The world is rife with parenting manuals that either tell it like it is, or tell it like it should ideally be. Just when you thought the parenting section of Borders was about to collapse under the weight of its own self-righteousness and inherent controversy-baiting, comes a book by Yale law professor, author and mother Amy Chua titled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: a book that is, without a doubt, capable of stopping, or starting, dinner conversations around the country.
Chua’s book is a relatively unapologetic account of her ironclad approach to the parenting her two daughters. She determinedly breaks with western norms (Chua is of Chinese descent while her husband is Jewish-American) to raise her two children in accordance with “Chinese standards” of excellence. This translates to a general shunning of the touchy-feely ethos that many American parents (not just mothers) champion and a full draconian embrace of an unyielding and dictatorial parenting style to tease the prodigy out of the child.
This desired result is achieved by unrelentingly pushing your children to get straight A’s, forcing them to spend hours each day practicing piano and violin, and forbidding extraneous social activities like playdates and sleepovers and generally demanding steadfast obedience and devotion to family and personal excellence above all. Beyond Chua’s insistence upon brilliance above all and her commitment to achievement, Chua achieves much of her goals by (and this is where much of the controversy and outrage resides) being unapologetically harsh with her daughters. The book documents how Chua would ceaselessly ride her daughters by dispensing with the niceties and gentle encouragement and instead by sometimes calling her daughters “garbage” when they didn’t excel to their mother’s standards. Chua explains:
“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.” By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of “health” and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. … Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.”
Predictably Western parents are chewing up the internet over Chua’s book, as some are finding her methods not entirely sound but compelling, while others are just calling for her head on a stick. In an attempt to quell a cultural war, I will say that, while Chua does not (and cannot) represent the Chinese way in totality, I respect the fact that there are different parenting styles to achieve different results. Western standards of parenting are decidedly different than those in China or Gambia, but so are the societal expectations. That said, it is hard not to take issue with Chua’s methods as well as her tone of self-satisfaction in the book. And it is equally hard not to be cynical about the existence of this book as well. The books publisher (along with Chua herself) were obviously banking on the controversy to raise up a cultural dust cloud that would threaten to consume the blogosphere for a few weeks, and in turn sell some books. The formula is relatively easy: Write a book that is inherently controversial that plays upon cultural stereotypes and intentionally provokes a parental outrage, and then wait for the firestorm to ignite.
But beyond my cynicism on the subject, I think there exists some real value to both the book as well as the controversy it has stirred. The appeal of a book like this is its relative swagger and confidence. Chua shows unflinching resolve and a near complete lack of ambivalence about her approach with her children. That is a relative rarity, and luxury, in today’s Western approach to parenting. We are always hungering for a “better way” or a more evolved approach to raising and nurturing our children – a way that yields better results and makes us feel like better people. While Chua’s way may not do much to make us parents feel all that good about ourselves, she does get results (both of her children are enormously accomplished and successful in their endeavors). This way out of the fog of parental uncertainty holds some allure. As the acclaimed Dr Spock presciently diagnosed half a century ago, hesitancy is the “commonest problem in child rearing in America today.”
So what is your take on this approach? Do you think the “Tiger Mother” technique has its merits or do you think the harshness and severity of the approach actually erodes the familial bond, rather than strengthening it? Is parenting so simple that it could be boiled down to an absolute equation, or is it more of a shifting formula with an ever-changing subset of variables? Can there be a culturally superior way to raise a child, or is just exaggerated contrarianism manufactured to sell books? Please discuss.