Thursday, January 13, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Western Childhood

Post Edit: I just watched an interview with Amy Chua and she seemed a perfectly reasonable, intelligent woman. Maybe the reviews were really just a lot of unfair hype. But then again, now I will plunk down my dollars and read the book. So maybe all of this unfair hype is good for Amy (and her pocketbook) after all. Then again, maybe I'm getting it all wrong. See why I could never be a Tiger Mother? I'm always second guessing myself. Love, Kitten Mother
There's a lot of buzz about a new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, wrote this memoir to her Chinese style parenting. I haven't read the book but I've read alot of the hype. My Dad sent me an article yesterday from the Wall Street Journal that was titled something like if not exactly, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior." I was expecting ten ancient Chinese secrets for rearing children to be happy, healthy, and loyal family members. Instead, I read a monument to abuse. I'm sure that the reviews include only the most sensational elements of the story, so I spent more time reading up on Amy Chua and her methods. I will read the book before I cement my views, but here's my impression. Her basic premise is that Western parenting has gone soft. Children that are not at the top of their class and rising are virtually dunces. Children who do not spend two to three hours on instruments (piano and violin only) are doomed to mediocrity. Her theories are odd but her practices are offensive. She threatens to burn her children's toys, withold birthday parties and gifts, and calls them garbage-all this if they can not master a particular piece on the piano. The children, unsurprisingly, conform and perform. This is a totalitarian regime and mama means business. Amy pats herself on the back as a successful parent. After all, she believed they were capable right from the start, even when there hands slipped clumsily over the piano keys. There are no play dates, no school plays, no television. There are instead performances at Carnegie Hall and Ivy League futures. But does that make a child successful? What about the magic of childhood, the only time when you can paint pictures, kick a ball, or sing operettas all day even if you are lousy at it ? And at what point do we allow our children to discover what they are passionate about? Why not buy a dog to train if it is only hard, certifiable results that we are after? Success-or happiness for that matter-isn't always about a showy performance and a stellar resume. It's about figuring out who you are, what you love, how to be kind and connect with other human beings. It's learning that you are good enough, even if you never make it to America's got Talent or land on the Fortune 500. And if you're good enough, then everybody out there is good enough. And you'll treat them that way.

Here's what I wrote my Dad about the article: Pop, I read the article with interest but in the end I concluded that her style is abusive. Many Chinese mothers are decrying her system, stating that it does not represent their methods or philosophies. I'm sure that her girls will grow up to be conventionally successful, but I worry that they will be unkind, unfeeling, uncreative, disconnected and unresponsive to conventional displays of affection. What do you think, Dad?

Then my Dad wrote me a kind email and came over for ice cream. That's the kind of Dad he is. Soft and Western and absolutely perfect. I hope your parents were just like that too.
"Above all else, children need to know and feel they are loved, wanted, and appreciated. They need to be assured of that often. Obviously this is a role parents should fill..."
Ezra Taft Benson


Leslie said...

Dad sent this to me, too.
I just assumed it was something he agreed with but as I read further I thought the mother was awful.
What kind of a childhood is that to give to your children? Children only get to be children for a short time. It's a time to be treasured. They can work on their skills for the rest of their lives.
I thought the mother was a fool at the end when her daughter Lulu crawls back in bed with her mother and was laughing. Children are resilient little creatures but they still need approval, and most of all approval from their parents. The mother seemed so justified in her cruelty because her daughter learned the piece and returned to being playful with her.
The article bothered me all day, and I told Dad I would read the book.
Maybe that's what we should read for book club.
What's the point of having children if those parents are only going to raise them as personal achievements? That woman should have gone into The Marines instead of motherhood!

Adrienne said...

Without real love (the unconditional kind only a parent can give to a child), all of the outward show of success is never enough. I'd rather study the parenting styles of Atticus Finch or the Wilder family. I have two dear friends who were raised by Chinese mothers. One sad remark was "Never praise your child while he is listening. He might get complacent."

As far as Asian child-rearing goes, nothing beats the teachings of Shinichi Suzuki. If love is at the heart of all dealings with children, they will blossom.

Leslie said...

I love that Dad came over and ate ice cream with you afterward.
I love softhearted men. A few immediately come to mine. Our own, my husband, and of course one from fiction. He isn't real but he is wonderful, and that was Rhett Butler.
I also love men in real life and in literature with a sweet tooth.
But, I've said enough.
Thank you for speaking out about this book.
I agree.

Adrienne said...

I just read the article. That mother is just uncreative. My mom and I both find that using things the kids are interested in to get them to practice is wayyy more useful than yelling at them. Ten minutes of good practicing earns a game of Go Fish. 5 times perfect on this piece and we do jump rope games for ten minutes. Whatever it is, it becomes fun special time with mommy instead of a war zone. Foolish foolish woman.

However, I did agree with the point that most things worth doing aren't FUN in the beginning. I think rote memorization is an important tool for young kids (insulting to teenagers though). Overall, I agree that kids are more capable than most western parents give them credit for, but you don't have to resort to emotional abuse.

Prudy said...

Good points, Adrienne. I think I'd like to grow up at your house. I think it's good to find incentives and to use praise, but I also think that dedicating your life to an instrument must come from the person practicing, not the parent. I can ask my kids to practice for an hour daily, but any more than that will have to be from their own initiative. I hope they find something they love enough to become true experts. If not, we'll still have lots of fun.

Prudy said...

Les-My comment to you just deleted. Maybe I'll just call you instead.

The Japanese Redneck said...

I think each family has to adopt their own parenting style that works for them.

And from what I can tell you have 2 wonderful kids that are growing up just right.

Jen said...

I, too, got a bit worked up then found out the subtitle of the book is "... 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."

The WSJ article definitely did its job garnering attention, but is perhaps misleading.

Catherine said...

I read the article, too. I thought she did a pretty good job of tearing apart Chinese Mothers as well as Western Mothers. I'm not sure I want to be either. I guess it's all about balance. But I don't know how on earth this woman sleeps at night or why she isn't tortured with the guilt of motherhood that seems to plague the rest of us, or maybe just me.

Prudy said...

Catherine-Yes! The Guilt! Where is it? I think I will dub all of my bad days as Tiger Mother Days. Who wants to be raised by Sher Kahn?

Sheri said...

I only read the article at the wall street journal and it made me sad. How can we raise children to be happy successful adults if the only smile they were shown growing up was when they did something perfectly?

Anonymous said...

Here is the video interview on CNN:

Jennifer said...

I watched the interview on cnn yesterday with her. I thought, yes they may be successful in their terms, but being unhappy and miserable for 20+ years doesn't sound successful to me. I am a teacher and often she the opposite parenting style - overindulgence, no boundaries - that way isn't successful in my book either. I don't think I will get her book but I will be interested in what your thoughts on it are.

Michal said...

I read this post this morning, then listened to an interview with the author on NPR this evening. I completely disagree with her approach, but was relieved to hear her claim that at least some of the philosophies she talks about in the book were meant to be tongue-in-cheek or hyperbole.

Still, I guess it all depends on what you value most--that is what you want to pass on to your kids. Sure, I want my kids to get a great education and to develop their talents, but that is not what I value most of all. This mother places the greatest emphasis on the things she values most, wanting to give that to her children. I am aiming for my children to know that I love and treasure them (somedays I wonder how well I am doing in that area), and to be motivated to develop their talents and get a great education because they value it, too; perhaps children come to value the things that their parents value when they feel loved and supported? I hope so:) Additionally, I think that the years when imaginations rule and roam free are fundamental to the later development of the child-- but they must have some time and freedom to do just that.

The Chinese culture of parenting has always been hard for me to understand. I love reading Amy Tan and know that the mothers in the books love their daughters, but the way that translates into action is so foreign to me.

Ultimately, the thing that troubled me was the notion that the only alternative to Chinese motherhood is permissiveness. There are other ways. My children would probably never accuse me of being a permissive parent, but I am also not a follower of Ms. Chua's ways. Children need to have boundaries. They need to know what is expected of them. But parents need to respect that their children are also little people who have their own hopes and dreams. And who need to play, be creative, and explore the world without having to win any medals or be the valedictorian. :)

I don't know that I'm a kitten mother (although I envy and admire the way that your family indulges children so much in their whimsy, while still keeping them grounded). But I'm no tiger. Probably more like a duck, willing to let them swim all about for a time, but also a loud quacker when they roam too far or don't fall in line when it's time to swim away:)Some of my mothering is intentional and some of it is instinctual and some of it needs improvement. I love the quote your dad shared with you. One of my favorites that reminds me where my priorities need to be with my own brood.

Thanks for giving me the chance to muse on this today and for sharing your reaction. You are and always have been a mother I greatly admire and adore.

Michal said...

Sorry I just went on for hours.:) Need to post on my own blog once in a while:)

Adrienne said...

Adrienne said...

I peeked at some of the book tonight. She does some amazing things and her family sacrifices a lot to live the way they do. In the end, she does have some paradigm shifts I think. There is a quote that says something like "Having a breakdown and running into the ocean naked is great for American movie heroines, but that is not real freedom. Freedom and opportunity come from winning prizes." It's a paraphrase, but I think she's just trying to open as many doors to her children as she can see. Aren't we all?

Your Paper Girl said...

When I was in high school, I sat next to a Chinese girl who was invariably the head of the class in academics. She never had a grade lower than an "A" and played the violin like Perlman. She seemed "stuck-up" and sat alone at lunch--studying.

One day, after returning to school after an illness, I approached her during lunch and asked to borrow her notes. She was reluctant. I thought she thought that I wouldn't return them so I said I'd copy them right there. She allowed me, reluctantly. In every line, she had written two lines. Tiny writing. She must have taken down EVERY WORD that the teacher had said. Plus... it seemed that she had rewritten the textbook section below that. Maybe more.

I remember telling my father about her and the notes. He had been in AA for more than 10 years at the time and told be to be nice to her. He knew her mother--a violent alcoholic who admitted to many of the same tactics mentioned in the book. Her daughter missed most of her senior year because she attempted suicide and needed to be hospitalized.

She still managed to return for the graduation ceremony--at her mother's insistence. She was Class Valedictorian.

Seth and Julie said...

I watched her interview and read the article. I am so torn about the "right way" to parent a child. I definitely do not subscribe to Chua's methods, but I agree that western culture has become pretty lax and I know lots of families where the kids basically make their own rules, and are even encouraged to do so. It is a lot of work to show love and still set boundaries. I agree with her about parents getting too lazy to push through their kids resistance, but calling your child garbage can surely never be productive. I admit to being a bit of a pushover with my kids, because it is my number one priority to have them feel loved and valuable. Life is hard and they need a sanctuary. I need to provide that, but there are rules and expectations that we lovingly enforce because we are the parents. I agree with Michal that just because you are not a cruel dictator, it does not mean that you have to be permissive. I don't think parenting is meant to be one extreme or the other. Maybe we should kick off book club with this one...can you imagine the dialogue we would start? Yikes!

Louise said...

The thing that disturbs me the most is that she uses the giggling and snuggling in bed together after the cruelty at the piano as proof that she did the right thing. Even children in abusive homes don't want to leave their abuser when they are being removed for their own protection. They will even defend their abuser. I guess Family Law is not Ms. Chua's area of expertise.

Michal said...

Prudy, what a great discussion! I love coming back to see what more people are saying about this. Thanks for promoting motherhood in such positive ways.

Aubrey said...

I love your take on this! I haven't read the book, but I read the article you refer to. I came to the same conclusion. There are more ways to measure the success of a person than just how they perform in school or on the piano. If all you want are performing monkeys then her style of parenting works, but if you want to raise humans to be kind, successful adults a softer approach is needed.

Recently in a sacrament meeting our speaker was talking about teaching in the home and referenced his mission to Canada where he served in an Asian ward. He said that one particular Sunday he had investigators there and the Bishop (who was Asian himself) got up and addressed his concerns over the parenting method of the Asian culture in his ward. He said that while the culture was for fathers to be stern and demanding out of sincere love and desire for their children to succeed, the message that the children were getting was not love and concern, but control and harshness. He urged the parents of his ward to soften and show more outward affection. THe man telling this story said his investigators stood up and applauded this Bishop in the middle of Sacrament meeting, they were so impressed.

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