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Opinion | Margery Eagan

The sting of the Tiger Mother


IT’S ALWAYS mother’s fault. Nobody judges mothers more brutally than other mothers. And, in the leafy suburbs, the K-12 years can be one long mothering competition.

That competition is now at fever pitch with college acceptances, or rejections, days away. But also because Amy Chua — who caused coast-to-coast maternal nervous breakdowns after she wrote “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” in 2011 — was in town last week.

She was promoting her new book, “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations,” with analysis of why elites view Trump supporters as “flag-waving bumpkins” while Trumpsters view elites as un-American snobs.


But it’s “Tiger Mother” that still stings.


Because Chua wrote about raising two daughters as her Chinese immigrant parents had raised her: absurdly harshly, to achieve stratospherically. And just like Chua, they did.

“Tiger Mother” detailed how Chua allowed Sophia, then 17, and Lulu, 14, no TV, no computer games, no play dates or sleepovers. She accepted no grades but As. She forced the unwilling girls to practice piano or violin for five or six hours daily. When Lulu failed to learn a piece, Chua took her beloved dollhouse to the car and threatened to give it away. When Sophia fell short, Chua threatened to burn her stuffed animals. She even called her daughters “garbage” and “fat.”

Outrageous! Abusive! Insane! So screamed mommy blogs as fevered coverage of “Tiger Mother” flooded America. How can a mother be so vile, so obsessed with grades — and admit it?

Chua did seem, let’s face it, a tad volatile.

Still, some of us heard a little voice in our insecure mothering heads: Could Chua be right about self-esteem coming not from trophies all around but from working really hard to master a skill? Could happiness and satisfaction be less about security than self-discipline?


Maybe — oh no! — her kids are no smarter than ours. Chua was just more energetic. Better. When her kids got B’s, she drilled them to perfection. When our kids did, we said, “As long as you tried your best, sweetheart.” Then we let them play “Dance, Dance Revolution” on PlayStation while we watched “Real Housewives” with a glass of chardonnay.

It’s tempting to attribute Chua’s approach to money. She and her husband are both Yale Law School professors. But Chua grew up with none, became a superstar anyway, and a “Tiger Mother” before her memoir upped her bank account.

So here’s what we really want to know: Did the girls, as so many predicted, turn into emotionally unstable, friendless freaks?

Actually, no.

In an interview last week, Chua, a stunning but physically tiny powerhouse, gave the update. Not only are Sophia and Lulu centered, confident, and kind, but both, like their mother, made it to Harvard. Sophia joined ROTC there, rising at 5 a.m. for drills. She is now at Yale Law School considering a career as a military prosecutor of sex crimes.

But don’t just take Chua’s claims. In recent interviews, Sophia, despite the threatened stuffed animal massacre, remembers her childhood as happy. “(My parents) did have high expectations of me, but because they had the confidence that I could do amazing things.”

Lulu’s college friends say she is “warm, witty,” a girl who “somehow always gets away with hosting parties in her dorm room.”


The “Tiger” approach doesn’t work for every child, Lulu said, and didn’t always for her. But “it’s important to push kids to reach their full potential . . . I don’t think (I’ll raise my children) any other way.”

This isn’t what we mere mortal mothers hoped to hear, I understand. So maybe Amy, Sophia, Lulu and company are all lying, spinning, or repressing the worst. Maybe it’s downhill from here. But as it is, the Tigress and her cubs? Redeemed.

Margery Eagan is cohost of WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”