One year ago, Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother exploded into public attention, mostly with critics firing derogatory statements at her parenting methods. Being a Chinese-American and the product of Asian parenting, I was curious. What was this buzz about?
I was too inundated with college applications (go-figure) and my hectic senior year (contrary to popular belief, senior year is what you make of it, and if you decide not to slack off, it’s just as tough as junior year) to read it. But I finally managed to read the entire book in just two days, finishing off as we are on the road to Philadelphia.
My first impression was that the style of writing was quite personable; she didn’t use the pedantic language of a Yale Law School professor, but rather of a mother. The second thing I noticed was that she kept on making references to the “Chinese” way and the “Western” way of parenting, and although she disclaimed any stereotypes, it still irked me. She often seems derogatory towards “Western-style” parenting, as if it leads to decadence and drinking and partying. Of course, this is often not the case. As she found out with her own children, whether you grow up to be a successful doctor-lawyer-professor or a drug addict depends on a combination of genes and environment.
Let me digress for a moment. Coincidentally, the book I read before this one happens to be Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, a book about success. More than that, however, it points out how the source of success is neither genes nor environment alone but rather the fortuitous alignment of the two. Bill Gates would never have been a billionaire if he hadn’t had the chance to program 12 hours a day as a teenager. Canadian hockey players are often born at the beginning of the year because they are picked for their physical maturity before the deadline. Etc. More interestingly, he notes that in order for a person to become an expert in one discipline, he or she must spend more than 10,000 hours on it. I have no doubt that one of the reasons why Sophia and Lulu were so good was not only due to the fact that they were natural musicians, but because their mother beat hours upon hours of practice, at home, in hotel rooms and in foreign countries, into them. Furthermore, if you read through the book, you realize how Chua pulled a lot of strings for her daughters—famous music teachers, money to pay for their teachers, safety of the New Haven (and thus Yale) suburbs–something many children do not have. So of course all of those would be a lethal combination shooing Sophia in as a Carnegie Hall player/ Lulu as a fantastic violin player.
All of those practice hours were without waste. That’s why I also understand why some Asian parents take their kids to Kumon, SAT prep courses, music lessons, sports game, etc.—all without their children’s consent or approval. They do that because, although their children do not know it yet, they will capitalize on those skills as conscious teenagers. What were with waste, however, was the hours spend arguing and the traumatic screaming matches. Chua coerced her children because she knew they could succeed, and succeed they did. (Also, note here that Chua only refers to her parenting technique in the book when she is talking about her daughters’ music—I do not see much trace of grades or other events.) Here, however, is where I disagree with her—I, as a teenager, would never want to be yelled at by my parents as being lazy or pathetic. I, like Lulu, would hate violin if my parents forced it upon me, which was, I think, what happened to me with swimming.
I was a pretty good state-level swimmer at the age of ten, but already eleven or twelve, I was fed up and tired of my mom’s nagging and constant critique. She would wear me down just as Chua wore down Lulu, and I ended up hating swimming. It was exhausting and I had my parents on top of me as well—the worst combination. Now that I look back on it, I have regrets; I wish I could have continued because who knows where I would be? Top swimmer? Good enough swimmer to get to college? At the same time, however, I’m glad I quit because I wouldn’t be able to stand my parents—they would come to my meets and all, but I never felt like they were supportive. So on one hand, parents can give you the opportunity to become something great, and, at the same time, tear that opportunity down with psychological warfare. I always envied those Olympic athletes (usually Caucasian) you see on television crying and hugging their parents in the stands—thank you Mom and Dad…I love you, I can imagine them saying. Why can’t “Asian” parents be the same?
So indeed, why can’t Asian parents be the same? Although Chua claims that even through harsh parenting techniques, her children will love her, I claim: that depends. It depends on your temperament. You can learn to despise your parents for oppressing you or you can learn to bear through it and then thank your parents later for forcing you to do xyz. At the same time, you can have “Western” style of parenting and have your children hate or love you. You just need to be able to figure out the mechanics of your children’s inner workings and seize upon it.
By all means, I am not a mother yet. Still, I imagine myself as, not as a Tiger Mother, but as a mixture of the two worlds, for, after all, I am mixed (Chinese genes, Asian parenting, American environment). I have been through Asian parenting, and I don’t want my children to go through the same. So, how would I parent my children? Certainly I would sign them up for music/sports lessons and push them to be as good as they can be, but I wouldn’t go to the extreme of using psychological warfare (like she did on Lulu). By instilling resentment, you inject mistrust into your relationship and your child feels oppressed rather than liberated by your tactics. And it was, indeed, this way with Sophia and Lulu. I have read Sophia’s blog and side of the story here, but I have not heard from Lulu, and I would like to. How does her view of her mother differ from her sister’s? And I mean truthfully—without her mom listening or the media listening. I want to step into Lulu’s shoes and see how she really liked her mom.
Wow, this was quite an essay. I ramble on too much.
P.S. How did Amy Chua have time to be a law professor/writer/professional mom-who-can-attend-all-her-children’s-lessons/chauffeur? She seemed like supermom in the books. Well that’s what you get when you have a Harvard graduate—a super motivated and successful adult.