Money Smart Kids


Is the Tiger Mom Teaching Her Kids Financial Independence?

Janet Bodnar

Janet Bodnar questions whether the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is arming her kids with necessary skills to make good money decisions.



In the midst of the controversy surrounding Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, personal-finance blogger Beth Kobliner raised an interesting question: Would Chua’s helicopter parenting prevent her kids from developing financial independence?

I mulled this over as I read Chua’s book, in which the Yale law professor lays out her take-no-prisoners philosophy of child rearing Chinese-style. Chua doesn’t merely hover over her kids; she slams into them like a cruise missile and grinds them into the ground. Her two daughters, Sophia and Lulu, now teenagers, were never allowed to attend a sleepover, have a play date, watch TV, play computer games or get a grade lower than an A. And she was relentless in forcing them to practice the piano and violin -- sometimes during kicking-and-screaming confrontations that lasted for hours -- on the way to an eventual performance at Carnegie Hall.

Tiger Mother doesn’t address the financial issues that are common among parents and kids, but I can imagine how the dialogue in Chua’s home might go:

“Mommy, may I have an allowance?” “What for? You won’t have time to spend it.”

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“Mommy, may I have a cell phone?” “Texting is the work of the devil. Besides, you’ll ruin your fingers.”

“Mommy, may I have money to go to the mall with my friends on Saturday?” “Saturday is for music practice. Period.”

“Mommy, what will you pay me if I get an A in math?” [Stony silence. Cold stare.]

There’s a lot to be said for Chua’s philosophy -- that is, compared with what she sees as soft Western parents who won’t bear down on their kids lest they damage their kids’ self-esteem. But her book is so extreme that you sometimes wonder if she’s putting us on -- or is just plain nuts.

In any case, she’s not concerned about allowing her kids to be independent, financially or otherwise, or letting them make their own choices. And making choices is a cornerstone of financial education.

That’s too bad, because her attitude toward money is as critical to her daughters’ development as those hours of piano practice. A recent survey by Citibank found that women most often cited their mother as the person who taught them the most about personal finances. This was particularly true of single women and women ages 18 to 39.

By sheer coincidence, I found the point reinforced in a couple of completely unrelated books I read recently. In her history of the women of the American Revolution, Founding Mothers, Cokie Roberts tells the story of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, the mother of two Revolutionary War heroes. At the age of 16, she was entrusted by her father to run three of the family’s plantations in South Carolina. After she became a mother herself, Eliza resolved “not to be luxurious or extravagant in the management of my table and family on the one hand, nor niggardly and covetous, or too anxiously concerned about it, on the other.”

In the 20th-century classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Mary Rommely gives a lesson in turn-of-the-century investing to her daughter, Katie Nolan: “Take an empty condensed milk can. Cut off the top neatly. Cut strips down into the can the length of your finger. Bend the strips backward. The can will look like a clumsy star. Make a slit in the top. Then nail the can in the darkest corner of your closet. Each day put five cents in it. In three years there will be a small fortune, $50. Take the money and buy a lot in the country.”

The glimpses in Chua’s book of her financial habits aren’t always as commendable. She freely admits that she bribed the girls -- with treats, presents and even a pet dog -- to get them to do what she wanted. She threw a lavish party when Sophia made her Carnegie Hall debut and dismayed her husband by proposing to crack her retirement account to buy Lulu a violin.

But, says Chua, her intent was to prepare the girls for the future by “arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence.” And Lord knows they’ll excel in self-discipline, a necessary trait for managing money successfully. So the kids may turn out all right, after all.

Follow Janet’s updates at Twitter.com/JanetBodnar.



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