Moms Take Issue With Asian Supermom's Style

In this week's parenting segment "The Moms," host Michel Martin tackles the question at the center of a new controversial book: how far should a mother go in pressuring her kids to be the best they can be? Regular "Mom" contributors Dani Tucker, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Aracely Panameno join the conversation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We can't yet let go of the discussion of the Chinese model of parenting that you heard from author and academic Amy Chua. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. The memoir, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" has them talking. So we're going to talk more with them about it.

Dani Tucker, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Aracely Panameno, three of our regulars. They're here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome. Have at it.

DANI TUCKER: You're welcome.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Great to be here.

ARACELY PANAMENO: Thank you.

MARTIN: I just have to say that they're chomping at the bit to try to get in on this conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And, Leslie, I'll start with you because you were noting that I was saying to Professor Chua that I thought, you know, it was funny, it has a self- mocking tone. And you found it not funny at all.

MORGAN STEINER: I really didn't find the book funny. I found it fascinating and thought-provoking. And I love that a book can stir up the, you know, the national discussion on parenting. But I didn't laugh during this book. I was horrified. I felt really badly for her children. And I think it was brave that she shared her story so candidly, but - and I don't like to be judgmental of other moms, because we all do it differently. We all parent differently and I have a lot of respect for different parenting styles. But I am one of those readers who feel like what she did to her daughters really borders on emotional abuse.

MARTIN: Because?

MORGAN STEINER: Because I think as parents we have so much power over our children. Adults, the teachers and parents in their lives are really, we control every aspect of our kids' lives. And I feel like that is power that should be wielded with great delicacy and care. And I feel that her children were, like all children, were so eager to please her for most of their childhood that they would've done anything for her and that she really abused that and made their childhoods filled, from my view, filled with terror. You know, her older daughter would've run home from school to start practicing.

MARTIN: But maybe she ran home 'cause she liked it and she wanted to be good at it.

MORGAN STEINER: I tell you, Michel, it didn't sound like that to me at all.

MARTIN: OK. Aracely, what about you?

PANAMENO: So there were many instances where I felt the same way. And I felt that if I had been present, if I had been within a hearing proximity, I would have been on my cell phone calling the police.

MARTIN: Really?

PANAMENO: Absolutely. And I am of immigrant descent. I was born and lived in El Salvador until the age of almost 16 years of age. My mother did not have a great deal of access to high education. But some of these things were just, at the core, it just hit me so hard...

MARTIN: Give an example.

PANAMENO: ...about the abuse.

MARTIN: Give an example.

PANAMENO: Calling your child garbage. Calling your child names. You're worthless. And so all of that just hit me very hard.

MARTIN: And I'm interested to hear you say that because there are different cultural norms about the way people speak to each other in different communities. For example, we had a conversation on this program a week or so ago about weight issues and body image issues, and the author of the piece was an Asian-American woman who's a magazine publisher who just said that part of the reason the weight issue, you know, has a bit of an edge to it is that, you know, Asian-American parents, she says, are notoriously blunt with everybody - with themselves, with each other, and that just - that's a cultural style. Even with that, you don't buy it. Is that what you're saying?

PANAMENO: Yes. And I also have to say that when you try something different in terms of your parenting style than what the rest of the culture or the rest of your family is doing, you're frowned upon to a certain extent if people really don't understand it. But there are certain things that cross the line.

MARTIN: Dani, you are our tough love mom. Tell us about your reaction to this.

TUCKER: Well, unlike my fellow moms, I didn't have a problem with the quote-unquote "abuse" because I was raised in the '70s, when it was tough. You think a Chinese mother's tough, check out a black mom. If you leave some dishes in the sink past 10 o'clock, she wakin' you up going upside your head. So you know, I wasn't - that part didn't really get me. So what you all called abuse, we called that's the way it was.

But I loved the book. Only problem I had is I wish she had wrote two books. One book about her and her daughters and another book about what she thought was wrong with Western-style parenting, because to me, that took away from her message. You know, when I got to the drums - being on drums 'cause they chose the drums over the violin and over the piano, I'm like, OK, lady, you're starting to lose me.

You know, she really lost me because a lot of times for me she was describing parenting style, but to me, I said, that's not Chinese, that's just strict parenting. You know, I mean, I know African-American women and, you know, I know white women that raise their children the same way.

MARTIN: But she says that in the book, she says that what she's talking about are giving your kids very bright lines and saying this you will do and this you won't do. And she explains why she feels so strongly about that and it has something to do with a world view, which is self-esteem comes from mastery and from achievement.

TUCKER: Mm-hmm. I think her balance was off. I think her balance was off. You know, I think her balance was off.

MARTIN: Well, to that point though, to that point, here is one of the things I wanted to run by you, Dani, is that - and all of you - is that one of the things I think some people can feel that there is some kind of racial chauvinism going on here. That you're saying, well, you know, we're better than you.

TUCKER: Mm-hmm. That's true.

MARTIN: We're better than you just because we do these things. On the other hand, she is also saying that this is not about kind of genetics or a cultural superiority. What this is about is having habits and these are the habits that lead to accomplishment. Did you find that message appealing?

TUCKER: I found that message but I had to find it, you see what I mean? And that's what I'm saying. I agree with you. I think that's what she wanted to do. I think she needs to do another book about it then.

MARTIN: Okay.

TUCKER: Because I have to pull it out.

MARTIN: Aracely, what do you think?

PANAMENO: So in that regard I actually do give her a great deal of credit for her courage to be honest with herself and with the rest of us. I found myself identifying with some of the messages that she was trying to convey, however convoluted it came out.

MARTIN: Give an example.

PANAMENO: So, for example, having strict guidelines for my - and expectations, a set of expectations for my daughter, saying this is, you know, there were no sleepovers at certain days of the week. She didn't go to parties if I had not verified parental supervision and adult supervision at those parties or a ratio of adults to children, you know, that kind of thing, or if I don't have contact information, you know, those were just the ground rules.

You cannot go to certain activities, whether it was a football game on a Friday night, if you didn't go with a certain group of friends to be with that I trusted, and knowing where you're going to be when you're going to come back, et cetera. So there were many things that I actually identified with and having certain expectations. If you work hard, you will get results.

We do have a saying in our society whether it is that I come from El Salvador or wherever anybody comes from, Chicago, Texas, that practice makes perfection. And I think that that kept coming through the text, that if you actually put the effort into it - and sometimes what happens when you are a parent is that you actually have to commit yourself. And what I find myself when I actually look at my experience rearing my child and other parent's experiences is that I have to commit just as much time to her doing whether it was homework or whatever her activities were.

When she was in swimming we had to get up at 4:30 in the morning and be there for swimming practice. It's a commitment that takes more than just the child, it takes you as well.

MARTIN: We're talking with our moms and we're talking about "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." It's a new book by Yale law professor Amy Chua, and it talks about what she calls the Chinese parenting style, emphasizing some really strict boundaries. It's her adventures in parenting. And I will say that the subtitle of the book is: This was supposed to be a story about how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a 13-year-old. So there is an arc to the story where she does kind of get her comeuppance, as we discussed.

But Leslie, I do want to ask you about some of the larger questions raised by the book. The fact is the news of, you know, this week, and has been in the news for some time is that on a lot of the indicators of academic performance internationally the United States is lagging behind. And many of the countries that are doing very well, the educational system seems to follow this model. You know, a lot of strict boundaries, rote learning, you know, lots of emphasis on achievement in some particular narrow areas. Doesn't it give you pause?

MORGAN STEINER: Well, all of that, there are very big issues that I think that parents and our society and particularly our educators have to think about. And to me, the main question in the book is - something that many parents grapple with is how much to push your kids.

And I agree with the book's premise that part of adults job is to believe in kids when they don't believe in themselves and to set very high standards for kids. I think that's great. And I personally identify a lot with this, with the author. Even though I'm not Chinese and I'm thoroughly American going back lots of generations, I was raised in a really high achievement household. My father went to Harvard. My mother went to Harvard. My grandmother did, too. I was expected to do very well and I worked really hard and I, too, went to Harvard and Wharton Business School and have reaped the benefits of how much my parents pushed me and demanded of me.

But also as a teenager I grappled with anorexia, which kills a lot of girls. I also grappled with drug and alcohol abuse, so I see the dark side of that as well. And I'm really grateful that I have had a successful career and have been independent as an adult. And I credit my parents and myself with much of that. But there's a dark side to it as well and I see it, you know, I struggle with the themes of the book in raising my own kids. How much are their dreams and how much are my dreams for them? And I think it's something that parents really have to think about and talk about.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you? You were saying, what you think about kind of the larger questions raised by the book?

TUCKER: I think they were personal for her and her daughters, just like Leslie said. I mean, to me, that was the culture that they were raised into. Because for me, I don't measure success the same way she does. You know, I think that's the big question parents have to ask, what is your meaning of success and how you measure it? And it comes to me from our family.

For us, you can go to Harvard but if you don't have a spiritual foundation then Harvard is nothing. So it depends on where you come from. So for them, that was successful. For me and the kids it wouldn't have been. But for me and the kids it's doing your best. If you bring me a B I'm not going to kill you if I know you did your best. But I also want to know that you pray. I also want to know that you went to Sunday school. So it's all about the culture that you're born in, in the way that you measure success.

MARTIN: Aracely?

PANAMENO: So two points I want to make. First of all, when kids are born, parents are not given a manual - an owner's manual. And so, for parents and for kids it is a journey and a learning experience that we have to embrace and walk together. I have learned so much over the last 22 years of my daughter's life. I am a much better person for it. So that's one piece.

The other piece for me is that we have to ask ourselves, as a parent I had to ask myself, is my child an extension of me and how her successes and failures reflect my success and failure as a person, as a parent, as an educated individual, you know, and with the traits that our society values and treasures? I had to ask those questions myself.

MARTIN: Is there anything about the book that makes you rethink choices that you made as a parent?

PANAMENO: I made a hybrid and the author actually alluded to it. I made a very conscientious decision to try to come up with a hybrid model of parenting my daughter, of trying to come up with some things that I value about my cultural tradition and what my parents did with me and then this about the parts that I did not like or that I didn't think proved to be effective and embrace all of the things that I thought were really good about American society and the U.S.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you?

TUCKER: I like the fact that to me the biggest thing is it brought out the fact that we are different, you understand what I mean? I mean, this lady, being Chinese or American Chinese had a whole different parenting style but we were trying to get to the same destination, and that's what I liked. It kind of pointed out I am nothing like her, even though...

MARTIN: I'm not so sure about that.

TUCKER: Well, you know, I'm strict. Let me get that straight. Yeah, you're right and...

MARTIN: I'm sorry. You were sitting with three other people who know you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: Yes, indeed.

MARTIN: But I digress.

TUCKER: I am a lot like her but we just do it different. And I like that. That's what I liked about it. I say you know what, we're all trying to raise kids. Like Aracely said, they're not - they don't come with manuals. And we all have different styles but we're trying to get to the same place.

MARTIN: But what about her point, that why be satisfied with the B when you think - why not sit there with that child, with the practice test and see if you can get the A? Why not that?

TUCKER: Because that just might not be my child and I didn't see where she did that with her kid. To me, she almost didn't care what they were as individuals, more so she cared more about making them what she thought they should be.

MARTIN: Leslie, is there anything about the book that makes you think anew about your parenting style and choices?

MORGAN STEINER: Definitely. I think reading this book was like a punch to my gut as a parent. And that's not, I don't mean that in a bad way. I think it's good to really question your parenting. But what it really ultimately made me think about is something that one of the writers in my own book "Mommy Wars" asked. It's a really simple question but it's very deceptive. The question is: As a parent would you want to be your own child? Ask yourself that question. Look at it from your kid's view.

And I have to say, ultimately, that I think my kids have a pretty good balance in their life of being encouraged to achieve and pushed but not - love is not, love and approval are not withheld based on their grades or whether they make a certain team or not. And I would not want to be the author's kids and I also wouldn't want to be her because she calls it a virtuous circle of achievement - that her parents pushed her and she's pushing her kids but I don't see the virtue in it. I think - I don't think that she seems like a happy mother and I don't think her kids seemed happy, and just based on the book - I don't know them. And...

MARTIN: Well, just to clarify...

MORGAN STEINER: Yeah.

MARTIN: I do need to say that she does disagree with that profoundly and does say, yeah, they're great, you know, everybody's great.

MORGAN STEINER: I know, but you know what? I got to say, she is talking, she, there's almost a narcissism about her that she talks all about herself. And I'm on Team Lulu. I loved her rebellious younger daughter. I thought that she was incredible and brave and smart and I'd like to hear from her daughters in 30 years and how they're going to raise their kids.

MARTIN: And finally, can I just ask, why do you think this book has pushed so many buttons? As I mentioned in my conversation with Professor Chua, there was an excerpt printed in The Wall Street Journal and it got 1,800 comments in a matter of maybe a day. I don't even know what the total count is now, that was when I last checked in. Why do you think that is?

MORGAN STEINER: I think that parenting, particularly mothering in America, is like the third rail. You know, there's certain things you're supposed to just pretend it's all happy happy, joy joy. And she's really a courageous writer and a courageous mom for tackling all this stuff so openly. And everybody in America has an opinion about mothering and that's why she's getting so many comments.

And I say to her, as a fellow mom, don't feel bad. Don't feel defensive about this. It's actually wonderful that she stirred up this really spirited discussion about how much to push your kids and how much to stand back.

MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner is one of our regular contributors to our parenting roundtable. She is the author most recently of "Crazy Love." She's also the editor of a book of essays called "Mommy Wars." Also with us here in our Washington, D.C. studio, our regular moms, Aracely Panameno and Dani Tucker.

Ladies, moms, thank you all so much for joining us.

TUCKER: Thank you.

PANAMENO: Thank you.

MORGAN STEINER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, you can always go to npr.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can also follow us on Twitter. Just look for TELL ME MORE/NPR.

I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

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