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I’m a Positive Thinker, Thanks to My Tiger Mother

The stereotype of strict Chinese Tiger Mothers turning their kids into robotic overachievers isn’t true. Here’s how my mom developed my confidence, resilience and creativity—and helped make me the positive person I am today.

By now you’ve probably heard about the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua, whose new memoir—or at least, the infamous excerpt that was published in the Wall Street Journal under the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”—has the media and the blogosphere in an uproar. I don’t usually get involved in these debates (after all, here at Guideposts, we’re more about what connects us than what divides us) but I’ve got to jump in on this one. I was raised by a Chinese mother, my own Tiger Mom, and it didn’t turn me into a robotic overachiever with major self-esteem issues and no imagination. Far from it. I’m convinced my upbringing helped make me a confident, resilient, creative person…a positive thinker.

I’ll admit, my mom would be considered somewhat permissive by Ms. Chua’s standards. I know other Chinese mothers in our suburban community thought so. My brother and I were allowed to go on play dates and sleepovers. Except for music lessons, which were non-negotiable, we could choose our own extra-curriculars once we got to junior high (and no, they didn’t have to be math team and science club).

By Western standards, though, my mother would definitely qualify as a Tiger Mother. “Your mom’s so strict!” I got that a lot from my non-Asian friends…and their parents. My brother and I weren’t allowed to watch TV, play video games or eat junk food. We were forced to play the Chinese parents’ chosen instruments: I got the piano, my brother the violin. From an early age, we were assigned chores and the list got longer as we got older. Every skill my mom deemed useful (from manipulating chopsticks to drawing to trigonometry) we had to practice, practice, practice until we were proficient at it. Any grade lower than an A required an explanation and a corrective plan of action.

Sound like crushing expectations? They weren’t. Sure, I complained occasionally (what kid doesn’t?) but really, I didn’t feel downtrodden. In fact, I wound up feeling empowered. Take learning to use chopsticks. Once I understood the motion (“like a bird opening and closing its beak”), Mom had me practice picking up and transferring slippery things—grains of uncooked rice, frozen peas, marbles—from one bowl to another. I tried for a while but all I succeeded at was scattering rice and peas and marbles. So I threw my chopsticks down and declared, “I can’t do this! It’s too hard!”

My mom said calmly, “No, you have to work harder. Tomorrow, practice again.” She made me go back to it day after day until one afternoon, it all came together. Suddenly the chopsticks felt like an extension of my fingers, and I was moving rice, peas, even marbles with ease. Like magic, except I knew it wasn’t. It was my own effort. What a confidence booster, finding out I had it in me to accomplish something I thought was impossible!

Learning not to give up when I ran into a problem helped me develop resilience. So did my mom’s honesty with criticism and praise. She didn’t constantly find fault with what we did but she didn’t go around lavishing praise on every single thing we did either. Whatever she said, we could trust that it was sincere. Mom might not have known the term “constructive feedback” but that’s what she gave—specific, directed at the task and not the person. The grade or test score mattered less than the effort we put into it. If I just dashed something off, even if I got a good grade, my mom would call me on it. And vice versa.

In high school, I was put in Advanced Placement chemistry without having taken regular chemistry, and I got a C+ first quarter. There was no punishment or shame. “It means you don’t have a grasp of the basic concepts,” my mom said. “What can you do to learn them?” I came up with a plan. I borrowed an introductory chemistry textbook and we went over it together, chapter by chapter, every night. I did dozens of practice tests. And I picked the brain of my friend Ted, the chem genius. Slowly but surely, I “got” chemistry and my mom commended me for my hard work. The bonus? I scored high enough on the AP exam to fulfill a college science requirement. To this day, criticism or poor performance doesn’t demoralize me. I see it as an opportunity to grow. It spurs me to work harder and do better next time.

The knock against Chinese-style parenting and education is that it doesn’t foster creativity. Yes, rote repetition can be mind-numbing. But as Ms. Chua points out, Chinese parents “assume strength, not fragility” when it comes to their children’s psyches, and my mom’s operating from that assumption fed rather than stunted my imagination. She wasn’t worried that a setback would crush my spirit, so she didn’t rush to fix my problems (academic, interpersonal, or whatever) for me. Instead she let me come up with solutions on my own (the AP chemistry class was just one example). If one idea didn’t work, I was free to imagine and try something different. I’d call that creative problem-solving.

And I’d have to say thank you to my Tiger Mother for helping me develop such a positive, can-do attitude.

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