“I thought everything was in that first book and couldn’t imagine another until I had children,” says Thornton, who lives in Teaneck, N.J., with her husband of 36 years, who’s also a physician.
“People asked me, ‘How do you do all this and raise good children, too?’ I hope readers will take away from the new book the message passed down from my parents to me and from me to my children: With hard work, determination and education, you can achieve anything.”
Thornton says that her parenting style has been closer to Chua’s than to that of so many overly permissive parents in our age of “everybody plays; everybody wins.” She was never afraid to say no — to video games, to hanging out and to sleepovers.
“Nintendo, oh no!” she says. “I told my kids, ‘Do you think anybody down the line is going to be excited about somebody who’s good at Nintendo? Chess, yes, but not Nintendo.’ “
Thornton, though, has tried to be more nuanced and emotionally intelligent than Chua, who famously made her daughter stand outside in frigid weather at age 3 for not practicing the piano as told.
“Why would you put your kid outdoors when she’s being rebellious?” Thornton asks. “My way is to draw a line in the sand and stick to it. Kids want stuff, so I’d tell my daughter, ‘You can have that doll you want if you go back to the piano and hit that C.’ “
Still, Thornton admits that she’s had Tiger Mother moments. “After my daughter graduated from Columbia, she said, ‘Mom, I got my master’s degree — aren’t you happy for me?’ ” Thornton recalls.
“I said, ‘I’m very happy, dear.’ But I couldn’t help thinking of my father’s words: ‘They don’t care about you unless you’re dying, and if they are dying, they don’t care who you are.’ My daughter said, ‘What do you want from me?’ I told her, ‘You know what I want,’ and raised an eyebrow. And now she’s in med school.”
Wisdom from her father, who died in the early 1980s, is sprinkled throughout Thornton’s books. It has also helped her during bumpy moments in her medical career. “I go into a patient’s room as an attending with several medical students, and the patient will address all of her complaints to one of the white male medical students because the black lady couldn’t possibly be the doctor,” says Thornton. “When that kind of thing happens, I don’t become angry or belligerent. My father taught me never to let anyone else define who you are, and I’ve never forgotten that.”
She believes that the Tiger Mom has gotten so much attention because people want to know the secret of high-achieving Asian children. But there’s no secret, she says. Whether you’re a tiger, a lioness or another kind of mother, Thornton believes that parenting isn’t that complicated. “Love your kids, support and encourage them, give them boundaries and set high standards,” she says. “That’s what my parents taught me: to be lovingly strict.”
Linda Villarosa is the director of the journalism program at the City College of New York and is contributing to a documentary about HIV/AIDS in black America for PBS.