Sunday, January 23, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother


Yale law professor Amy Chua has certainly raised a firestorm with her new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which shot to fame with this Wall Street Journal preview. A sample:
A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.
So far, so good, it seems to me. (OK, mostly good, and often just in theory as to my own family . . .) Nonetheless, many reactions to the book/article are very hostile, primarily because of vignettes in which she calls her daughter "garbage" for being terribly disrespectful, or threatening to burn another daughter's stuffed animals.

I got the book one afternoon last week, and devoured the whole thing by that evening, which is unusual for me only in that I don't usually have enough spare time to do that anymore. I was surprised to find myself constantly laughing over her self-deprecating and ironic remarks. I later saw that Chua herself told the Wall Street Journal that "much of my book is tongue-in-cheek, making fun of myself."

To take just a few examples:
  • Chua explaining why she made one daughter learn the piano:

    I wanted her to be well rounded and to have hobbies and activities. Not just any activity, like "crafts," which can lead nowhere -- or even worse, playing the drums, which leads to drugs -- but rather a hobby that was meaningful and highly difficult with the potential for depth and virtuosity. And that's where the piano came in.

  • Chua explaining why third-generation Chinese Americans turn out poorly:

    Finally and most problematically, they will feel that they have individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and therefore be much more likely to disobey their parents and ignore career advice.

  • Chua explaining why she ultimately decided not to focus too heavily on her dog:

    I had finally come to see that Coco was an animal, with intrinsically far less potential than Sophia and Lulu. Although it is true that some dogs are on bomb squads or drug-sniffing teams, it is perfectly fine for most dogs not to have a profession or even any special skills.

  • Chua explaining why she didn't fit in at Harvard Law School:

    But I always worried that law really wasn't my calling. I didn't care about the rights of criminals the way others did.

That last line was especially hilarious to me. I'll never forget one of the women I knew (and was actually good friends with) at Harvard Law School: She got into a heated argument with me once over her contention that rape was a systematic patriarchal tool that benefited all men, but then she would spend her spare time working for the Prison Legal Assistance Project (known as "PLAP") where one of her projects -- I kid you not -- was helping a local rapist to get out on parole.

Anyway, because the Wall Street Journal selected the most seemingly outrageous portions of the book in a way that made the self-deprecating tone less obvious, most of the reviewers seem to be completely missing out on Chua's real theme: that she ultimately had to transform her own ideas of motherhood when faced with a daughter who simply refused to comply. (One clue, from the book's very front cover: "This was 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.")

One non-ironic line that I liked very much, and that partially explains my visceral hostility to most children's television, was this:
America seems to convey something to kids that Chinese culture doesn't. In Chinese culture, it just wouldn't occur to children to question, disobey, or talk back to their parents. In American culture, kids in books, TV shows, and movies constantly score points with their snappy backtalk and independent streaks. Typically, it's the parents who need to be taught a life lesson -- by their children.

2 Comments:

Blogger Jeffery Dean said...

What did you think of David Brooks' response? He stated the need for social intelligence, and how an exclusive focus on the acquisition of individual excellences renders a person actually less intelligent. I don't think he's just making a non sequitur, because if you want to raise children to be excellent, you'll have difficulty finding good company for them that doesn't give the same snarky effect as children's television. Bit of an either-or, at the margins.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/18/opinion/18brooks.html?_r=1

7:54 PM  
Blogger Michael Drake said...

"She got into a heated argument with me once over her contention that rape was a systematic patriarchal tool that benefited all men, but then she would spend her spare time working for the Prison Assistance Legal Project (known as "PLAP") where one of her projects -- I kid you not -- was helping a local rapist to get out on parole. "

She probably used the fact that it benefited all men as the basis for an equal protection challenge.

8:11 PM  

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