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Book Review-Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom

I have been hesitant to write this post, to dive into the swirling hysteria of the blogosphere on this topic, to engage with it.  But I hope enough time has passed that we can agree to disagree and have a civil discussion.

Like many, I read the Amy Chua WSJ piece that got this whole drama going.  Entitled Why Chinese Moms are Superior, it was half excerpt and half hyperbolic treatment by the WSJ editorial team.  I have to wonder if choosing to print this was a brilliant piece of PR marketing that made a bestselling book out of an otherwise unlikely to get a lot of attention memoir, or a reasonable attempt to engage the country in a conversation about our culture of “everyone gets a trophy.”  Much I wish it was the latter, I cynically believe it was the former.

The internet and blogosphere took this one excerpt and threw a collective fit.  I got so tired of people judging this woman and her children based on a short article that I decided to read the actual book to get the whole story.

What many people overlook is that it isn’t a parenting guide.  Yes, she stops and compares her “Chinese Mother” parenting techniques to the “Western” culture she lives in today, but it isn’t a guide on how to become a “Tiger Mom.”  It’s a memoir where she tries to figure out why things that worked so well on her older daughter Sophia failed miserably with her younger daughter Lulu.  The subtitle of the book, incidentally ends with “and how I was humbled by a 13 year old.”

Ironically, Chua relates what it was like to be the child raised with the expectations she then raised her own daughters with.  She talks about wishing she could fit into American culture more as a child, to bring a PBJ to school instead of Chinese Food.  She relates a story of getting second place in a scholarship contest and her father, whom she’d invited to the event hissing at her afterwards to never humiliate him like that again.  But like her elder daughter, her personality was such that this did not spur rebellion…rather a redoubling of effort.  The effort paid off in a lucrative law career and eventually a professorship at Yale.

Her husband is an American Jewish man, raised far more traditionally American.  He watched tv, he played some sports, and his parents weren’t all that hyper.  As many of her critics point out…he was also a Yale professor long before she was.  Largely because he had better social skills and a more relatable (from the American perspective) view on life.  It is telling however, when she recounts the story of sharing with her parents that her husband had left a lucrative corporate law job to work as a US DA which is more prestigious, but pays far less…her parents reaction was horror that he took a pay cut.

When they had children, her husband (for reasons that are largely absent, as is his presence from the book…although according to the authors note, as she gave her family editorial control, he had a certain amount of blame for this missing insight) agrees to Chua’s strict parenting rules.  No tv, no playdates, no sleepovers, 3-4 hours of instrument practice daily, no grade less than an A (except in gym).

For a time, this is a harmonious family.  Elder daughter Sophia is, for the most part, willing to play by her moms rules.  She even has made the effort to write her own op/ed piece in defense of her mom.

However, younger daughter Lulu is cut from a different cloth.  She is rebellious.  She is strong willed.  She doesn’t want to play ball.  Which starts a ten year battle of the wills and all-out war between mom and daughter.

In reading the book, especially if you can remove yourself from the traditional American perspectives, you can understand where Chua is coming from, even if you disagree with her.  And, especially if you are American, part of you secretly roots for Lulu in her rebellion.

Some of the things that people are most horrified by…standing outside as punishment for refusing to practice, threatening to burn stuffed animals are all confrontations with Lulu.  Chua is backed into a corner where she is so scared of losing control that she makes threats she doesn’t want to carry out, and is horrified when they aren’t enough to get Lulu to bend to her will…and frightened, and scared for Lulu.

One of the moments that is very humanizing and insightful is when the family gets a dog (over Chua’s objections).  As in most families, the majority of the responsibility eventually ends up on Mom’s shoulders.  So she signs the dog up for an obedience class.  It becomes very clear, very quickly that the dog is dumb.  Dumb as post.  Pretty….but dumb.  Chua and her husband are having a fight when she earnestly asks him what his dreams for each of the girls is…and then asks what his dreams for the dog are.  He bursts out laughing, which ends the fight.  She is glad the fight is over, but has zero understanding of why he laughed.

Eventually she comes to love the dog (and get a second one) because they are the children she is free to parent in a more Western way.  She can lavish love and affection on them because they will never have to fend for themselves out in the world, or compete against hundreds of other kids for acceptance at Julliard or Harvard.  You see how miserable she is in the role of enforcer…she talks about how frustrating it is to find rehearsal space for the girls while on vacation (yes, she makes them practice 3-4 hours a day, even on vacation), how stressed she is in her fights with Lulu.  Ironically, she notes that as a professor, she is perhaps kinder to her Asian students who come from families like hers because she knows what their parents are like.  It truly demonstrates how we humans can hold two contradictory ideas in complete opposition to them, yet not understand that they are contradictory.

There are several incidents which contribute to the humbling she mentions in the subtitle.  One is when Lulu, who is truly gifted at violin, auditions for a spot in the feeder program for Julliard.  Lulu is up against Asian kids from Asia…who put her 4 hours of daily practice to shame with 6-8 hours of practice.  For whom, unlike Lulu…THIS is their only hope, their only shot at a “better” life.  The other is while on vacation, in a restaurant, Lulu explodes in anger.

This is when Chua concedes that there is a dark side to being a Chinese Mom…when it doesn’t work.  Her own father is completely cut off (by his choice) from his family for not following the path they wanted.  She doesn’t want this for Lulu…and she sees it happening.  So she bends.  She begins to try to back off.  She lets Lulu quit the violin in favor of tennis.  When she tries to use Tiger Mom techniques, Lulu tells her to quit it or she’ll ruin tennis for her just as she ruined violin (ironically, Lulu loves the violin…but the pressure her mom put on her made the thing she loved a job and robbed it of the love).  Taking a deep breath, Chua does.

Don’t get me wrong…this isn’t a tale of redemption.  Chua still doesn’t think B’s are okay.  But the occasional sleep over?  Her elder daughter having a boyfriend?  Maybe they’re not so bad after all.

For me, as a teacher and as a student who never reached her potential, it was a hard read for me.  Ravi and I are not traditional American/Western parents.  While we do lavish love and praise on E, and see the value of play….we are hardcore academics.  We will pull her from extra-curriculars and put her in tutoring if there is a B or a C.  Other than illness, there’s no excuse for not doing homework.  Knowing what math instruction looks like in most American schools today, she’s likely to get extra math homework from us.  If I’m being honest, she already knows what 1 and 2 squared are because we’re drilling it in the same way we drill counting, ABC’s, her name and other things we want her to know with her (we sing, we make it game, we point out stuff).

While I have no trouble with her getting a trophy or certificate in gymnastics for participating now, at age 2…I don’t want her to have a room of trophies for showing up once she’s older and can understand that not everyone can be number one.

I worry that in recent studies American students didn’t place #1 in any international tests…except in the area of self confidence.  That we are in fact, so worried about self confidence that we’re manufacturing false senses of accomplishment.  I can point to hundreds of testimonies (or share countless stories from my days as a teacher) of children who just don’t know how to cope with life when Mom and Dad aren’t there.  Who fold when they don’t get an A, or can’t bear to hear that they could do better.  To that end, I generally identify (mostly) as a Free-Range Parent…one who fosters independence and self-reliance in her child rather than bowing to the culture of fear that is so pervasive in the past decade of American parenting.

But what also frustrates me is that as Americans say that Education is and should be our number one priority for our kids, we just don’t mean it.  On facebook, when talking about the whole Tiger Mom controversy I saw people time and time again stress “being a kid” and “you can always go back to school” rather than academics.  As the daughter of a mom who tried to go back to school time and time again, but for whom things like work and raising her daughter and trying to put food on the table interfered with those efforts, I have my doubts as to the ease of it.  I’ve been out of university for almost 7 years, and I have lost any and all study skills…and I know firsthand how difficult it is to re-acquire discipline, especially in the face of things you’d rather do more without an adult forcing you to study.  It is the sort of dual priorities that Chua herself is being vilified for holding (strict with her kids and lenient with her students).

Chua has also been called out as not being a real Chinese mom because that’s not how this Chinese person did it or that persons parent’s did it.  But living in a country with a 70+% Chinese population, my impression is that she’s closer to the norm than the deviation from it.  Kids here study, and then they go home and study.  And then they go to extra school and study there too.

I know what kind of lifestyle having only a high school diploma can bring—I grew up in it, and the majority of my family lives it.  And I can compare it to a life where the adults in the households had university educations–Ravi had it and the majority of his has it.  I know which I prefer for my children, and I make no apologies for my focus on education and grades.

In the end, the book and the larger discussions it has sparked are really about our fears and our values.  The problem is that, much as with education, many (not all…and certainly not the people I count as friends) want or need the validation that their way is the one, right way when there is no such thing.  Each kid is an individual, and what works with one kid doesn’t necessarily work with the next.  It’s a lesson that Ravi and will have to experience at some point as well (although one can dream and hope that our next kid isn’t as stubborn as Elanor).  People unfairly call her kids robots, and other insults…and death threats have been made (can we say overreaction?)…but what we need to understand is that what makes one child flourish doesn’t have to be what made us flourish.  It was a lesson Chua learned the hard way.

9 Responses

  1. When I first read the WSJ article, I was horrified because of the “definitive” headline: Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. And beyond there wasn’t much of an explanation about what the book was going to be on, besides the title “Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mom”. If they had put in the subtitle it probably would have painted a better picture.

    I was horrified and reacted strongly (like many other Asian kids I know) because even if we never had parents as strict or as demanding as she was, we know what it is like to be ticked off for being “fat” or “ugly” or “attention-seeking” or being asked “what makes you think you’re so special”. I’ve been lucky in that I have very relaxed parents (for the most part), but I have had friends who are constantly driven to tears by the pressure. And from the schooling system we went through (where it can be just as demanding) I know that many of us have certain issues that we have had to deal with since (constant insecurity and fear being one of them). So when I saw the article emblazoned why Chinese mothers are SUPERIOR, the first reaction was repulsion.

    Upon hearing more about the book, though, I feel much better about Amy Chua now because she isn’t a complete crazy-ass bitch of a mother after all. The WSJ excerpt was a real piece of clever marketing there, but I think it also hurt a lot of people who were misled into thinking that her whole book was going to be trumpeting a parenting style that has (even if it was unintentionally) caused a lot of pain and trouble for many kids.

  2. I definitely agree that we need to take a hard look at a culture that causes a high depression and suicide rate.

    But I feel the issue that Chua takes with Western parenting is that the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that it’s teaching learned helplessness in our kids. A culture of manufactured (undeserved) self confidence. Some schools in the US have gone so far as to remove the position of valedictorian so that the rest of the kids don’t feel bad. It’s too far in the opposite.

    Personally, I would hope that parents look at the child in front of them and parent them in the way that’s best for that child. Some kids are visual learners, others are hands on (Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences if anyone wants to learn more)…in a perfect world, we could tailor their education to their learning style so that they could get the most out of their education. I would hope that they could find and support what their child loves, without it becoming about the parent (which is a too-common result). And that parents could realize that not every kid is going to grow up and be a (fill in the parent’s dream here).

    Many schools eliminated Gifted and Talented because they don’t want the “average” kids to feel bad. Mainstreaming is largely a product of not wanting special needs kids to feel left out…and in many cases, this is a terrible solution. I personally had an autistic child in a class, who worked on a first grade level, but because he was mainstreamed, he was supposed to be learning/getting something out of my grade level appropriate (5th grade) instruction. He didn’t. He would have benefitted more from a substantially separate class where he’d spend time on life skills instead of learning about geometry, which was far beyond his ability and not something of value in his life. Mainstreaming is great for SOME children and SOME disabilities.

    But because of the way that our education system is set up there are so many flaws that are unfixable. Age-related promotion regardless of whether the child deserves it is one. Deciding that tests can determine ability in subjective subjects like the humanities. Moving Math instruction away from basic skills like multiplication and algorithms.

    Every study out there says our kids will have it worse than we did. Which is scary as hell.

    I certainly don’t think Chua deserves a parent of the year award, but I don’t think she deserves the vilification either.

    It’s a good read–I recommend it!

    • I might check it out! Although I was initially resisting the idea for fear of the less savoury childhood flashbacks.

      I get what you mean about going in the complete opposite direction – I saw the exact same thing going on in New Zealand as well. Apparently there are kids who are leaving HIGH SCHOOL and still unable to really read properly, or have a vocabulary appropriate to their age. It’s awful.

      My first boyfriend always said he was dyslexic, although I’m not sure if he had ever been officially diagnosed. When my mother read his writing (crap spelling, bad grammar and no sense of punctuation AT ALL) and met him she said (not to his face, though) that in Singapore he would just have been called careless and punished until he got it right. And I think she was right, because he was using it as such a crutch. Instead of working harder and trying to go through his writing, he would just throw up his hands and go “I’M DYSLEXIC” and assume that we would all have to feel sorry for him and cut him some slack – and then I (or his mother) would have to go through his essays and assignments for him.

      • I think it’s really hard to find a middle balance.

        But I also know a person like your ex. A roommate of mine in the apartment I was living in when I met R was dyslexic and her parents swooped in and fixed everything for her, even though she was 26 and had graduated from college. They used it as a reason to stay overinvolved in her life and her solution when so much as the power went out was to call them rather than our landlord or go looking for the fusebox.

  3. I think the real key here is fostering self-motivation. The kid eventually needs to learn that achievement is its own reward – after which, the parent need not push too hard to make them strive for it. Truly self-motivated children will excel regardless of their parents’ parenting styles – unless, of course, the parenting style actively works against the self-motivation.

    In an experimental design class, we made a bunch of undergraduates take a reading comprehension test, and varied whether or not they were offered a reward for getting the best score in the class. The control group – the one who were not offered a reward of any kind – scored consistently higher (!) than the experimental group who were offered the reward. Our theory was that we had replaced intrinsic motivation with external motivation, which is far less strong.

    Also, on a personal note, my mother and I fought a lot over my violin practice. She knew I liked to perform and I liked to win competitions but I didn’t like to practice, so not only did she force me to practice, but she practiced with me and corrected every wrong note in real time. It made practicing even more unpleasant and odious than it otherwise would have been (especially when she was wrong – she’d tell me a note was flat when it was sharp, and I’d argue, and she’d argue back, so I’d raise it, and it would be even more obviously sharp, and then she’d tell me I was just “being rude” and had “gone too far”). I lost all sorts of privileges over not practicing violin “well enough” or “being rude” (TV, time with friends, even dinner sometimes). Of course, I’d sneak these things when I could.

    Meanwhile, I was really good at violin, and excelled, but as I got older, the anxiety surrounding it became more and more pronounced. I’d get nervous in competition scenarios and start shaking (whereas when I was younger, win or lose, the competition was fun in itself – unless I lost to someone my age – which would make me jealous and motivate me to “catch up” to their level – it only happened once). I had been self-motivated to some extent: there were always pieces I insisted on playing that were “too difficult” for me and I’d rise to the challenge.

    I auditioned for Juilliard but was told by my teacher that I had to do a “pre-audition” so they’d know who I was. My mother refused to take me to NYC twice. We traveled day-of for my audition and because of the temperature changes during the trip, one of my strings broke on the way, and playing on a fresh string after a long trip is very hard (brand new strings do not hold pitch). Nevertheless, my audition went well – just not well enough. Who knows if I would have gotten in, had my mother taken me for the “pre-audition.” On the other hand, I was pretty happy at MIT, and maybe my mother knew that I’d be happier there than at a conservatory (or maybe it was jut an accident of fate).

    When I went to college, I was finally free to practice – or not. And you know what? I discovered I *liked* to practice, when there wasn’t someone there ordering me around. My technique suffered due to lack of time and proper teaching (my private teachers in college were not technique-oriented and let me get into bad habits without noticing), but I grew as a musician and became an excellent sight-reader. Then, when I sent myself (paying with money I’d earned working) to music school and got a technique-oriented teacher, I fixed my technique and really became an artist.

    It makes me wonder whether I would have done even better, for longer, at violin, had my mother backed off once I was capable of self-regulation. Of course, then maybe, even with one audition, I would have gotten into Juilliard, and who knows where I’d be if I’d ended up there.

    • Oh, I will also add that academically, my parents really didn’t push me at all. They didn’t tell me what grades I was allowed to get or that I could do better if I didn’t get an A. They helped me with my homework if I asked, and told me about how my grades would affect my ability to get into the college of my choice, but beyond that, they left it up to me to work hard in school. Self-motivation plus great teachers (AB rocked) plus a competitive spirit with my classmates kept me in the top 5% of my class and got me into MIT (but not Harvard – I did get a couple of C’s). Looking up to Ravi in high school didn’t hurt either!

    • I think you make a lot of good points.

      I have a slightly different life experience. I was pretty lazy, and partially because I come from a family where no one had gone to university (my maternal grandmother was the first person in her family to graduate high school, for that matter) we didn’t really understand what we were doing. I stopped math at Algebra 2 because I didn’t “like” Math (in reality, I’m actually pretty good at Math, but I need it explained to me in a very basic step by step manner and then I need to practice the algorithm about a hundred times, over time putting it together more and more easily). I stopped after 2 lab sciences. I only really put forth effort when I was interested (hence my very strong background in literature, history and French). I wasn’t very disciplined and it wasn’t until I went to college and a professor sat me down and gave me the big “I expect more from you….you’re smarter than this and don’t think you can coast through my class because I expect more from you” speech that I really started to study and to push myself.

      I often wonder how my life would’ve gone if I’d been pushed earlier. If I’d been in a good district like AB (as opposed to Ayer, Shirley and Lunenburg) or a strong private school that catered to my learning style where I would’ve gone.

      I think with E, we would love to see the motivation come from within….Ravi’s parents never had to police him or ask what they’d do if he brought home less than an A because he never did and they didn’t have to. But if she’s more like me, she might need some pushes. In my case, I was given a little too much freedom to make choices I wasn’t really informed enough to make or mature enough to make and I have some deep regrets. I’m trying to work my way through the math I missed out on now, but it’s so much harder to learn when you’re 32 and you have a kid and other responsibilities.

      Ravi and I aren’t trying to be Amy Chua. If E comes to us one day and says she doesn’t want to continue gymnastics and she genuinely means it (instead of having a bad day or whatever) we will let her quit. We’re supportive of her competing, but aren’t particularly interested in pushing her to become the best gymnast ever known and to join to 20whatever Olympics. We just want her to have a physical outlet that safe for her (with the single kidney she can’t play contact sports). We’d instead encourage her to pick up a different non-impact sport like swimming, tennis, running, whatever to keep active (not that we’re great role models in that area). But we do think grades and school are important…it would be great if E motivates herself into MIT or Brown or wherever, but we plan to be there to give her a push or support if she needs it. And if a B is genuinely the best grade she can get if she’s giving it her all, we’ll be proud of her.

      I’m curious to hear more about the reward/non reward study. Would you argue that your findings mean that paying kids for grades and such is a bad practice? I’ve seen some reports that say it’s improved grades (but not necessarily any data about long term behaviors).

      • So, paying kids for good grades: I think it’s a bad idea. However, I can’t argue with studies that found it effective. Perhaps, in cases where the intrinsic motivation is not there, bribery is better than nothing.

        However, it is important to link the reward directly with the behavior that you want. You don’t want a reward to hinge upon external factors. My guess is paying kids for getting good grades causes a lot of cheating, because they’ve learned the grades are what gets them the reward, not the learning itself. If they work hard and still don’t get a good grade, they’ll resort to other means. (Or, if they simply don’t want to work hard, they’ll resort to other means immediately.)

        However, rewarding kids for unpleasant but useful things like chores, I think, is reasonable. Giving praise and showing interest when they excel at something is also a very good idea (otherwise they might act out to get attention instead). Also giving rewards that help them excel more (for example, when my parents got me a better violin) shows that you value their excellence and want to foster it.

        Mostly, however, you need to show them that, first of all, learning is fun, and gets more fun when it gets easier, which happens with hard work and practice. While grades are important, it’s not a good idea to put them above all else. What’s the most important is that the kid works hard and does the best they can given their own skills. And yes, there’s always the question of “can you do better?” but that can be addressed by setting small goals like to improve upon past results, with the understanding that it may not always happen, and as long as the kid is trying as hard as they can, that’s all you can really ask for.

        There’s also the matter of showing them the value of hard work and skill. For example, you may decide that you don’t want to pay for private lessons in something if they don’t practice enough at home to show improvement. That in itself (if they think the activity is fun) is motivation to try harder.

        And, here’s the kicker – the best strategy for fostering self-motivation in a child almost certainly varies depending upon the child. Most probably do need a bit of intimidation and/or bribery once in a while, because humans are inherently lazy, but I can’t imagine constant bullying is good for any child (and while it worked for Chua’s eldest, my guess is she would have excelled just as much with a softer approach).

  4. I used to tell my ex that he couldn’t expect a girlfriend or a mother to be checking his work FOREVER (especially since he wanted to be a screenwriter OMG are you kidding me), and he said I was being unsympathetic. Ugh. So yes, I do relate to some of what Amy Chua says.

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