids. You see that so often these days… a lot of negotiations and a lot of bending. There’s got to be a good middle-of-the-road zone that balances teaching kids to be goal oriented without squashing their inherent kid-ness and spontaneity.

  2. […] The trait is to be loving; and to have deep, long-lasting loves; and for those loves to be highly respectful of the person adored.  These are loves that don’t smother or bind, even when between parent and child. […]

  3. Stephanie says:

    I liked the commentary on the two books and am intrigued to read van der Mark’s new book (having also read Tiger Mom). This review was very well written and thought out. What I take issue with is the assignment itself – the contrast of the Tiger Mom book with van der Mark’s topic of Loving. Discussing the Tiger Mom book under the topic of loving is overlycharged and a bit judgmental. Van der Mark’s book talks about being a great human. However, one cannot pick one’s parents or one’s up bringing. I wonder if the implication is that the child of a Tiger Mom cannot be a high achiever AND a great human. The successes commonly born of Tiger Mom rearing are true and factual. Happiness and I assume in the context of van der Mark’s outline, being a great human, is another story. In my opinion, more relevant and interesting would have been a discussion of Tiger Mom in contrast with van der Mark’s topics in Part 4 of “finding one’s personal payoff.” For sure a Tiger Mom does not emphasize Part 4 qualities during childrearing. To compare the two books on these topics of personal payoff would have been more pertinent than discussing the quality of Tiger Mom’s loving and suggesting alternatives in that area.

    • Kristen says:

      “I wonder if the implication is that the child of a Tiger Mom cannot be a high achiever AND a great human.”

      I didn’t really see this piece that way. I think the point of the comparison was to get at whether people think one parenting style is more beneficial than another when approaching the end goal of creating great humans. (Which is what we all hope to do, right? Vs. creating serial killers.)

      Tiger Moms may make their kids successful, but how do we define success… is it about performance, or happiness? Or some combination of the two? I haven’t read Tiger Mom, so I can’t say whether her kids are happy or what they’ll be like as adults. They may love their music and benefit all their lives from having a mom who wouldn’t let them give up.

      Like the author of this post, I have also seen an advance copy of Mr. Van de Mark’s book, and I think it’s ultimately about how being self-assured, balanced and outwardly-focused on others happens to coincide with being happy and “successful” in whatever way you as individual define success. (Meaning, you achieve your life’s goals, you love your work, you love people the best you knew how, you feel calm and happy on a regular basis, etc.)

      I don’t think you can approach the shaping of a child’s life with any kind of scientific precision, but I do like the idea of looking at the pros and cons of parenting styles, to see what results people get over a lifetime.

  4. Donald says:

    Points well taken! Mary did narrow the discussion to the issues of great involvement and strict direction from a parent versus much more freedom for, and self-direction from, the child. But I can see your points and we are trying to compare and contrast two different subjects. Thank you!

  5. Laura says:

    Interesting article from Slate about whether Tiger Moms are bad for the U.S. economy:



  6. […] parenting style is in many ways the opposite of what we so often see today. She didn’t micromanage her children or worry incessantly over their safety. In fact, when asked how she feels about today’s […]