Tiger mom vs. unschooling: An introduction to two radically different approaches to parenting

Two covers of Time Magazine tell the story.

January 2011 showed a little girl with a violin, her face expressionless, perhaps in terror. A giant headless mother figure towers over her, arms crossed in disapproval. The title: The Truth about Tiger Moms.

This week, just 16 months later, another shocking image of a mother and child are on the cover of Time with a very provocative question: Are You Mom Enough? A young, thin, attractive mother stares defiantly into the camera with her breast bared. A three-year-old boy, big for his age, stands on a chair to suckle at his mother’s breast.

Between these covers is the story of America’s raging ‘mommy wars’ over what children need from their parents.

When excerpts from Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mom were published in the Wall Street Journal last January, the comments poured in from readers who either supported or derided Chua’s approach. Perhaps missing her subtly deprecating tone, one of the debates that emerged from the controversy opposed a demanding eastern model of parenting against a permissive western model. This is a huge oversimplification, to be sure, but a useful jumping off point for examining a definitive style of parenting.

Chua’s parenting model certainly isn’t restricted to Chinese mothers (and Chua actually grew up in the Midwest) but her rigid, authoritarian style is associated, at least in the western imagination, with an eastern culture that is highly competitive and structured.

The Tiger Mom method stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from Unschooling and the Attachment Parenting approach hinted at by the Time cover photo. Unschooling inverts the authoritarian pyramid, insisting that a child is a human being at a different stage in life, whose opinions and desires deserve respect. A quote from Teacher of the Year John Gatto, quoted on The Natural Child Project, exemplifies what Unschoolers believe: “Schools were designed…to be instruments of the scientific management of a mass population.” Unschooling means encouraging a child’s natural curiosity in nature, mathematics and stories. Along these lines are the more traditional Montessori schools that allow children to pursue their interests, determining what and how long they learn.

Both approaches yield results and both approaches fail. Chua points out that nothing worthwhile is fun until you learn master it. How is a child going to learn the joy of achievement without a framework of self-discipline? Unschoolers would answer that there is no reason a parent should decide what a child should master based on social pressures. Unschooling is not neglect and Tiger Mothering is not abuse, though both could be taken to those extremes.


  1. Cover photo-illustration by Jim Naughten (2011, January 31). The Truth about Tiger Moms. Retrieved from: http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20110131,00.html
  2. Cover photo by Martin Schoeller (2012, May 21). Are You Mom Enough? Time. Retrieved from: http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20120521,00.html
  3. Stevens, Earl (1994). What is Unschooling? The Natural Child Project. Retrieved from: http://www.naturalchild.org/guest/earl_stevens.html

Posted by CJ Newton, MA, Therapists.com Editor on May 17, 2012 at 05:00 AM

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