Soundbite Nation: Selling the Tiger Mother

Last Saturday, friends began sending me links to the article in the Wall Street Journal about a Chinese mother's method of raising her children. These links were the first flakes of snow. On Sunday, strangers that I follow on Twitter started responding. I began formulating a response in my head on Sunday night, and after the kids got on the school bus, I wrote a quick post. Parenting politics is a regular feature at Apt. 11D, so it was a natural fit.

The rest of the week was a full fledge storm of punditry on Tiger Moms — Today Show segments, blog posts from Huffington Post to every mommyblog, full page articles in every traditional newspaper. Even the foreign policy blogs found an angle. And it hasn't ended. David Brooks had to add his two cents this morning.

The commentary in the snowstorm had its interesting moments. How much should we pressure our kids to do well academically? Do we worry too much about self-esteem? Should parents be tough sometimes? Those are all good topics for discussion.

At the same time, I feel a bit used. Chua certainly exaggerated certain aspects of her book to gain the attention of an agent and publisher. The WSJ certainly removed any remaining subtlety from the discussion. Pundits who failed to read the book (myself included) made the discussion even more two dimensional and created a snowstorm of coverage, because controversy sells. The public likes to hate bad guys and readership numbers soared. Chua's message could be reduced to a sentence and that works in the media world that needs its soundbites reduced to 140 characters.

I'm a very small player in the media circus, though I do think that I have some power in bringing certain issues to light. This power, no matter how minor, comes with responsibility. I'll keep talking about Tiger Moms and the next topic du jour, because there must be something about these topics that taps into national concerns and frustrations. I understand that people need to vent. But I also wish that we weren't being lobbed soft topics that have been carefully constructed by cynical pubishers and editors. I'm tired of being manipulated.


19 thoughts on “Soundbite Nation: Selling the Tiger Mother

  1. “But I also wish that we weren’t being lobbed soft topics that have been carefully constructed by cynical pubishers and editors. I’m tired of being manipulated.”
    Take notes from these guys. Someday you’ll have a book to promote, too (working title, “Goodfella Moms”). (Apologies for the ethnic angle–it just seems to have worked really well for Amy Chua.)

  2. Yes, read the fine print and/or Publishers Weekly to find out who’s doing her publicity. Hire them when it’s your turn. Also find out who her agent is, because she obviously got Chua a good enough book deal that the publisher feels compelled to give the book bigfoot support. Media storms like this don’t happen by accident.

  3. I think the book took off because the topic hits our national concerns about our international competitiveness. If you speak with older people, who don’t have any children in school, they often think everything’s been dumbed down so far that the children are illiterate. We’re very insecure about China, so the book’s release was perfectly timed.
    My son happened to hear the Chua interview on NPR. He’s a sharp kid (13), and he wasn’t buying her line that it was all marketing. I think it’s interesting to ask preteens and teens for their reaction, as my children’s reactions were similar to Ayelet Waldman’s children’s reactions:
    (links to Wall Street Journal article)
    In the days since this newspaper published Amy Chua’s simultaneously entertaining and infuriating excerpt from her new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” my two elder children, 16 and 13, have devoted a remarkable amount of time to raging against the essay and crafting compelling and bombastic rebuttals to be delivered to Ms. Chua herself, should they ever encounter her.
    I am more than a little astonished. I say with confidence that neither of my children has ever before bothered to read a single word of The Wall Street Journal. I don’t think that I could have screamed or threatened them into doing so, not even if I’d tossed them outside in the middle of winter, to cower barefoot and freezing on the front step. So to Ms. Chua I express my gratitude. It seems to take a Chinese mother to force my Western kids to read the paper.

  4. “At the same time, I feel a bit used.”
    Me too. And, I think it’ll prevent me from buying the book. Simultaneous with the WSJ article, there were actual book reviews, more reasonable ones by people who had read the book. It was still a marketing campaign, but of the ordinary kind I’ve grown accustomed to. If I’d encountered those first, and not felt like I was part of a marketing campaign, I might have bought the book. It’s the kind of book I read.
    But, I’m going to wait until it comes up on my library list (and, by then, I might believe I’ve already heard everything of interest from it).

  5. PS: I’m not particularly a fan of the if you can’t beat them, join them theory of life. So, I hope that when you do write and promote a book, it remains nuanced and complete, both the book and the marketing. I promise to buy it. Actually, I’ll promise to buy it even if you decide to write it on an obscure political theory!

  6. Last year an Asian-American friend of mine complained about a talk at her (excellent, high-prestige) daughter’s school where the speaker promoted much more relaxed styles of parenting than my friend was comfortable with, and was absolutely dismissive when she raised the idea that the more disciplined Asian modes of parenting were valuable. “Everyone there is so appreciative of cultural diversity – unless it’s Asian,” she said. I told her that would make a great topic for a book. Oh well!

  7. thanks, bj. I’m actually having a slow blogging day, so I can get some writing done. I’m trying desperately to unlearn academic writing style. More description, Laura! And stop it with the footnotes.

  8. af,
    Everybody loves Asia–the imaginary one in their head.
    “Westerners who are “into spirituality n’stuff” think the East is the land where everybody is Keith (d’oh!) David Carradine, offering delphic utterances while a flute plays in the background and the shamed Western boob forsakes his crude bourgeois values and learns Wisdom, Batman Martial Arts, and awesome tantric bedroom moves.”

  9. William Faulkner, as I recall, said something about a typewriter and a bottle of bourbon being the two absolute necessities for a writer. Seriously, I know what our hostess means. I don’t try to write descriptively very often, and it’s hard when I do. Having a glass of chardonnay–we’re northeastern yuppies, after all, not Southern gentry–might be a good idea and helpful in losing the footnotes.

  10. You could I suppose make an argument for some kind of pop-culture dialectic that requires crude moves of this kind in order to produce some equally clarified, urgent antithesis. I’d just as soon not, though: as I suggested on my blog, I think this has the feeling of being sentenced to a recurrent nightmare of “parental advising” that never seems to end, rather than progress towards some complex ecosystem with lots of niches and more nuanced ways of imagining what the questions in front of us actually are.
    One thing I do not buy is Chua’s attempt to say, “But my book is really more complex than that, I’ve been misrepresented, everyone’s reacting to something I never said”. She did say it, she did project herself that way into the mediasphere, even if she has other things to say in the fuller work. Moreover, unless she’s lying about her parenting, she really did do some of the more exaggerated things that got covered heavily in the media rush. If I wrote a book about how I made my daughter do over a birthday card for me until it was good enough, there’s really only two ways to tell that story: that I think something basically good came of it, or that I seriously regret that time of my life and I’m better now. If I told the story the first way, then I shouldn’t be surprised when some people fixate on that and argue that I should have felt the second way.
    Scientists use the same excuse as Chua when they allow the findings of their work to be overrepresented: “but the real work doesn’t say that!” Fine, then don’t encourage that sort of overrepresentation in any way. Because this does have an impact on people who are anxious or desperate or uncertain about what they should do themselves, or what policies we should adopt.

  11. Emily Willingham, at “A life less ordinary” has a response to Brooks commenting on Chua. Brooks’ main point is that the Chua children have apparently been deprived of the ability to learn social skills. Willingham points out that since they weren’t raised in closets, but instead had the opportunity to have human interactions, albeit those chosen by their mother for other purposes as well, there’s no reason they wouldn’t have normal social skills.
    That, I think is the true answer to a lot of child raising angst and concerns. Typical human children will, in general, grow up within the range of normal unless you really really destroy their environment. Atypical children might flourish in a more narrow range of environments, and as parents of them, we’d need to figure out exactly what it is they need. And, throwing an atypical kid in a sleepover may not be the best way to teach them social skills.

  12. “And, throwing an atypical kid in a sleepover may not be the best way to teach them social skills.”
    Yeah, talk about throwing a kid into the deep end.
    Willingham says:
    “I lived in a girls’ dormitory at a boarding school my freshman year in high school, when I was 13. Being neck deep in the 24-7 social skills development of one long, tortuous slumber party didn’t do a damned thing for me, and it didn’t make me any more or less a team player. Some of us who are inclined to formal learning and isolation are rather impervious to immersion in social skills practice, it would seem.”
    Also, putting on my somewhat dusty PC hat, it’s more than a bit suspect to make the ideal student (the “very essence of achievement”) be the sort of well-rounded WASPy Joe College with good teeth that upper-middle class white families turn out already by the thousand. Way to put a finger on the scale, Bobo.

  13. [I]t’s more than a bit suspect to make the ideal student (the “very essence of achievement”) be the sort of well-rounded WASPy Joe College with good teeth that upper-middle class white families turn out already by the thousand.”
    But that sort of person is more successful in life. Ask yourself, in your field, whatever it is, once a certainly intellectual threshold is attained, aren’t the attractive personable people who work well with others the most successful?
    And, relatedly, aren’t the countries with that sort of Anglo-American ideal (you can call it WASPy if you want) both the cradles of democracy and the places everyone wants to live? No one here is planning to move to China.

  14. “But that sort of person is more successful in life. Ask yourself, in your field, whatever it is, once a certainly intellectual threshold is attained, aren’t the attractive personable people who work well with others the most successful?”
    That is true, but it’s not necessarily a difference to purposely accentuate. Do you remember the study about how narcissists are very confident and are able to get their ideas adopted, even if those ideas aren’t the best? (There’s a certain superficial resemblance between being a nice person and being a narcissist–think Michael Scott on The Office.)–work-with-a-narcissist-they-re-probably-more-successful-than-you-are
    “The researchers then had a second set of students read written descriptions of the ideas and found there was no difference in the perception of the movie proposals.
    ““We found the ideas aren’t better, but there’s something about a narcissist person and the way they sell the ideas.
    ““Narcissists are just good in selling their ideas because they’re so confident and good at getting people to share their inflated views of themselves.”
    “But this can cause problems for a company, Goncalo said, because people who are narcissist and make people believe in them are not necessarily qualified to do the work.
    “This may mean that organizations are overlooking or ignoring people’s ideas because those people are more modest or not as confident.”
    Of course a little bit of polish is worth trying to acquire, but it’s not realistic to think that a normal person would be able to out-Michael Scott Michael Scott, even with some training.

  15. MH,
    That was fantastic. I liked:
    “Inform your child that televisions receive all of their power from flawless renditions of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D.”
    We actually do something like that at home with Kumon workbooks (when I’m feeling energetic enough to enforce it).
    dave s.,
    It looks and sounds like Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld isn’t at all socially stunted.

  16. Glen, a commenter at Kitchen Table Math had this rather interesting thought about Chua’s book:
    “There is a value conflict between the little people my kids are today and the adults they will one day become. The little people fight for what they value today, but who represents the adults they will become?
    That has to be me. I’m like an agent representing the interests of faraway clients with whom I can’t communicate. I have to do my best to figure out what they would want me to do and act on their behalf while still protecting the interests of the kids in front of me. I can’t let either side take too much advantage of the other.”

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