Two hours after I said I hadn’t read The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and that I had no interest in it, I passed by it on the shelf at the library, and suddenly I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed it. It’s one of those books, I found, that isn’t much different than a train wreck; even though I abhor authoritarian parenting, spanking, threatening and public or private shaming children, I just couldn’t help myself.
For much of it, Amy Chua is righteous, arrogant, and stubborn (and this is putting it mildly); she also makes sweeping generalizations about Western parents (as if we all parent the same way) and makes it clear that she looks down on us all. Considering she is a Yale Law Professor, I find this aspect of her book sloppy and unforgivable. It also reveals that she’s out of touch with the amount of traffic in parenting blogs, websites and books. Given how much debate occurs over all things parenting (co-sleeping vs. crib, time outs and bribes vs. absence of rewards & punishments, academic preschool vs. play rich environment, independent play vs. parent dictated play, etc.) one cannot lump all Western parents into one basket. We make ourselves dizzy with all the debate and research on all the facets of rearing children.
Much has been made of Chua’s book and her claim that her results are undeniable; her eldest daughter is a talented pianist and is now attending Harvard. Her younger daughter rebelled, but still loves the piano, is a straight A student, and plays tennis. Her daughters claim to be happy. Many critics state that many could learn a thing or two from Chua’s strict and shaming methods.
I hesitate to follow in their footsteps, however. Chua states repeatedly that Chinese parents emphasize (demand) respect to all authority figures. If a child has an argument with another parent, teacher or employer, the parent is to take the side of the authority figure. Yet, what does this teach children long term? It teaches them not to question and to not to trust that their concerns, complaints, or experience is valid. Qualities that we value such as innovation and creativity aren’t necessarily going to come out of children taught to never question or speak up to authority figures. Not to mention that never questioning or speaking up can contribute to angry rebellious or passive aggressive children (which Chua’s younger daughter demonstrates).
My other concern about Chua’s approach is it relies heavily on external rewards for its success. Once her girls get the taste for achievement, she hopes, then they will want to achieve more, essentially because it feels good and they then feel good about themselves. Receiving external accolades can certainly be fun, yet it can be hard and exhausting to sustain. And some of the most difficult and satisfying work doesn’t come with rewards, awards, medals or approval; it comes with the ability to keep working despite repeated failures and lack of results. It comes after being able to take risks – which kids raised in such high-pressured to succeed environments are less likely to take.
For me the saddest moment of the book comes when Chua is struggling with her younger daughter. When she mentions it to her older daughter, Sophia simply says, “It’s a stage. It’s awful to be thirteen – I was miserable.” Chua then admits she hadn’t known Sophia was miserable at thirteen, just like her mother hadn’t known she was miserable at thirteen. Like Chua, I too want my children to succeed and have opportunities, but more importantly, I want to feel connected to my children. I want to know when they are struggling and I certainly want them to feel safe to express their vulnerable selves in my company.
Despite all of Chua’s insistence that she is a strict Chinese mother, I don’t know that I necessarily agree with her. Her drive for her daughters to succeed in music to me indicates she is much more an American parenting institution than she realizes; she’s a stage mom.
Yet, from Chua, I realized a couple things. One is we all know we’re not supposed to judge other parents, yet we still do it – even the people who say they don’t do – simply because we’re human beings and human beings are judgmental creatures (and what would happen to the media industry without judgment?); I tend to judge parents like Chua because her methods make me uncomfortable. I keenly remember the moments of my own childhood that relied on shaming or my parents’ strict authoritarian beliefs. While my parents now admit they parented in such a way because at the time it didn’t occur to them they could do it differently and even if they had wanted to parent differently, they didn’t know how, Chua does it because she has legitimate concerns about raising children. She may be on the opposite end of the parenting spectrum from me, but I have to agree with her about there being more worthwhile things to do than watching television, that to master something requires practice, and that you can achieve what you want, but it comes from work and a belief in yourself, not genes or talent (though genes and talent help).
Other parenting books for thought and discussion: