Unlike your typical Western mother, the Chinese mother believes that:
1. Schoolwork always comes first
2. An A-minus is a bad grade.
3. Your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in maths.
4. You must never compliment your children in public.
5. If your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach.
6. The only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal.
7. That medal must be gold.
These are the words on the back cover of the British edition of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, written by Amy Chua, a Chinese American mother of two girls, now adolescents.
When the book came out, wrapped in a cloud of controversy, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. But then, someone presented it at a book club, and I picked it up. I did not expect that I would like it.
Amy Chua’s memoir is about parenting, the mother of all difficult, nerve-touching subjects, and her style, blunt, frank unapologetic, tumbles down pretty much everything we’ve heard in the past few decades. Hence the general outcry upon its release.
As the mother of two daughters (like the author) who are as different as oil and water (like the author), myself the child of one immigrant mother and working class parents who spent years taking their kids to music lessons, I could relate to a LOT of what Amy Chua recounts in her memoir. In other words, this so called Chinese mothering has an awful lot in common with my Hispano-French upbringing, something the author is quick to mention. This is not so much a cultural divide, as it is a choice born from the parents’ values, beliefs, ambitions, and expectations.
Amy Chua does not want to raise a “soft, entitled child.” She expects, and demands excellence. And she gets it, dammit! Her daughters are A+ students, and accomplished musicians (the oldest played the piano at Carnegie Hall when she was 14). The corner stones of the Tiger Mother’s method are : respect for older people and authority, practice, practice, practice, endless drilling, and, yes, quite a lot of bullying, threatening, and absolute control over the children. It’s not pretty every day, for sure.
Overall, her strength lies in her conviction, her consistent behavior, and her superhuman energy. Here we have a Yale Law professor with a busy career that involves lectures, teaching, writing books, and also some cross-country traveling, who still finds the time to not only take her children to all their instrument lessons, but also to hunt down the best private tutors around, to read books about violin techniques, and to spend up to five hours a day making them practice after their homework. She’s everywhere, hawk-like, ready to even cash in her pension fund in order to buy a great violin for her child. Does the family take trips to Europe in the summer ? She finds pianos for her older daughter, and there is no going out of the hotel room before the little one has practiced her violin. It reminded me of a time when my father took me every morning to the church in my aunt’s neighborhood in Spain, and I would practice on the harmonium, sitting on his lap so he could push the pedals that my legs, too short, coudn’t reach. When that was out of the way, we went to the beach.
Yes, Chua’s methods favor result and achievement over self-esteem. But she’s quick to point out that two children who receive an ovation at the end of a concert hall performance can only experience a great boost in their confidence…
I loved this book because it spoke to me in ways I could relate to, but not only. Today’s “Western” parents need voices like Amy Chua’s to counterbalance all the others (and the million and one books out there – and I’ll admit to having read a lot of them) singing a guilt-inducing chorus that confuses and leaves us/me, feeling utterly inadequate, anxious, and confused… and isn’t that the worse thing for our children to witness… It doesn’t mean I agree with everything she says or does. Actually, by the end of the book, not even Amy Chua is sure to agree with everything she’s said or done. But by sharing her extreme child-rearing methods, she provides the kind of weight needed to tip the balance back towards a parenting approach that respects the child, but still expects them to understand their responsibilities toward their parents, and toward themselves. It’s Amy Chua’s excessive controlling and authoritarian ways vs. the equally excessive, and dangerously generalized leniency that has given kids King’s status within the family, often turning them into self-absorbed, self-satisfied tyrants, something that doesn’t even make them happy. Now, can we find a middle ground?
I also found Amy Chua to be brave, and profoundly human in spite of all her brashness and boasting. She does not shy away from presenting herself under a less than flattering light (even the pictures chosen to illustrate some chapter headings, like the one where she stands over her young daughter practicing her violin, with her arms crossed, the score taped to a TV screen, seem to beg us not to like her.) Yes, she is strong, she is all-powerful, she’s unstoppable… And no, she doesn’t allow doubt or guilt to trouble her resolve. That is, until she hits the brick wall of her youngest daughter’s extraordinary willpower and personality. Lulu has balked at her mother’s ways before, but this time, it’s for good. The scene at the Red Square café in Moscow moved me to tears, because I could feel this mother’s pain and despair as she sees the edifice she’s painstakingly constructed crumble before her very eyes. Maybe she brought it upon herself. She’s refused to see that her pushy ways can no longer work with that particular child, not if she wants to keep her love. At 13, Lulu is strong enough to say “no more.” When Chua understands that, she steps back and admits her defeat. But is it really a defeat ? Lulu loves the violin. She is a stellar student, an accomplished musician, and she wants to continue playing her violin. OK, so she may sport some emotional scars. Who doesn’t ? But what she’s learned cannot be unlearned. And Lulu will apply that focus, determination and ambition when she decides to play tennis. Who can insist, therefore, that Amy Chua was all wrong, all along ?
Another great scene has the family sitting at a restaurant on the occasion of the author’s birthday. The celebration is a last-minute thing, as everyone had forgotten it. The girls give their mother a card, and as she opens it, Chua sees how the words were quickly written on some table corner. She hands it back, explaining that she keeps a special box for her children’s cards, and this doesn’t belong there. Besides, she deserves better than that. She always organizes big parties for her daughters’ birthdays, inviting their friends, and making a big deal of it. Why should she settle for a few words quickly drafted, the way someone gets rid of a boring task? She wants them to put more efforts and thoughts into it.
Wow ! Do I hear emotional abuse ? A symbolic slap in the face of both girls, certainly. Not the nicest thing to do, and who looks a gift horse in the mouth, bla bla bla. Still… Have we not all felt let down at one time or another because our children sometimes take us for granted? Have we never looked at a picture, a letter, a card, or even a piece of homework, and thought, she/he really didn’t apply her/himself to that one, she/he could do so much better – and yet, kept mum about it? Could be that we were tired. Or just plain lazy. No energy to fight, to struggle, to get into arguments and try and convince them to do it again. Amy Chua is anything but lazy. Also, isn’t the unspoken rule nowadays that anything produced by our little darlings is worthy of being hung on a museum walls? Even when it’s crap ? How do we navigate the blurry line between boosting our children’s self-esteem, and encouraging them to challenge themselves, which is the only way they can reach their full potential ? I hear that some children do it naturally. I don’t happen to have a set of those, myself, and to be perfectly honest, I was never like that either. I always tried to get away with doing as little as I possibly could (at least until I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do with my life, and that didn’t really happen before I was… too old to admit it in this column).
This brings me back to music. Growing up, I had a good friend who played the violin. He was born in France, of Spanish immigrant working class parents who drove him really, really, really hard. His father made him practice his violin daily, and when the kid didn’t comply, the belt came out. I know, I know, physical abuse. Thing is, today, this kid has become a professional violinist who was second violin in the Bastille Opera orchestra, in Paris until he had an accident running down the stairs after an intermission, one evening. Now, he still teaches the violin. If you ask him how he feels about his father’s child-rearing methods, he’ll tell you that he thanks him everyday on his two knees, because if it wasn’t for his father, he would never, ever, have mastered the violin, which is one of the most difficult instruments there is. And he loves the violin, and he loves his job. Now, I do not condone brutalizing children. Besides, this happened forty years ago. I’m just throwing this out there, one argument to feed the debate.
What Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother confirmed for me is that no parent has the right answers when it comes to parenting, and NO BOOK has them either. Because when they come to the world, our little ones already have their own personality, and all we can do is try and figure them out as we fumble and go about our duties as parents and educators (not as their friends), learning by trial and error. Some children will be relatively easy ; others will be defiant, difficult, and give us premature white hair. No matter: our duty remains to prepare them for the time when they fly out of the nest.
It’s not an easy world, out there. Few things irritate me more than when a parent tells me : “all I want is for my children to be happy.” Well, duh, and I just enjoy making them miserable ! What mother or father doesn’t want their children to be happy? The question to ask is : can I make them happy now, and still prepare the ground for them to be happy later ? These don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and yet, children need to experience frustration, not getting their ways, and they also need to become acquainted with some of the hard rules of life : food doesn’t fall from the tree straight onto the plate, most people have to work for it, and if you want to have a good job, some day, you better start working now, because competition is fierce (and don’t forget to watch out for all those Asians kids who are two years ahead in Maths, because it’s true, they’re out there.) I know I’m boring, but academics matter, and so does having a solid – preferably bilingual – education. So yes, you gotta do your homework, and when that’s done, you gotta work on your French. Practicing an instrument is also part of the deal. And don’t even start about not wanting to do your scales, or I’ll send you to Amy Chua. Because here is another unbendable truth: you can’t play Schubert, Chopin or Paganini if you don’t do your scales first. A lot of scales.
It is still too early to know whether Amy Chua’s daughters will thank her, later on (even though her older daughter Sophia has just been accepted at Harvard University.) Maybe they’ll come up with their own books, in about twenty years. But she deserves a lot of respect and admiration for sticking her neck out, writing such an honest memoir, and raising difficult, important, and necessary questions.