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Who’s afraid of the ‘tiger mother’?

All the non-stop commentary on Amy Chua's new book overlooks one important fact: determined ‘tiger mums’ are a response to the fact that society itself no longer pushes children to succeed.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Books

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Amy Chua hasn’t just hit a nerve. She’s wired up the zeitgeist and thrown the switch. Reaction to her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is completely out of control.

Chua is the John M Duff Jr Professor of Law at Yale Law School. Her tiger mum memoir, in which she promotes strict parenting over what she sees as the West’s obsession with children’s self-esteem, is her third book. It has caused a storm of commentary and reaction.

Chua has been accused of cruelty, abuse, wimping out and sensationalising her story to sell books. Her style of parenting has been called ‘overbearing’, ‘authoritarian’ and ‘short sighted’. David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, quipped that it is as if the whole of educated America ‘decided Amy Chua is a menace to society.’

Some people have linked her ‘Chinese’ style of parenting to China itself, in a way that expresses every Western prejudice and fear. Chua’s daughters may be virtuosos but, rest assured, as cowed Chinese automatons they could never actually compose music. Chinese parenting, we’re told, is why China has so many human-rights abuses. Conversely it is why China is kicking America’s butt, economically. Others say that there’s nothing Chinese about Chua at all – she is simply taking intensive, over-invested American-style parenting to its ugly extreme. Janet Maslin, also writing in the New York Times, called her book ‘one little narcissist’s search for happiness’. The reaction seems all the more over-the-top when you consider that Chua’s book is a memoir.

Memoir is an odd genre. Like memory itself, it is not, strictly speaking, true. It is an abstraction, the imposition of a narrative on the self by the self. It is the story we tell to order and make sense of our own lives. The difference is that we make it public. Reading it is an enjoyable, voyeuristic interlude, a chance to be a famous statesman or a poor kid from Limerick for a few hours. But what happens when the experience of stepping into someone else’s shoes is uncomfortable and a little too close to home, when it raises serious questions about an already contentious subject? What if it tells us a story about ourselves that we don’t want to hear?

That is what has happened with Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and it is a pity because, in many ways, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book that really draws out the limitations of focusing so much on parenting. As Chua herself says: ‘This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising their kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a 13-year-old.’

The book begins by asking why so many high-achieving children are Chinese. The answer, Chua tells us, is because of their parents. Chinese parents (who, she takes great pains to tell us, need not actually be Chinese) prioritise for their children and push them to achieve. This means no sleepovers, play dates, school plays, TV, computer games, or any other extracurricular activities. It means hours of practice and rote learning. It means not trying but doing. It means that less-than-perfect is unacceptable. It assumes children are tough enough to take pressure and rise to the occasion – which, in the case of Chua’s children, involves the study of classical music.

That was the plan anyway. What follows is actually Chua’s funny and sometimes painful account of her struggle to turn her daughters into world-class musicians. Why classical musicians? Because, according to Chua, classical music is the opposite of decline.

Chua has been accused of being obsessed with decline, and this may actually be true. She is the author of the book Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance – and Why They Fall and she devotes a chapter in Battle Hymn to the decline of her own family.

The narrative goes something like this: the immigrant generation comes to the United States, works insanely hard, with the end result that their children attend prestigious colleges and become affluent professionals. The second generation becomes more assimilated into American society, marry non-Chinese people, and raise children who are subject to the worst influences of American culture: rewards for mediocre performance, luxury without work, and an expectation of individual rights vis a vis their parents. Sucked into a decadent culture of low expectations, these children will disobey their parents, ignore career advice and wind up lazy, entitled and soft. They will play sports – for fun (!) – or take drums lessons (which leads to drugs). ‘Well, not on my watch’, declares Chua.

Much of this is slightly tongue-in-cheek and the book is littered with funny references to bad influences to which the Chua girls will not be exposed – things like sleep-away camps, boyfriends in high school, bit parts in school plays, and – god forbid – sports. But does Chua have a point?

One of her more astute observations about her fellow parents is the terrible ambivalence with which they approach their children’s accomplishments. They long for the prestige what comes with high achievement and ask Chua her ‘secret’, but they react with horror when they learn it.

For many parents, Chua’s sometimes crazed drive for perfection (even to the point of pushing the dog to achieve his true potential) is too much to take. It’s jarring not just for its intensity but also because it seems to confirm their worst fears: that unless they push their children, no one else will. At the heart of this dilemma, and at the heart of Chua’s book, is a deep confusion about parent’s role in relation to their children.

There is nothing new about parents trying to influence the fortunes of their children. It’s a matter of love and sometimes survival. But until recently, parents have been just one of many influences upon children. Traditionally it has been understood that questions of character, purpose and our place in the world can really only be answered through our engagement with it. And we usually only begin to grapple with those questions seriously after we leave our parents.

Just as we now expect schools to fulfil functions that are not remotely related to education – things like teaching children conflict-resolution techniques or how to control their weight – we also expect parents single-handedly to accomplish what was once seen as the collective mission all adults: to prepare the next generation to become successful, productive members of society.

In recent years, the informal imperative to ‘bring on’ the young ones, to show them the ropes or to put them under pressure to do their best, has gone, replaced by stilted notions such as ‘mentoring’ or ‘counselling’. The complex, messy relationships of love, friendship and rivalry that characterised interchange between the generations have become formalised, sanitised, appropriate.

When it comes to children, the overwhelming ethos pervading American society is one of vulnerability. Young people are incapable of walking to school or playing on their own, too fragile to be yelled at or bullied or left to sort out their own conflicts. Criticism, disappointment or rejection is assumed to scar them for life. To make matters worse, it’s a perception that has been institutionalised so that even if individual parents believe their children are capable, every social situation their children participate in, from school to baseball, is organised around the assumption that they are not.

Under these circumstances, it is understandable that parents feel the pressure to take up the slack. For some it means protecting their children’s interests long into their twenties. Universities abound with horror stories of parents writing their children’s term papers or calling to contest their marks. Many go so far as to apply for jobs on behalf of their children and even attend job interviews.

Chua was determined to pull out all the stops in order to inculcate her children with the skills and values she did not think they were getting from society at large. The important point, and the one that Chua begins to come to terms with in the course of her story, is that these strategies don’t always work very well: not at the level of individual families, and not at the level of society.

One of the best things about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is watching the ‘Chinese’ model of parenting that Chua posits in the beginning (the one everyone has been so eager to comment on) unravel. It all came to a head when her 13-year-old daughter, Lulu, finally had enough of her mother’s crazed ‘Tiger mother intensity’.

‘You’re a terrible mother. You’re selfish. You don’t care about anyone but yourself. What – you can’t believe how ungrateful I am? After everything you’ve done for me? Everything you say you do for me is actually for yourself… I know – I’m not what you want – I’m not Chinese! I don’t want to be Chinese. Why can’t you get that through your head? I hate the violin, I HATE you, and I HATE this family!’

It took an angry teen to make Chua admit that ‘Chinese parenting’ works brilliantly… except when it doesn’t. And come to think of it, most of what Chua did wasn’t so much about being Chinese as it was about her own driven personality.

In that sense, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is really a study of the limitations of contemporary parenting. Yes, mastering a skill like playing a musical instrument does take commitment. Doing well in school takes hard work. But the problem is that, after a certain point, parents are not the ideal people to instill those values. And yet today, sadly, parents are expected to do everything for their children and to be everything for their children.

One of the problems with the discussion of parenting today is that it tends to blame parents for ‘hyper involvement’ in their kids’ lives, without recognising that their sometimes unreasonable behavior is an understandable response to a situation where the formal or informal socialisation of children often no longer happens.

We can read Chua’s book as a freakshow story about an over-involved parent or we can see it as one example of a wider cultural phenomenon born of society’s difficulty in laying the ground for its own future. Whatever we might think of her tactics – threatening to burn the stuffed animals, rejecting homemade birthday cards as ‘not good enough’ – Chua’s crazy tiger-mum behaviour is not the real problem today, any more than any of the other crazy-making things parents and kids do to one another in the context of an intense and intensely loving parent-child relationship.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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Topics Books

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