Over the past few weeks, Amy Chua, author of the polarizing new parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has clawed her way to the top of best-seller lists. And the backlash has been in hot pursuit as thousands of angry journalists, bloggers and parents have decried her take-no-prisoners parenting strategies, calling her abusive, disturbed and, worst of all, a mommie dearest. In her book, Chua, a Yale Law professor, discusses her struggle to raise brilliant, accomplished children — straight-A students and musical prodigies — using the lessons of her super-strict Chinese immigrant parents.
But another mom, also the author of a memoir that landed in bookstores about the same time as Chua's, has already done it. She, too, was raised by super-strict, old-world parents, and she brought up her kids the same way. This mom, however, is black, and she prefers to be called a lioness.
"Parents don't have high-enough expectations; they give up on their kids," says Dr. Yvonne S. Thornton, 63, author of the new book Something to Prove: A Daughter's Journey to Fulfill a Father's Legacy. "No, I'm not a Tiger Mom; I'm a lioness. I growl when I need to growl, and set the bar high."
That strategy worked for her: Her son, Woody, now 32 and training to be a neurosurgeon, was a national junior chess champion who graduated cum laude from Harvard. Kimberly, her 30-year-old daughter, also a chess star, graduated from Stanford, received a master's degree from Columbia and is now in her first year at Howard University College of Medicine. Both were A students who began classical-piano lessons before the age of 2.
You may have heard of Thornton, author of the 1995 memoir The Ditchdigger's Daughters. It topped best-seller lists, caught the eye of Oprah and was made into an award-winning movie starring Carl Lumbly and Kimberly Elise. The book and movie tell the story of Donald Thornton, who with his wife, Itasker, raised five daughters on a ditchdigger's salary. His only dream was to see the day when each of them would be called Dr. Thornton.
Yvonne Thornton was the first of the five Dr. Thorntons. With the help of money earned while performing in the all-girl family band, the Thornton Sisters, she graduated with both an M.D. and an M.P.H. from Columbia University. Thornton is now a renowned specialist and clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York Medical College and Westchester Medical Center.
Something to Prove picks up where The Ditchdigger's Daughters left off. The memoir tells the story of Thornton's struggle to achieve the goals her father laid out for her in childhood and, at the same time, balance a demanding medical career with the challenge of managing a home and raising her children. Thornton says she decided to write the new book after readers of her earlier memoir wanted to understand how to "have it all."
"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.