Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

"I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. 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. The house because a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling..."

Unfortunately, I began to dislike Amy Chua as early as page 8 of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua's byline is that "this is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising 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 thirteen year old."

What I found instead, was that this was really a book about a highly educated woman who used emotional and verbal abuse, manipulation and fear to coerce her two young daughters into over achievement until one of them snapped. A clash of cultures? Not really since Amy Chua's style of parenting is something not common even in China today. Instead, "only children" are more often coddled instead pushed to achieve. Many are not abused as Chua's children were. Her daughter didn't rebel because she wanted to be Western. She rebelled because Chua broke her spirit and she'd had enough of the abuse. If this had been the story of a low_income, uneducated family you can bet they would have lost their children to social services. What is even more saddening, is that her husband and the rest of the adults in these two young girls lives looked on and did virtually nothing to stop the abuse, even while they could see it taking their toll on the children. And that makes me angry.
Instead, we see a picture of a dysfunctional wealthy family whose purpose in life is over achievement.

Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld are Yale University professors and parents to two daughters, Sophia and Louisa (Lulu). From the beginning of the book, Chua pontificates on how American parents (read mothers) are lax and over concerned with their children's self-esteem while placing little emphasis on academic achievement. "The vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be the best students, that "academic achievement reflects successful parenting". Filled with generalizations, the first chapter is full of these kinds of statements about both Western and "Chinese" parents.

Her premise is that "Chinese" mothers are superior because they "have higher dreams for their children" and greater expectations. They don't believe in playdates and sleepovers (I don't either but for different reasons) and they alone choose every activity their child participates in.

I quite agree that in North American society, there has been a long-standing problem with mediocrity in academics - all levels. This problem existed when I was in high school 30 years ago. I was a keen student and loved to learn. My parents valued education since they were unable to complete their high school education. They encouraged us and in elementary school drilled basic skills such as multiplication and spelling.

The high school I attended had many Asian students from overseas, many of whom (but not all) excelled at their studies, particularly math.Some of my Asian friends noted that Canadian students were content to get a mark of 60% or even to just pass. I agreed with them that this was definitely a characteristic of many of my fellow students. But there is a large segment of North American parents who do want their children to do well. Many of these parents have abandoned the public schools for homeschooling because they can motivate their children to achieve in a balanced manner while excelling at other activities as well. Many parents are not as well educated as some of the Chinese immigrants and therefore do not have the skills to help their children achieve. And yes for many parents, academic achievement is not a priority.

What Chua appears to be offering at the beginning of her book is that the "Chinese" way of parenting leads to success and creates high achieving children and successful adults. It is superior to North American parenting because the "Chinese" parent believes their child is strong enough emotionally to take the abuse and manipulation, the constant nagging and emotional abuse and that the parent chooses the activities for their child and that the child must do these activities whether or not they enjoy them.

I would like to go through a number of examples from the book. I would also like to mention that I am the parent of FOUR children, all of whom studied music. One of my children, is an emerging classical pianist who studied both Suzuki violin and Royal Conservatory of Music piano. She regularly competes against Asian musicians and wins (much to their chagrin).

What is evident from many of the situations Chua describes is that she lacks a basic understanding of child development and she also does not understand the effect her actions have on others. She comes across as excessive, bloody-minded, and cruel. After her 7 year old daughter would have a 3 hour lesson block with Suzuki violin, Chua would try to "sneak in an extra postlesson practice session".
"I admit that this schedule might sound a little intense."

A little intense? Amy Chua might be an authority on democratization and ethnicity. She might even know a little about Debussy and Mozart. But she is woefully deficient in understanding the nuances of the Suzuki method and the theory behind it. She knows about parents attending every music lesson and taking notes. This would have been ideal for her control-freak nature - micro manage everything. But she forgot about a major component of the Suzuki method - nurture and love. From the Suzuki website:

"The Suzuki Method is based on the principle that all children possess ability and that this ability can be developed and enhanced through a nurturing environment."

Chua's home environment was anything but nurturing. She told Sophia that she was getting worse and "If the next time's not PERFECT, I'm going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!" Shinichi Suzuki would have been horrified.

It's also obvious, as one continues through Battle Hymn, that Sophia and Lulu had no choice over anything in their lives. "I wanted her (Lulu) to become concertmaster of the best youth be the best violinist in the state - and that was for starters. I knew that was the only way Lulu could be happy."

"At Crystal Lake, Florence (Chua's mother-in-law) felt that her granddaughters should be able to swim, walk, and explore wherever they pleased. By contrast, I told them that if they stepped off our front porch, kidnappers would get them. I also told them that the deep parts of the lake had ferocious biting fish. I may have gone overboard, but sometimes being carefree means being careless....
The truth is I'm not good at enjoying life...."

Unfortunately, Chua needs to understand that things must be done in moderation. One's view of childhood depends in part on one's view of life - the purpose of life. It appears that Chua's view of life is that success, no matter how it is achieved is the only thing that matters. But to many people, living a good moral life by being kind to others (including our children), taking time to worship God (most likely a big waste of time in Chua's strictly timed lifestyle) and helping others are very important.

When Chua returns Lulu's birthday card because it doesn't measure up, the entire scenario seemed immature and ridiculous. The entire event is related in an angry tone, "'I don't want this,' I said. 'I want a better one - one that you've put some thought and effort into.... I work so hard to give you good birthdays! I deserve better than this. So I reject this.' I threw the card back."

The fault was not her daughter's for making a poor card, although by this time in the book it is apparent that Chua is an expert on finding the faults of others and blaming everyone but herself. Did either of Lulu's parents show her how to make a birthday card or in their highly overscheduled lives as Yale professors running amok between music lessons, concerts and dress fittings, did they just tell her to do it and expect she would come up with something amazing? Did they ever sit down with either of their girls with pencil crayons and scissors or look at craft books showing how to make pop-up cards or write fancy letters? Probably not.

While she berated "Western" parents for being coddling and not being focused on the right (according to her) aspects of childhood, Chua now appears surprisingly similar to her lax and inferior "Western" counterparts. She admits to being a parent who hires magicians and grand slides for her daughter's birthday party, who "purchases high ice cream cakes shaped like penguins", and who spends half her salary "on stupid sticker and eraser party favors". Many Western parents can't afford these things. I know I couldn't and didn't. Birthdays were always kept simple so as to remind my children that they have a great deal compared to most other children in the world.

It was disturbing to read descriptions of Chua's insane and ridiculous schedule of racing from her job as a Yale professor to Lulu's school and lessons. This demonstrated the frenetic and dysfunctional lifestyle foisted on a young girl andher family by a woman whose god is achievement and success.

Eventually, Chua's domineering parenting style finally breaks Lulu who abandons both the violin and piano. It was at this point in the book that I felt very badly for Lulu mainly because the book details an episode in a young girl's life that is not of her own making and that is humiliating and will be read by millions.

In a masterful way, Lulu takes control of her life. I think this young girl understands very well the dynamic that exists within her family. With Sophia as the "good daughter" who does everything her mother wants, Amy Chua doesn't "need" Lulu to succeed. And as Sophia astutely recognizes, Lulu is the heroine. She was able to stand up to their mother in a way that Sophia likely can't or won't.

By page 171 I was not only fed up with Amy Chua but in some ways more angry with her husband Jed who seemed disengaged (except for brief moments of guilt) and who allowed Chua to run the family and abuse his daughters on many levels. When Lulu rebels, what does Harvard educated Chua do? "I told her I was thinking of adopting a third child from China, one who would practice when I told her to, and maybe even play the cello in addition to the violin and piano."

Ultimately Chua's book does not achieve it's aim. There's no real conclusion (which she admits to) and we are left wondering if Amy Chua learned anything at all. Her attempts to put things in perspective in a humorous manner and to demonstrate that she has changed and learned from all this felt flat and insincere. One gets that feeling that she gave in only because she knew she lost. In writing this book after these events Chua repeated refers to decisions that "sealed her fate". And early in the book she mentions how she knows now that "parental favoritism" is "bad and poisonous" but then goes on to describe how certain forms CAN be useful.

Why the story of her adopting two dogs was included is puzzling - perhaps Chua wanted us to see that she was human. It seemed to me that the dogs were treated better than her own daughters. At any rate, this was a distraction from the real story here.

Read this book if only to learn how not to parent. And definitely read it if you are the parent of a gifted non-Asian musician. You will understand why so many Asian children who study music burn out in their teens.

Book Details:

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
New York: The Penguin Press 2011
229 pp.

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