When my daughter was a baby, I was very judgmental about other parents. Look at poor Sammy down the street, I said to my husband. That child is always battling an ear infection. Then, when my son was born, he got so many ear infections that he often had two at once and even ruptured his eardrums. I was bowed but not broken.
I cant believe the neighbor let little Ashley run down the driveway all by herself, I complained when my son was a toddler. She fell down face-first and knocked out her two front baby teeth. She looks neglected! Less than two weeks later, the babysitter got distracted and my son fell headfirst down the stairs and landed on his mouth. You can still see in family photos that he has one dead, grey front tooth.
After that I stopped criticizing other parents, if only to make sure my own kids did not suffer any more injuries. I laughed off the mother who put chocolate syrup on her childs hamburger to get him to eat something. I sympathized with the exhausted parents who finally let their child sleep happily between them. I even held onto my live-and-let-live attitude when an acquaintance fed her child, who was under the table, cold cuts from her purse. Everyone has a different parenting style, I told myself. Who am I to judge?
Still, there was an invisible line some parents crossed. My jaw dropped when a neighbor cheerfully told me she put Coca Cola in her twins baby bottles. Across the street, a child was allowed to fall asleep on the couch every night in front of the 11 oclock news. A wealthy mom enrolled her child in a special nurturing private school where children did not have to wear shoes or learn anything until they expressed an interest in doing so. At times like this, my parental instincts would shout no possible way! Most of the country is now collectively saying no possible way to the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Dr. Amy Chua. The firestorm of controversy started when the Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt from the book called Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. The reaction from the American public was swift and fierce. The online Journal article alone was read by over a million people, who contributed over 7000 comments about it some favorable, some philosophical, but most incredulous and angry. In her book, Chua tells many anecdotes that illustrate a maniacally disciplined approach to childrearing. She has two daughters, Sophia and Lulu (Louisa), who must make her proud. They must be successful in everything they do. They must get into Ivy League colleges. They must be doctors or lawyers. And they must love, respect, and take care of their mother until the day she dies. The rules and expectations are identical for both girls.
Saying that Western children suffer from too many outside interests, Chua forbids her girls to go on playdates or sleepovers, to watch television, to be in a school play, or to participate in sports. The girls must play either the violin or the piano no other instrument is permitted and they must practice three hours a day and twice as long on weekends, even on vacations. They also have to study Mandarin, get straight As, and never whine.While the girls practice their instruments, the mother supervises them the entire time, telling them exactly how to play, although she is never shown playing an instrument herself. She also offers helpful comments like: Oh my God, youre just getting worse and worse, Im going to count to three, then I want musicality, and If the next times not perfect, Im going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them! While mastering a particularly difficult piece each hand plays at a different tempo! - one daughter is not allowed to rest, eat dinner, get a drink of water, go to the bathroom, or go to bed until she gets it right. This is child abuse. Ironically, it also contradicts what we know about excellent musicianship: the key to developing musical expertise is spaced practice, in which you practice, walk away, and practice again. Chua often describes her childrearing in military terms. She refers to the house as a war zone, and says she uses every weapon and tactic she can think of. She is relentlessly disparaging, calling her girls fat, lazy, stupid, barbarian, and garbage. When her children (then ages 4 and 7) give her hastily-made birthday cards, she mimics and then rejects them - with a lecture about all the work she puts into their birthdays. Chua says the use of insults is common among Chinese families, and should be viewed in a cultural context. She feels what they really mean is "we love you and believe you can do better." Chua admits, The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginableeven legally actionableto Westerners. Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you. By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they're not disappointed about how their kids turned out.
Sophia, the older daughter, says she made up her mind early on not to rock the boat. She decided to be an easy child. She was obedient, self-disciplined, and uncomplaining, and eventually played the piano at Carnegie Hall to rave reviews. On the other hand, Lulu is a Mini-Me. She has as much willpower as her mother, and even as a toddler resists her mothers commands. When Chua throws Lulu out in the cold for not practicing the piano correctly, she refuses to come back in. When Chua wont let Lulu cut her gorgeous hair, she takes a pair of scissors and does it herself. By the end of the book, Lulu, age thirteen, reaches her breaking point in a restaurant, shouting I HATE YOU! at the top of her lungs. Youre a terrible mother, she goes on. Everything you say you do for me is actually for yourself. Her mother tries to shame her into silence, but Lulu shouts, I hate the violin. I HATE my life. I HATE you, and I HATE this family! And she smashes a glass to pieces on the floor. Some readers feel that Chua has a transformation because she strikes a compromise with Lulu. She allows her to take tennis lessons, and to cut back on her violin playing. Im not so sure. Chua says proudly that Lulu pursues tennis with the same diligence she once was forced to apply to music. And although Lulu makes it clear she does not want her mother micro-managing her tennis career - she wants to claim her successes as her own - Chua secretly e-mails suggestions to Lulus tennis coach, erasing the e-mails from her computer so Lulu will not know.
Chua says she wanted to write a how-to manual, but instead the book resembles a memoir. On the first page she writes, This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, its about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old. Whether or not she was truly humbled is up to the reader to decide.We can only guess what Chuas motivation was in revealing the secrets of Chinese parenting. Chua received an advance in the high six figures and stands to make millions. It seems clear she underestimated the reaction her book would get. Now that she is receiving hundreds of e-mails a day, including death threats, she has been downplaying the idea that Chinese mothers are superior. In interviews, Chua says she actually is a fun, wacky, loving parent; that she does not judge anyone; and that the book describes a search for balance between the Western and Chinese methods of childrearing. She admits that she does have regrets, and some of her behavior was over-the-top. She claims that much of the book was written tongue-in-cheek; that she is in fact mocking herself; and that her humor has been misunderstood. The ever-obedient Sophia even wrote a letter of support, published in the New York Post. (We hear nothing from Lulu).
Chua says she was brought up the same way by her parents, and it did not hurt her self-esteem. Although she is of Chinese descent, her connections to China are thinner than she lets on. Her parents came to America via the Philippines, and they were already successful when they arrived. Chua does not mention that her father is renowned for his brilliance. She was born in Illinois and lived in Indiana until she was eight years old. In 1971, her father got a teaching position at UC Berkeley, and her family, which was Roman Catholic, moved to California. If you remember the 60s, you know what Berkeley was like in 1971. Chua admits in interviews that she went on a few sleepovers when she was little, and that her own mother told her she was being too tough on her children. Chuas career is also oddly absent from the book. As a Yale professor, she must spend many hours every week lecturing, counseling, correcting papers, and so on, but this is never mentioned. Also largely absent are the many teachers and tutors and nannies who must have been required to make the Chua-Rubenfeld girls so successful. The Acknowledgments at the back of the book reveal that it does indeed take a village to raise a child.Chuas husband, Jed Rubenfeld, is also notably absent from the book. He is also a law professor at Yale and has published two novels. Interestingly, he was raised in a permissive Western household by parents who encouraged self-discovery. He plays the good cop to Chuas bad cop, and is the one who makes the girls pancakes and takes them to Yankees games and water parks. He asked to be removed from the book because he felt Chua kept putting words in his mouth. At this, you have to wonder about the accuracy of the book. With so many details left out, the book begins to seem more like a carefully constructed novelization than a memoir.
The book ends when the girls are aged 13 and 18. I learned from online reader comments that many Chinese experience a quarter-life crisis at around age 25, when they tire of having no control over their lives and switch out of the careers chosen for them by their parents. Many of them cant make the transition, and commit suicide. Those who remain on the straight and narrow tend to be successful but also somewhat robotic, boring, and lacking in empathy. You wont find them playing the harmonica or being dolphin trainers. Dr. Chua admits that she is not good at enjoying life.The most interesting criticism I read is by another author, Lac Su, who wrote I Love Yous Are for White People. He experienced a traditional Chinese childhood, and says, If I could say one thing to Amy Chua, it's that I would trade every bit of my success in life - in a heartbeat I'd switch places with the guy who shovels elephant dung at the zoo - to remove the scars left by a Tiger Mother. About the Author: Nellie Sabin is a writer and editor who has published several books on a variety of topics. She can be reached at www.nelliesabin.tumblr.com