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.