Jewish Journal

The Tiger Mom Gets Us Wrong

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

January 7, 2014 | 7:55 am

Amy Chua (credit: David Shankbone/wikimedia commons)

I was the product of strict parenting. My parents insisted on discipline, good grades in school, and a generally no-nonsense approach to childhood. They disapproved of anything that seemed to be a waste of time, including baseball cards, comic books, and rock music.

Compared to Amy Chua, author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, they were rank amateurs. 

When my generation of parents needed guidance, we turned to T. Berry Brazelton. I don’t know how the good doctor could have missed Amy Chua’s techniques: calling your children “garbage;” rejecting a homemade birthday card as being inadequate; threatening to give away toys if a child did not master a classical composition; or establishing bans on television, sleepovers, and school plays. Coming soon: “Parenting Tips of the Taliban.”

Give me a break. Or, rather, give your kids a break. Let them be kids, fer cryin’ out loud.

And now, Ms. Chua and her Jewish husband Jed Rubenfeld have written a new book -- The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. They look at Jews, Indians, Chinese, Iranians, Lebanese-Americans, Nigerians, Cuban exiles, and Mormons. They ask: why have these groups done better than others -- in terms of income, occupational status, test scores and so on? 

Here’s the key to success, according to Ms. Chua and Mr. Rubenfeld. They have to think that they are better than other groups. They need to feel insecure. They have to teach and embody impulse control.

As troubled as I am by Ms. Chua’s ideas, I don’t believe that those ideas are “racist,” or opening shots in a full-blown eugenics program. Strictly speaking, very few of those groups are actually races. Amy Chua and her husband are simply arguing that there are cultural and historical factors at play in the achievements of those groups. They are hardly the first to wonder aloud, and in print, why certain groups have been successful.

(By the way, here's one for Jewish continuity. The Chua-Rubenfeld children are being raised as Jews. That's the good news. The potential bad news: "You call that a haftarah chanting????!?!?!?!?!")

My biggest problem is that I am not so sure that she got the Jews right.

At least, she doesn’t lift up that old theory – that Jews are inherently, genetically superior in intelligence. (My dear friend, Sander Gilman, has written a great book dealing with the history of that perception -- Smart Jews: The Construction of the Image of Jewish Superior Intelligence, http://www.amazon.com/Smart-Jews-Construction-Superior-Intelligence/dp/0803270690) What we precisely don’t need at this particular moment in history is any sense that Jews are genetically – anything, actually -- other than perhaps prone to certain genetic diseases. I actually read a piece by someone, hailing intermarriage as the best way to get a better gene pool. Now, that’s scary.

So, do Jews think that they are better than everyone else? Talk about an ugly distortion of the chosen people concept. As piles of books, essays and sermons will tell you, Jews never thought that they were better than anyone else. The prophets would have found that laughable. It is impossible to read the Bible and walk away with any conception of the Jews as anything other than normal – a people whose sanctity is potential, but as yet unrealized.

Second, are Jews insecure? Yes, in Europe there are frightening and bizarre new manifestations of anti-Semitism.

But in America? Jews insecure? The only thing that Jews seem to be insecure about – is their own Judaism. It is hard to feel insecure when our kids are getting into all the best colleges, and an observant Jew, Joseph Lieberman, was a viable candidate for both vice-president and president, and that Jews can now live anywhere, work anywhere, be anything.

And third, impulse control. Do we Jews still have it? I would actually be in favor of that. After all, Shabbat is the best form of impulse control – the impulse to work all the time and to judge yourself by what you can buy and own.

Here's the bigger question: Do we Jews still have the intellectual “edge”? I am talking about the desire for learning for its own sake -- l'shma, if you will. The desire for achievement? Absolutely. The desire for education as a way of building a set of skills and the requisite resume that will serve as the entry ticket into the American meritocracy? Of course. For all the talk of Jews being “the people of the book,” I have, sadly, been in many Jewish homes that have absolutely no books. (Of course, I can’t see what is on people’s Kindles, so I could be wrong).

There is actually one group on Amy Chua's list that I envy, but not for their achievements or business acumen.

It’s the Mormons. Their sense of mission. Their ability to get their young people to actually make offerings of time and energy to their faith.

Imagine a Jewish world where we had kids ready to do that.

Book idea. “What Jews Could Learn From The Mormons.”


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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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