The Sad Truth About the Tiger Mother
By now you’ve no doubt heard about the ‘Tiger Mother’ book by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has gotten quite a bit of press (the whole cover of Time magazine) for the ‘extreme parenting’ Chua uses in raising her daughters, Sophia and Lulu, to be musical prodigies (all the way to Carnegie Hall) on the piano and violin. But Chua’s ‘battle hymn’ is really a song about herself and her struggle to be both Chinese and American, to show that she can be both a successful professional woman and a mother who, by her own account, devotes herself to her children so hard that it hurts. In the process, she offers up stereotypical, one-dimensional notions of what it means to be ‘Chinese’ and ‘American’ that set Asian Americans back several decades.
Battle Hymn of the Chinese Mother covers a lot of issues close to me, as a Chinese American mother. Like Chua, I grew up in northern California and was fortunate to be educated at some fancy-schmancy universities. I’m a professor too, at a small college in a very urban setting where I teach Latin and ancient Greek—-languages I felt drawn to study after reading a book about Greek mythology I happened to find in my fourth grade classroom—to students who are very often first-generation Americans. And, I’m a mother who devotes a lot of time and energy to my son, who is just a bit younger than Chua’s younger daughter. The basis of my own experience growing up in a Chinese American family (in which I, yes, did disagree and even clash with my parents) was unconditional love and the knowledge that the family is always there to back you up.
How Chua’s Book Reinforces Stereotypes of Asians as the ‘Exotic Other’
Yes, I like to refer myself as ‘Chinese American’ and as a ‘Chinese American mother.’ I think this sort of language more accurately describes me and Chua herself. While both of us are of Chinese ethnicity, we were both born and raised here in the US. Thus, what Chua refers to as ‘Chinese mothering’ should not be taken—as it unfortunately is being—as some kind of truth about how Chinese parents, or ‘Eastern parents,’ raise their children. After all, Chua’s husband, YLS professor and novelist Jed Rubenfeld, is not Chinese. Chua’s book is, then, about how one Chinese American mother raises her two American daughters.
While many have criticized Chua for her ‘extreme parenting’ that involves insisting that her daughters practice musical instruments for hours even on vacation in foreign countries and threatening to give away their toys to the Salvation Army, the most troubling aspect of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is how it reinforces some very outdated, pernicious, and negative stereotypes about Asian Americans. Chua sets herself up as a sort of ‘Dragon Lady’ who, in the way of mysterious ‘Orientals,’ knows a special secret, the magic recipe—and how fortunate the reader is to have this guide from two cultures to lead us through the intricate maze that is child-rearing or rather, successful-child-rearing.
In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the Chinese Mother is the exotic ‘other’ par excellence, the one individual sane enough to stand up to easy-going and ultimately lame modern parenting practices and introduce good, old-fashioned discipline that stops short of physical punishment (though more on that below).
The Special Secrets of the ‘Tiger Mother’
One hears about how well Chinese students perform on tests while American routinely mop up with the 26th place or some such. Maybe if we emulated the ‘Chinese tiger’ model of parenting we might produce some children who are ready to face the competition to the East, the thought is. Chua’s book plays into Americans’ fears about ‘getting behind’ the big nation to the East.
The secret to her daughters’ success is what Chua calls being a ‘Chinese mother,’ a ‘tiger mother,’ who (1) does not worry about her children’s self-esteem; (2) makes it clear that the child owes everything (i.e., all that success) to their parent; and (3) is confident that she, the Chinese parent, knows best. The proof is in the progeny.
Due to her being a professor at an ultra-prestigious law school and to her daughters’ musical successes, Chua’s personal story has been getting a lot of play in parenting circles (from parenting blogs, plus these posts by Care2′s Cynthia Liu) and in the media, and at a time when Americans are feeling a lot of anxiety about how we are, or are not, educating our children.
I mean, who isn’t tired of scheduling playdates? Of worrying that if you tell your child that Barney has to stay in the bedroom, he or she will be traumatized; that if you let your child watch stupid reality TV you’re basically killing their brain cells or at least making them more likely to have ADHD? Wouldn’t it be great if we could dump all this ‘follow your child’s lead’ way of raising of children and just assert our God-given ‘I am the parent therefore I am right’ authority?
Responses to Chua’s Notion of the ‘Chinese Mother’
Many a parent, after reading an excerpt in the January 8th Wall Street Journal outlining Chua’s three-point definition of Chinese mothering, has been aghast. Chua has received death threats and been accused of pretty much abusing her children and subjecting them to a lifetime of post-traumatic stress.
Chua has responded to the criticisms by pointing out that people are complaining about a book she didn’t write. Indeed, while her account of her ‘tiger mothering’ of Sophia and Lulu comprises the majority of the book, the turning point occurs in Chapter 31 when Chua finds her parenting practices literally smashed to bits, when 13-year-old Lulu sends a glass flying in a Moscow café after repeatedly refusing to try one bite of caviar. As Chua makes very clear, her younger daughter was far harder than the compliant Sophia to subject to an intense practicing schedule; Lulu had to be screamed at, threatened, harangued, and bribed into submission to learn the piano and violin.
Chua has responded to her critics, indeed noting (as she says in the January 15th Wall Street Journal, in response to readers’ questions) that
Jokes about A+s and gold medals aside (much of my book is tongue-in-cheek, making fun of myself), I don’t believe that grades or achievement is ultimately what Chinese parenting (at least as I practice it) is really about. I think it’s about helping your children be the best they can be—which is usually better than they think!
Aha. So the previous 30 chapters (of a 34 chapter book) are all set up to be shot down by the author herself:
my book is a kind of coming-of-age book (for the mom!), and the person at the beginning of the book, whose voice is reflected in the Journal excerpt, is not exactly the same person at the end of book. In a nutshell, I get my comeuppance; much of the book is about my decision to retreat (but only partially) from the strict immigrant model.
It’s interesting that Chua has had to provide to this sort of commentary to her book. Its epigraph to notes that ‘this was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones,’ but it is instead ‘about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.’ Chua, as she has been saying in interviews, meant for the book to be not so much ‘how to be a Tiger Mother’ but a critique of the Tiger Mother.
Indeed, by the end of the book, though Lulu has, to Chua’s sorrow, given up her seat as concert mistress of the youth orchestra and only practices a half-hour a day, she is on her way to becoming something of a champ on the tennis courts. She impresses her teacher with her drive, her focus, her intensity…….. Bingo! Here is all the proof Chua, and the reader, needs to see that Chinese parenting is superior. Though she is no longer on her way to becoming the next Midori, Lulu has internalized Chinese mothering. Chua wins after all as Lulu’s new, self-driven prowess on the tennis courts is presented as the evidence for the ultimate success of Chinese mothering, when your child does it to her or himself.
The Truth About the ‘Tiger Mother’
Other passages in the book reveal a little more about the truth about this Tiger Mother. If there’s a voice of dissent about Chua and her parenting practises, it is that of Florence, Chua’s mother-in-law (chapter 15):
I saw childhood as a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future. Florence always wanted just one full day to spend with each girl—she begged me for that. But I never had a full day for them to spare. The girls barely had time as it was to do their homework, speak Chinese with their tutor, and practice their instruments.
This passage reads even more poignantly after learning that Florence (who insisted that Sophia and Lulu call her by the name for Chinese maternal grandmother, ‘PoPo’) dying from cancer.
In writing about her Florence’s wish to have ‘just one full day to spend with each girl,’ Chua notes that Florece ‘liked rebelliousness and moral dilemmas’ and also ‘psychological complexity.’ Chua says that she likes the latter too ‘but not when it was applied to my kids’ (chapter 15). Chua’s denial of these characteristics, of the possibility of a complicated inner life in her children, is apparent in her version of ‘Chinese parenting,’ an all-out campaign to garner external signs of success (musical awards, high grades) with little thought of the cost of such to a child, or to herself or her family.
Chapter 17, ‘Caravan to Chautauqua,’ illustrates the extent to which Chua’s unyielding focus on success defined by external sources leads her to overlook what’s really important. The chapter opens with her noting that ‘the summer after Florence’s passing was a difficult one’ because, according to the next sentence:
To begin with, I ran over Sophia’s foot. She jumped out of my car to grab a tennis racket while I was still backing up, and her left ankle got caught in the front wheel. Sophia and I both fainted. She ended up having surgery under full anesthesia and two big screws put in. Then she had to wear a huge boot and use crutches for the rest of the summer, which put her in a bad mood but at least gave her a lot of time to practice the piano.
One good thing in our lives, though, was [their dog] Coco, who got cuter by the day. She had the same strange effect on all four of us: Just looking at her lifted our spirits. This was true even though all my ambitions for her had been replaced by a single dynamic: She would look at me with her pleading chocolate almond eyes—and I would do whatever she wanted, which was usually to go running for four miles, rain, sleet, or shine. In return, Coco was compassionate. I knew she hated it when I yelled at the girls, but she never judged me and knew that I was trying to be a good mother.
I can’t speak for Chua’s dog, of course (although, one could also say, she does seem to be projecting quite a bit on Coco). I can imagine fainting too after running over my child with my car, and then being (this is me) totally traumatized. But somehow a reader is not surprised when Chua makes it clear that Sophia’s injury did not affect her piano practicing and even enhanced it.
Chapter 22, ‘Blowout in Budapest,’ describes how both Sophia and Lulu perform at a ‘prodigy from American’ concert. The extent to which Chua is, for much of the book, blinded by her wish for her daughters to succeed, is captured in a scene when Lulu plays for a ‘prominent violence teacher, whom I’ll call Mrs. Kazinczy.’ When Lulu refuses to do as this teacher says, ‘Mrs. Kazinczy thwacked Lulu on her playing fingers with a pencil.’ Chua responds to this physical assault on her daughter by scolding Lulu and feeling ‘mortified’:
Unjustified as Mrs. Kazinczy may have been, she was still a teacher, an authority figure, and one of the first things Chinese people learn is that you must respect authority. No matter what, you don’t talk back to your parents, teachers, elders.
While Chua does see the light of her (as she admits) benighted ways by the end of the book, her blind adherence to external authorities, even to not objecting to someone physically hurting her child, should be enough for any parent to back off from her account of being a successful parent. I speak from personal experience: My husband was raised in an authoritarian, traditional household in which it was made clear, often in a very hard-hitting way, that you ‘must respect authority or else.’ The authority’s word—even if they were outside the family, such as some religious figure—-was always valued over the child’s.
Make Peace, Not War
Call me a peacenik, but I find Chua’s references, though metaphoric, to warfare troubling. The title of the book is a direct reference to the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ the ‘great rallying cry of the Northern cause in the Civil War’ to, you know, trample out the ‘vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored’ and loose ‘the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.’ (Could Chua, or her editor, have been thinking about this year’s 150 anniversary of the Civil War?) Based on Chua’s descriptions of the screaming and yelling and ‘I’ll burn your stuffed animals’ threats issued to the ‘I will not practice’ Lulu, the enemy is, indeed, her children, or at least the rebel younger one. While Chua, in her description of being a ‘Chinese mother,’ seems to think that contemporary notions of permissive parenting American-style are the enemy, the narrative of her book suggests a different target.
Ultimately, I found Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother a sad and melancholy book with little to say about parenting, but a lot to say about its author’s struggle to fulfill the roles of mother and career woman/law professor. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is (as the January 19th New York Times puts it) really ‘one little narcissist’s book-length search for happiness’—it is the Tiger Mother’s hymn to herself and her success.
Photo by Banalities.