Sunday, 15 May 2011

'Psssst...a word in your ear, Tiger Mother'

I try very hard not to judge the parenting styles of others. Someone I respect once said that when you see a parent acting in a disapproving way, before you react, remember that you don't know what they've been through to get there. Sometimes, battle weary, we pick our fights and no judgment should be made when you don't know the whole story. In keeping with this, I will try not to unleash the full extent of my spitting fury upon reading 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother' by Amy Chua.

For those who don't know, Ms Chua is a Yale law professor and a second generation Chinese immigrant. She has two daughters and her book is about how she parented them from birth to their tender teenage years focussing mainly on how she turned them into musical virtuosi on their respective instruments, the piano and the violin, by employing the strict Chinese parenting methods of her ancestors. To describe her as driven is an understatement, she is, putting it politely, 'a mother possessed'. Ms Chua demonises the laissez faire parenting of the West and hails (herself) as the Chinese mother who knows best and who alone can raise her children to their full potential (her husband, the girls' father, barely features). The catch is that her daughters' full potential has to be musical excellence that will take them to Carnegie Hall and top grade school marks - there is no allowance or opportunity for achievement in anything else. The following now famous extract from the book appeared in the Wall Street Journal and summarises how the Chinese way of parenting looks to Western outsiders as Ms Chua describes:

'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'

The detail, however, is much more extreme and the chapters of Ms Chua's book unfold into episode upon episode of the Tiger Mother in battle.

There is no doubt it is very provocative and a compelling read for it. However, for the most part, reading it was not an enjoyable experience. I faced the same dilemma as when watching a pivotal but disturbingly gruesome scene in a horror film - I feel compelled to watch but can only peek through squinting eyes from behind my hands held up to my face. It was a stressful read and I do pity the family for having its dirty laundry hung out in public.

I am left asking three main questions: Why did Ms Chua have children? What did she really hope to achieve by parenting them in 'the Chinese way'? Why did she write the book?

Her life's work, in having children, appears to have been to protect them from the inevitable decline of the third immigrant generation and to that end, I assume, she prized above all else academic and musical excellence. She seems to have been determined to take the hardest route possible to get her children there - whatever it took - nothing would be spared. If anything, the more that was sacrificed, the better. Ms Chua's parenting method seemed to depend upon her ability to reach the limits of her daughters' capacity for hard work and then push them even further, employing all manner of coercion along the way.

Within this unrelenting pursuit, there were glaring hypocrisies: for example, she accepted to keep her girls awake through the night to practise their musical instruments through tears and heartache but then scorned Western mothers for allowing children to have sleepovers because it meant letting them stay up late so that they were tired the next day!

From the outset she drew her battle lines: the Chinese mother vs the Western one. She fought apparently believing that any way but the Western way was the right way. Why I wonder were these labels so important? Why could she not define what it is that characterises a 'Chinese mother'; what does she believe in rather than what does she do? I wonder if Ms Chua ever appreciated the higher goal that she was trying to achieve in adopting the parenting style that she did? It doesn't appear so or, if she did, this isn't made clear. Ultimately, her first daughter, Sophia, was both musically gifted and compliant and her rise to excellence comes across as effortless. Yes, she practised for long hours but I can't help but wonder if she would have risen to the same dizzy heights without the extra hours but complied simply to keep her mother happy.

Louisa (or 'Lulu') on the other hand would be politely described as a 'spirited child'. She fought her mother every step of the way and how the sparks flew; threats, bribes, the lot. The Tiger Mother had to use her full arsenal of trickery seemingly on a daily basis until her daughter reached the age of 13 and declared enough to be enough.

The most surprising twist of it all is that when Louisa calls time on the Chinese mother's battle regime, the Tiger mother surrenders, admits defeat and the game is over. Did the Chinese method of parenting not have a gameplan for a 'spirited child'? Is it in fact accurate to call it 'parenting' at all?
One thing is consistent and that is Ms Chua's need for public recognition. It was important for her that her children could win public prizes on their musical instruments and the Chinese way bestows the glory for good performance upon the parents. Their public performances were lavish affairs with no expense spared and long guest lists. Was it not all in the end, an exercise in vanity?

Finally, why write a book about it all? Did she set out to write a parenting manual? But her own daughter at 13 years old stood up for herself and everything unravelled so that the Tiger Mother was left looking like a kitten playing with a ball of wool. Did Ms Chua simply want to write a memoir? But, as I hinted above, is it really fair to make public mockery of those you hold dear? Although the book has sparked debate in the US where it is reported that Asian American children, coached in the Chinese way à la Ms Chua, are snapping up coveted places in the Ivy League institutions (see Caitlin Flannagan in The Atlantic Monthly), in the UK the book is described as 'blissfully funny' (India Knight quoted on the cover!).

But there is something about the Tiger Mother that rings true for me:

I too am the daughter of an immigrant. My father moved to England from Egypt in the 60s to study for his PhD and eventually settle with his English wife. He left his country and family and sacrificed a lot so that his children could have a good education and opportunities that weren't available to his generation. My father worked hard and was frugal, we were brought up with strict discipline and academic and musical achievement were prized. My father set us homework before it was given to us at school. I was top of my class in maths and I remember asking my teacher for a new workbook one Friday morning and being told, 'No, your father will only make you fill it over the weekend'!

Like Ms Chua's daughters, my sister and I are different; she is musically gifted and practised when she was supposed to and is an accomplished cellist. I, on the other hand, am not and I hated practising and had to be coerced to play my violin. Again, like Ms Chua, I studied law and I reaped the rewards of my father's sacrifice and his hard work pushing me to do well.

Now a parent myself, I face the same dilemma as Ms Chua. How do I want my children to grow up in the privileged life that they have been born into? I am not as frugal as my parents and my children will have many opportunities that I didn't. But nothing rattles my cage more than a child with a sense of entitlement.

I hope to give my children a good work ethic and to teach them the value of money so that they take nothing for granted. I too want them to grow up believing in themselves and to reach their full potential. Yes, like the Tiger Mother, I believe in respect for authority but I don't want my children to obey me out of fear or because of bribery or threats. Ultimately, I want my children to do what I ask of them because I hope never to ask of them anything that I have not asked of myself.

Ms Chua, I must ask, isn't it both our burden and our privilege to be parents to the third immigrant generation? Can't we take the best of the two worlds that we have known: the experiences of our childhood and our pushy parents but also the opportunities of the contrasting world we find ourselves enjoying as adults? Carving out your own path as a parent is not a betrayal of your heritage - its evolution. Shouldn't we embrace progress and hope that one day our own children will too?


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post, it's very well written and I think you really get to the heart of the matter. Although I haven't read the book I read the reviews and listened to the serialisation on radio 4, and thought I should read it.
    I have a friend who was put through very much the same approach by her chinese mother (who was *a bit* more laid back than Ms Chua however), she is also very successful, though no children yet.
    It's a conundrum for all parents of course, how do you instil a work ethic without having your children miss out on the fun of just being a child. If you work it out, please post it here and I'll take notes...

  2. Thanks, Ruth. Glad you enjoyed it. I can't imagine coming anywhere close to figuring it all out!! Here's to having some 'fun' trying ; )