The Wall Street Journal Weekend’s Review section, in typical hyperbolic media fashion, excerpts perhaps the most inflammatory pages of Amy Chua’s memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In a piece titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” Chua appears to argue her premise without hesitation. Here she is on the dichotomy between Chinese and Western mothers: “Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting.” Beyond those statistical observations (70 percent of Western American mothers think learning should be fun, 0 percent of immigrant Chinese mothers do; Chinese parents spend ten times more time daily on drilling academic activities with their children than Western parents), Chua has her own:
The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable-even legally actionable-to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, ‘Hey fatty-lose some weight.’ … Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. … If a Chinese child gets a B-which would never happen-there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.
Chinese parents, Chua says, just expect more from their kids, and they also believe their kids can handle the burden of all those expectations. “Western” readers (those who don’t take offense in the first paragraph) will find plenty of hooks for our many, many parental insecurities in Chua’s apparently hereditary conviction that she actually knows how to parent. But as confident as she sounds here, there’s plenty of hesitation in the full text of Chua’s memoir. The WSJ excerpt tells the story of how she dragged her youngest daughter, kicking and screaming (literally) through learning a difficult piano piece: “I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic. … We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom.” Lulu eventually gets it and performs the piece to much applause, which even she enjoys. “Nothing is fun,” Chua reminded us earlier, “until you’re good at it,” and both of Chua’s daughters get very, very good. For a while.
Ultimately, Chua’s kids seem reasonably proud of their intense upbringing. They may not have gone on playdates, attended sleepovers, been in school plays or watched TV, but it’s what they knew, and they’re none the worse for it. Chua became a tenured professor at Yale Law School while spending what seems like a mathematically impossible number of hours sitting with (and screaming at) her daughters while they studied and practiced. “[M]any Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly,” she says, and although she’s most concerned with arguing that her children were better off, it’s her sacrifice that stayed with me.
Or was it admirable, or even inspirational? Was it, as it seems in my Western eyes, just another way of spoiling an upper middle class American kid: The lavishing of time and attention rather than gifts? Or was I just kidding myself with that one? It’s true that I’m not willing to make the “sacrifice” of sitting with my child while he or she practices or studies for hours. It’s also true that I don’t think I should have to. I’d rather raise a kid who could take responsibility for her (lame, ineffective) half-hour’s practice on her own-and then step up and pack her own lunch, complete her homework and find herself something interesting to do without expecting interference from me-than one who can play Carnegie Hall while I hover overhead. Or at least I think I would.
Nowhere in her book does Chua bring up the (admitedly overused) term “helicopter parent,” but it’s impossible to avoid. What other parent makes a child’s music practice the foremost concern on a family vacation, as Chua did, or takes on that child’s success as her own? The “Chinese mother” that Chua calls “superior” sounds a whole lot like the kind of mother the American press has been mocking for the past decade: The one caught up in the “rug-rat-race” and pushing too hard for her child’s success. Even mid-book, while I was caught up in Chua’s daughters’ successes (I would like to confess to googling “Suzuki piano lessons”), part of me was protesting a defense of a parenting style that’s been a bane of mine and an older generation of parents. Just because she’s Chinese, she gets to applaud helicopter parenting, while “Western” parents have to contend with a fear that every time we ask a teacher a question about an assignment, we’re picking up the dread “Osprey” label.
Then, even for Chua, her pushing ultimately backfires. While the oldest dutifully continues to perform, Lulu rebels. At thirteen, she cuts off her hair in anger, rejects her mother, and begins to denounce Chua and her parenting to everyone she can. “You’re a terrible mother,” Lulu tells Chua. “You’re selfish. You don’t care about anyone but yourself. … Everything you say you do for me is actually for yourself.”
Chua reluctantly eases up on Lulu. She does, she says, the “most Western thing imaginable” and allows Lulu to chose how much music she wants in her life. It feels like a compromise ending, but the compromise is never complete: Chua never eases up on herself. By the book’s end, a teenaged Lulu is putting as much time into tennis as into her music, and Chua is scheming behind her back to improve her performance on the court instead of on the stage.
“This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones,” Chua says on the cover of her book. “But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.” Chua’s voice never felt truly humbled. But I did get the sense that she’d replaced her enviable cultural security in her parenting with at least one distinctively Western trait: uncertainly. She’s certainly added to mine. Her words left me with a niggling sense that I’m not asking enough of my children. Or, maybe, of myself.