Amy Chua, 48, is a Yale Law Professor who has written three books . The first two were on the subject of international relations and were well received but it is her latest , a personal memoir about bringing up her children , that has put her in the limelight. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother details the ultra -strict methods she used to raise her two daughters, Sophia and Lulu ,and it has set off a fire-storm of comment . When an article about the book was published in the Wall Street Journal , it elicited more than 3,500 comments , most of them critical of her approach to child rearing . Another article in the Toronto Globe and Mail attracted similar slew of responses. What is “Chinese parenting ” and why it has aroused such strong reactions ?
Perhaps a little background is called for . Very strict parenting is not limited to Chinese parents . As Ms. Chua points out , some Indian , Korean ,Irish and Jamaican parents also demand a lot of their children. Few of them , however , go to the extremes that Ms. Chua does.
These are some of the rules she has set for her children . They
• must never get any grade less than an A
•must be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
•are not allowed to watch TV or play computer games
• can’t choose their own extracurricular activities
• are not allowed to attend a sleepover or have a playdate
•are not allowed to be in a school play
• must play the piano or violin. ( but no other musical instrument).
There are other rules that Sophia and Lulu have to conform to .I won’t detail them here .
Ms Chua has drawn up these rules because she feels that ;
1. American parents don’t demand enough of their children ; they worry too much about damaging their kids self esteem. Concern for their childrens’ psyches sends youngsters the message that it is okay to be mediocre. On the other hand Ms. Chua and others like her believe that academic excellence is the paramount goal and is to be achieved at all costs and by any means .
2. Ms. Chua , and most other Chinese mothers, believe that their children owe them everything . Part of the reason may be the old Confucian precepts about respect and obedience to one’s parents . Another reason may be that since Chinese parents devote so much time and effort and make so many sacrifices in bringing up their children, they feel that they have a right to dictate the course of their children’s lives. She says ” Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”
3. Chinese parents know what is best for their children and have no compunction in overriding their children’s preferences .
The only one of Ms. Chua’s three guiding principles that I agree with is that American parents are too permissive and don’t demand enough of their children . If Asian and Jewish children are doing better than others at school , it is because their parents take keen interest in their children’s schoolwork and push them to excel. These children are not necessarily smarter than the rest ; it’s just that they are held to a higher standard and made to work hard. These cultures know the importance of education and Jewish culture , in particular , has a reverence for learning which is often passed along to the children.
In defense of ” American” parents , they have seen a lot happen in their lifetimes and have been slower to adjust these changes . Consider that in the space of forty years we have gone from a manufacturing economy to a service economy , from an era of full employment to one in which job seekers have to compete with people from all over the world . The marketplace is changing so fast that whole professions are disappearing , there is always the threat of outsourcing and people will change careers three or four times in the course of a lifetime . Forty years ago, a college degree was desirable but not necessary to get a job. Today , it is almost a minimum requirement if one is to get anywhere. Belatedly , American parents are waking up to these realities and beginning to stress the importance of education to their children , though it is happening more slowly than one would wish.
Where I differ from Ms. Chua is in the methods she adopts to push her children to excel. One cannot argue with her success in meeting her goals . She herself is a testimony to the ” success” of such methods. Her parents, ethnic Chinese who emigrated here from the Philippines , brought her up with some of these same principles and she has certainly done them proud . After getting her A.B and J.D from Harvard , she taught at Duke and is currently a Law Professor at Yale besides being a visiting professor at Columbia , Stanford and NYU. Her own daughters , too , seem to be thriving under her exacting regimen. Why then do I disagree with her methods ?
The reason is that children are different from one another and parenting is not a once-size-fits-all proposition . It’s good to demand that children do their best but unrealistic , even cruel , to require them” to be the Number 1 Student in their class in every subject , except gym and drama”. What if every mother were to demand this of her children ? There can only be one # 1 and a student who works his tail off only to fall just short is going to be crushed because he will be excoriated as a ” failure”. This can sometimes lead to tragic consequences. I remember the case of one student in India who always came first in his class but in the state-wide school exams ” only” came second. Despondent at having let down his parents , he committed suicide.This , of course , is an extreme case but we all know kids whose spirit has been broken by the unrealistic demands of their parents .
One must also take into account the fact that children have different capacities. A student in spite of his best efforts may not be able to get more than an A minus or a B. Does he deserve to be called a ” failure” ? Another danger of setting such high standards is that some students rebel against the pressure and simply throw in the towel.I have seen several such instances where kids stopped caring about academics and nothing the mothers said or did made any difference.
Even when students do well academically, such ultra-strict rules leach away their personality and individuality and make them one-dimensional, good at studies but not much else. Imagine a kid who is not allowed to watch TV , is not allowed to have playdates or sleepovers and for whom every decision is made by his mother. Once he goes off to college and his mother is not there to tell him what to do , how is he going to adjust to his sudden independence ? How is he going to relate to his classmates and peers ? He may immerse himself in his studies and do well academically but college is not going to be a happy experience .
I understand all about ” tough love ” and Ms. Chua is certainly tough with her children, but where is the “love “? This is a woman who called her daughter ” garbage ” because she thought the latter was being disrespectful, a woman who threatened to burn her daughter’s stuffed animals and made her practice a particularly difficult piece on the piano without a bathroom break until she finally got it right late in the night. Why was it so important for the child to play this music piece perfectly? Was it for the betterment of the child or was it to fuel the mother’s ego ?
When a parent treats her children so harshly day in and day out , what sort of feelings can the child possibly have for her ? Sooner or later, love is bound to replaced with anger and loathing. It may not be expressed openly but it will manifest itself in more subtle ways . In too many cases that I have seen , once the children grow up and become independent , they cut off all relations with their parents . I hope that is not what is in store for Ms. Chua.
Parenting is not an easy job . The pressures of earning a living , juggling work and home and living within one’s means sometimes results in children getting the short end of the stick. Most of us muddle through somehow , doing the best we can and the mistakes we make are not obvious to us until it is too late. Holding children to a high standard is important but so is showing them that they are loved. Knowing what the individual child needs takes understanding and effort and time and , above all , love .