Ranting And Roaring Over The Tiger Mother

(Originally published January 18, 2011 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

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Rarely – if EVER – does an article on parenting styles make national headlines.

Sure, there was the call to arms to stop shaken-baby-syndrome. Then we had Octomom and Kate Gosselin to make everyone feel better about their own childrearing choices.  And the election brought plenty of fodder on the parenting front with the complicated lives of Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama.

Now let us welcome Amy Chua to the Parenting Hall of Fame in modern America.

For those of you not yet familiar with this latest media firestorm, Ms. Chua will be known as the woman who took the term “Chinese mother” from referring simply to ethnic heritage to an entire school of thought on discipline and parenting. Or as a friend calls her, “that woman who beats her children into superiority.”

Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother, the memoir of her experience as a “Chinese mother” was just released and was excerpted in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal.  One week later, the piece is still the most read and most emailed item in the paper.  It has elicited nearly 7,000 comments from readers – more than any other piece in the history of WSJ.com.

It’s easy to see why.  Everyone has either been parented or is parenting.  And everyone has an opinion on the topic. And headlines like “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” are meant to fuel our subconscious fears for our country and our children. (Which explains why the book is being marketed in China under the title American Mother.)

Because parenting is a personal and private endeavor, there are no annual reviews, bonuses or grades.  So, we’re often left with comparing ourselves to the efforts, outcomes, strengths and weaknesses of other parents.

Two years ago, I was waiting in the airport security line with my kids when the mother in front of us turned to her teenage daughter and said through gritted teeth, “I can’t wait until we get home because I am going to kick your ass.”

My boys turned to me with wide eyes and red faces.  I’ve never totally understood the phrase “discretion is the better part of valor,” but I was pretty sure that standing in my stocking feet holding my clogs was it.

But, invoking the old, “remember that mom in the airport?” was starting to lose its effectiveness over my boys.  I was in need of a new crutch.  And along came the Tiger Mother.

In her excerpt she extols the extremes of her parenting.  Any grade lower than an “A” is unacceptable (excluding gym and drama, which, let’s face it, there’s meaning in that exclusion).  Her daughters practice the piano or violin two to three hours everyday, including weekends, summers and vacations.  Also, there’s no television, no computer games, no play-dates and no sleepovers.

Now, I hate sleepovers as much as the next mom (just ask my boys), but sometimes the mini-hockey champion of the world tournament does not end by nightfall and simply must continue through pancakes the next morning. And, I’m sure many would agree, some of the most enduring wisdom from a sleepover is the 11 pm call, “Come get me.”

I read some of the juiciest bits of Ms. Chua’s piece to my family over dinner – conveniently just before the evening’s round of piano practice was to begin.  Which we can now refer to as “piano practice for pikers.”

Ms. Chua’s tells of coercion at the piano with threats of no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents and no birthday parties for years to come.  There’s kicking and thrashing thrown in and sheet music is ripped to shreds. She tells her then 7-year-old to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.  She calls her older daughter “garbage”, and she refuses a handmade birthday card from her youngest because  “I expect better.”

Certainly, extremes raise discussion and controversy and perhaps boost book sales. And I mean to take nothing away from Ms. Chua’s love for and pride in her children, nor the accomplishments of the young women.  But as another friend said, “It all sounds very exhausting. Who wants to listen to your child play violin for three hours a day? I can barely sit through a Holiday concert.”

The examples Ms. Chua uses and the tone with which she writes unfortunately take away from the interesting points she raises. First, she sets up her argument as Chinese or “immigrant” parenting versus “Western” parenting.  Although not explicitly stated, it is abundantly clear that, in her mind, one is right and the other is wrong.

This is unnecessary, dangerous, and patronizing. She makes a strong case for “Chinese” parenting to attain certain goals — quantifiable academic achievement and musical accomplishment. By her calculations these will lead to the ultimate goal, success.  But a crucial, and perhaps very “Western” element is missing. An intangible we call “happiness”.

Now I’m not espousing a regimen of “all play and no work make Jack an American boy.” I’m just raising the lesson that Americans have learned from a few cycles of prosperity.  Success and happiness are not the same thing.  Certainly, we hope that they are not mutually exclusive.  But American parents expend real time and emotional energy trying to teach their kids the value of finding pleasure and pride – as well as a paycheck – in the work that you do.

Ms. Chua makes no allowance for such fragile aspirations in her parenting or that of others. On the contrary, every reference she makes to “Western” parenting drips with condescension and disdain. Granted, much of what she says may actually be true, but the biggest lesson I have learned as a parent is that of humility.

There is nothing more important to people than how they raise their children.  And frequently how they struggle to do so. How one parents is inextricably a reflection of beliefs and culture. Ms. Chua offers some explanation for her unyielding approach: “Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything: Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.”

Her husband explains the Western stance. (Said husband, by the way, has been voted one of the country’s “hottest” law school deans. Don’t know how The Wall Street Journal could’ve left that out.) “It’s parents who foist life on their kids, so it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide for them. Kids don’t owe their parents anything. Their duty will be to their own kids.”

Chua’s reaction? “This strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent.”

Agreed, but the notion of raising my children to believe that they “owe me” is even more unseemly.

Apparently it runs strong in the Chua family. Ms. Chua writes of coming in second place in a history competition as a child. After the awards ceremony, her father said to her, “Never, ever disgrace me like that again.”

She credits Chinese parents with recognizing “that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” She notes that many American parents allow a child to give up when something becomes difficult, whereas a Chinese parent will not.  She reasons that rote repetition and more practice will lead to success, which leads to praise, admiration, satisfaction and confidence.

I’m rolling along and agreeing with her on this point. Rooting for the kid, rooting for the parent, loving the struggle that leads to the joy of mastering something, and then she blows it.  And reminds us that she is a “Chinese mother” and not a “Western” parent.  “This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more,” she says.

The debate over parenting styles was certainly on my mind when I read another piece this week called Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life.  (Obviously, I cannot be burdened with too many play-dates, sleepovers and three-hour piano practices when I have so many non-essential articles, books, and reality television shows to ponder.)

In his New Yorker piece, David Brooks synthesizes some of the latest studies on reason, intuition, connecting and happiness. He couches these complex scientific theories and results in a fictional tale, because to “Western” readers, story, characters, people and relationships are powerful things.

“The building blocks of his happiness had little to do with the lines on his resume,” the fictional Harold observes.  “What the inner mind really wants is connection.” Brooks backs that up with science, citing research that found “joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income.”

No surprise, findings show that the endeavors that contribute most to happiness are those we do together — “having sex, socializing after work and having dinner with friends.” In Brooks’ piece, Harold realizes that “the things that didn’t lead to happiness and flourishing had been emphasized at the expense of the things that did.”

It was actually my boys who made the connection between Ms. Chua and a favorite movie, Akeelah and the Bee. When the contest is down to just two spellers, Akeelah Anderson and Dylan Chiu, they take a water break.

In the men’s room, the Chinese American father says to his son, “If you lose to that girl, you’re second place your whole life. No way, you hear me? No way.”

In the ladies’ room, Akeelah looks in the mirror and says to herself and her deceased father, “Pretty good, huh?”

We just might need to watch that one again this weekend.  Right after we finish Minuet in G.

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