The Decline of the [Korean] ‘Tiger Mom’

In reality the book is written as a satire. No one knew this of course until 3 months after the book came out.

A few months ago, Amy Chua (a Jr. Professsor of Law at Yale Law School) basically walked headfirst into a shit-storm of controversy over her book (or ‘parenting memoir’) “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”. Excerpts from her book appeared in an article in the Wall Street Journal under the title “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” (not her choice of title) and had some… well, it was  a fun read (read the article in it’s entirety here).

For example, if a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong.

– Amy Chua, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (taken from the excerpt shown in the WSJ)

Note: My mother didn’t gasp in horror, she simply asked if anyone got a higher score. To which I learned to always say, “no”.

It really set the parenting world on fire due to the content and descriptions of how she raised her children. Of course the chapter (not a complete chapter maybe?) was taken out of context of the entire book. But the blurb had people calling her out, telling her what a horrible parent she was and basically all-in-all saying she was a bad mother. I can’t really blame them as she does reference western (read: white) parents calling them out in the context of the article throwing comparisons left and right.

But it really did polarize the audience that was reading the article. Half of the readers were disgusted with her parenting techniques and probably wrote her off as being insane (yep, an insane Law professor at Yale who attended Harvard); the rest of us were having flashbacks to our childhood. In fact, the article first caught my eye when a former classmate of mine from college posted it on Facebook with the heading “Totally true” above the link (he’s of Chinese descent). In reality, the article (which was taken out of context due to its inflammatory and seemingly extreme techniques) wasn’t all that bad when many of us (second generation Americans) were looking at it in context.

I considered buying this for my mom, but for the sake of future grandchildren maybe I'll hold off.

For example, when I was in elementary school I had a tendency to get picked on and get into fights. Regardless of who’s fault or who started it, each time I got into a fight my parents would give me a stack of books to hold above my head for an hour (more if I wasn’t looking tired enough) and then make me read those books. Afterwards I had to write a book report (punishment was nothing to my parents if I didn’t learn something). All of this, of course, in addition to the good-ole fashioned ass whooping that I got for fighting (regardless of who won the fight at school, I always lost later on). My parents tried spanking once, that was the easiest I ever got off for punishment. Still I learned a lesson, “don’t get into fights” and “don’t hit people”.

Note: I should comment by saying I had to learn this lesson several times. I wasn’t a very quick learner at first.

What surprises westerners (again, read: white) is that my story isn’t all that uncommon. You see it more in immigrant parents (I don’t know why) but you also see it in Asian countries like Korea. Korean parents believe that all children are born equally (for the most part). So there’s no reason that their child shouldn’t be getting the best grades in the class, alternatively there should also be no reason for any other child to be getting higher grades than their child as well. It is this belief in their child that drives parents to do crazy things for (and sometimes to) their children.

Articles about parents who spend thousands of dollars a month to send their children to tutors for hours a day (after school) are more than common. In fact, that’s how most of us expats get jobs as tutors and make our living out here. We show up to work at 4 or 5 pm after sleeping in or eating a late lunch and then wonder why the children are so damned fidgety. Maybe it’s because they haven’t been home for 10 hours and aren’t likely to go home for another 2. Before when private home tutoring was the norm (and wasn’t illegal), parents had more responsibility regarding their children’s education and more contact with their children. And before then when parents were solely in charge of after-school education it was maximum contact. But with the increase in after-school institutions, after-school programs in public and private schools; parents have less to do with their children’s education and it usually just comes down to writing a check.

It is this lack of contact that is causing the slow disappearance of the “Tiger Mom” in Korean culture and society. When I was 3 until I was 9, my mom and/or dad would watch me work (but not help) to make sure I wasn’t goofing off. The times when I did ended with extra work or punishment (in the form of no TV). Nowadays that responsibility is put in the hands of tutors and foreign teachers (who, let’s face it, aren’t always up to the task). Second generation Americans (like myself) are less likely to keep up with the strict ideals of our parents after being on the receiving end for all those years. I can’t even remember the last time I heard of a student pulling an all-nighter to finish a project for school. With her environment fast disappearing and fewer parents willing to take up the mantle, the “Tiger Mom” is in the same seat as polar bears.

In the end it was the influence of my parents and their harsh stance on education that drove me to go to college, to spend extra hours in the lab and stay in the library for four hours. I was competitive with classmates, annoying to my professors and relentless in my studies. I’ll admit that sometimes I don’t balance my personal life and work/education very well and I’m still not the perfect student but I try hard and I don’t stop.

At first I laughed... and then not so much.

Sure, many will even question the need for her existence and some will be glad that her kind has gone the way of the dinosaurs, but if pictures of Sofia Chua-Rubenstein playing at Carnegie Hall don’t make you wonder, maybe the 99% high school graduation rate in Korea should. I don’t agree with all of the strategies that Amy Chua describes using (and even less of what my parent used) but I really can’t argue with her results. Forcing your children to study an extra 5 hours after school might seem harsh but will it seem that bad if your child ended up becoming the next Einstein?

Like any change, the decline of the “Tiger Mom” will have everlasting effects on culture and society for the better and worse. But maybe twenty years from now when we’re using 8G cell phone networks, children are being taught by robots and we’re slicing the Thanksgiving turkey with a lightsaber (carve my turkey with a little green), in an apartment somewhere in Seoul a parent will be forcing their 7 year old child to Beethoven’s 5th for the umpteenth time. Maybe.


If you’re curious as to other opinions, there are tons of articles out there defending and attacking her. The most interesting is a “letter” written from her eldest daughter (the one who played at Carnegie). Whether you like or dislike this style of parenting , I would suggest doing some research and reading her book It isn’t slanted the way that public opinion has made it out to be (I think, I haven’t read it yet) and it is supposed to be, at least, pretty damned funny.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s