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'Tiger Mother' isn't about parenting. It's about declining American exceptionalism.

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What happens next for America?

Here, it appears that both types of strategies can produce success. But the more interesting question Chua’s book raises is this: What happens next? The danger for the gifted child (or nation) is that at some point, raw talent and luck will not be enough to carry him forever. For the diligent student (or nation), the danger is that hard work is not enough to reach the next level. Here analysts argue that China’s draconian childrearing methods leave their students (and their nation) ill-equipped in the areas of creative thinking and problem-solving.

In her memoir, Chua describes three generations of Asian families: The first generation works and sacrifices, and the second generation works hard, buoyed by the advantages bequeathed them by previous generations. The third generation, however, risks losing that drive and becoming soft.

Although Chua never uses the term, the phenomenon she describes in her work is the same one noted by the political scientist Ronald Inglehart in the 1970’s. He argued that it was possible for an individual in the developed world to feel content and secure enough to be willing to give up authoritarianism and an emphasis on social order in order to pursue other types of freedoms, including a drive for meaning and self-expression.

Do we need to work harder like the Chinese?

Thus, Chua finds herself stymied by the question: What does it mean to give a child a “better life?” She supports routines, strong family structures, and respect for the past, but finds her children craving autonomy and self-expression. Here Chua asks: Must all Americans end up capitulating to grand social forces and decide to go easy on their children, valuing free expression over order and discipline?

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