This article appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of the Erikson on Children newsletter, under the headline “Confronting a paper tiger.” More from this issue

Perhaps it was the nation’s recent dismal performance in students’ math and science scores. Perhaps it was symptomatic of a growing unease with the predominant “child-centered” philosophy of child rearing in the U.S.

Whatever the cause, Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother hit a nerve nationwide, throwing readers into one of two camps: those intrigued by Chua’s child rearing success and those appalled by it.

At Erikson, interest in the book sparked two faculty-led discussions. The first, by Professor Jie-Qi Chen, invited students to consider cultural context. The second, led by Dean Aisha Ray and Professor Fran Stott, invited parents to explore the issues the book inevitably stirred up for them.

Differences between the Chinese and American approaches

“Chinese parents love their children, the same as parents around the world,” said Chen in her lecture to students in Family and Culture, one of the core courses for master’s students, “but love can look very different from one culture to another.”

To illustrate, she told of family members and friends scolding her for thanking them when she returned for a visit. “In the U.S., it’s polite to thank your sister or your friend. In China, it’s not necessary. Chinese consider the family one unit; the left hand doesn’t thank the right hand for helping. Close friends are an extension of the family.”

Girl at piano

Chen, who first came to the U.S. from China to do graduate work more than 30 years ago, explored the differences in child-rearing norms between the two cultures, drawing on personal experience and illustrating her points with stories and video clips. In one, young children coolly critiqued the story-telling skills of one of their number, a little boy hoping to do well enough to be named the day’s “story king.”

To a culture that lavishes praise on every classroom effort, such criticism seems astonishing. Yet as Chen pointed out, the children in the video—critics and criticized—took the experience in stride, with no evidence of upset or hurt feelings. “Children expect to hear how they can improve,” she said.

Echoing the theme before a group of parents who had gathered for a discussion of the book at the home of Erikson trustee Sabrina Gracias, Dean Ray observed, “In the U.S., we have confused telling children that they’re wonderful with developing self-esteem.” A more effective way to nurture self-esteem, she pointed out, is to structure skill development activities in such a way that children can feel they’re doing a good job.

Ray and Stott cited a string of hot-button issues raised by the book: our concern about the rise of China and the economic consequences of that rise, our conflicting beliefs about the role of women and the sacrifices they should or shouldn’t make for their family, our preoccupation with getting our children into the best schools and with being perfect parents.

“Chua has supreme confidence and an almost complete lack of ambivalence about her parenting,” said Stott. “ She’s drawing on 5,000 years of unchanging belief about what parents need to do. We don’t have that certainty. Ours is a culture of change; there’s always a new or better idea. So while we desperately want to do the right thing, we can’t be sure that we’re doing it. We are forever anxious. “It makes it particularly upsetting that Chua gets results,” she added, to general laughter.