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'Tiger Mom' offers clues to race gaps

Posted: January 28, 2011 1:54 p.m.
Updated: January 31, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Amy Chua's not so tough. The Yale law professor's new memoir, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," has touched a raw national nerve with its descriptions of her tough "Chinese way" of parenting, a way that shows all of the warmth and charm of a Marine Corps drill instructor.

Emulating her own parents, who moved here from China before she was born, she refuses to let her daughters Sophia and Louisa Chua-Rubenfeld attend sleepovers, have play dates, watch TV, play computer games, get any grade less than an A, choose their own extracurricular activities, be in school plays, complain about not being in a school play, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, fail to play the piano or violin or "not be the number-one student in every subject except gym and drama."

That's not all bad, by the way. Ample research shows that grades go up when video games and TV viewership go down. The only year I made straight A's in school was in the third grade. A tube blew out in our only television and my parents were too poor to fix it right away. At least, that's what they told me.

What I find objectionable is Chua's eager embrace of a one-size-fits-all approach to learning. When her husband Jed Rubenfeld, also a Yale law professor, cautions that their parental expectations should adjust to their daughters as individuals, Chua responds with her word for individuals who fail to give their best: "losers."

Fortunately Chua's kids appear to have turned out OK. They made great grades and won music competitions and their Tiger Mom mellowed into a less-uptight tabby cat.

In her mom's defense, elder daughter Sophia, 18, wrote a long thank-you to her mom in the New York Post. Sure, her Tiger Mother threatened or criticized the girls in order to squeeze a perfect report card or first-prize music trophy out of them, she writes. But the daughter realizes that those demands were aimed at bringing out their best effort-and never without a whole lot of love.

"If I died tomorrow, I would die feeling I've lived my whole life at 110 percent," Sophia concludes. "And for that, Tiger Mom, thank you."

Yet the "Chinese way" does not work perfectly every time, even in China. A debate in China questions whether its education system's emphasis on rote-learning and memorization inhibits creativity and innovations and whether their kids should be allowed to find their own passions, Western-style.

Yet the buzz around Chua's book also raises timely questions about our country's achievement gaps. While Asian American test scores and grade-point averages tend to exceed those of white students, too many black and Hispanic Americans tend to be left behind.

To her credit, Chua mentions that there are "Tiger Mothers" in all races. Indeed, the enterprising, opportunity-seeking hard-work ethic she describes as the "Chinese way" is characteristic of every wave of immigrants to this country, including today's black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean.

In "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America," Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, offers further evidence that achievement differences are cultural, not genetic.

He describes what many Americans have suspected, our post-civil-rights era black population has its own internal gaps between four distinct subgroups: The "Transcendent" elite, who occupy a world of wealth and privilege; the "Mainstream" middle class who are now a majority of black Americans; a growing "Emergent" community made up of mixed-race families and black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, and the "Abandoned," who tragically make up a large and growing underclass, more isolated than ever from the tiger-parent culture of achievement that helped past generations to succeed.

The plight of our "Abandoned" has been rendered all the more tragic by a surprisingly little-discussed paradox of President Barack Obama's election: It has coincided with the almost complete disappearance from public debate of the problems that social policy leaders often call "the black condition."

As much as some of us would like to pretend that race doesn't matter, the "Tiger Mom" debate shows race to be a persistent marker of deeper social problems. While some Americans fret about the threat of China's "Tiger Mom" to our world competition, too many of us behave like Ostrich Dads here at home, hiding our heads in the sand when we should be urging all of our kids on to excellence.

 

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