Friday, February 17, 2012

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

Let me preface this entry by saying I don’t want kids.  I would be a horrible mother – I’m selfish, over-educated, and stubborn; this would result in me not having the patience to accommodate my life around children, an inability to connect with anyone lacking in even the most basic of education, and an unwillingness to unbend.  All in all, a horrible combination.  These are things I’ve recognized and acknowledged in myself for the last 3 or 4 years and I’ve accepted them, and I will staunchly defend my position to any and all who care to listen to them with an open heart.  (Which are very few.  Check out this Maclean’s article for an assessment of why that is…)

Regardless of all that, I have some very firm beliefs on how I would raise children if I were forced into that situation (and I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that if it were the deal-breaker in an important relationship, I might unbend.  But it’s unlikely.)  As clichéd as it is to say, kids today suck.  Parenting has taken some mighty big blows in Western society over the last decades.  Seemingly gone are the parenting techniques of when I was a child which included: “You have two choices – you can do it was a smile, or you can do with a frown, I don’t care which,” “Because I said so, that’s why,” and the most common “NOW, OR ELSE!”  I never had a video game (I read instead), I lost TV privileges when my spelling tests came back poor (and they often did), and I learnt how to cook and do laundry before the age of 10.  And for a lot of my childhood, I was miserable.  But now, I’m a highly educated and self-sufficient woman.  (I still can’t spell though.  There was nothing that was going to fix that.)

There are consequences to how I was raised, however.  I never had a great relationship with my mother, and it’s broken down to being almost non-existent recently.  I recognize that my desire not to have children is a rationalization of my own childhood experiences.  In some ways that makes me sad, in other ways it makes me proud that I’m breaking an unhealthy cycle.  All of this is to say that Amy Chua, the self-professed “Tiger Mother”’s memoire struck a strong note with me, and gave me hope that some of the upcoming generations of kids might not make horribly shitty adults.  SOME – not all.

Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is the daughter of first-generation Chinese immigrants to America.  Her own childhood was based (from my impressions) on living up to their expectations.  She describes an award ceremony at school that her parents attended where she placed second; on their way home, her father told her “Never shame me like that in public again.”  This exchange may be shocking for a Western reader, but think back to all the “participation” awards you got as a kid that are worth nothing.  Mr. Chua expected and demanded the best from and for his kids, not a token acknowledgement that they didn’t come in first – and maybe he was right.  Life doesn’t hand you awards for showing up – you have to try hard to get anything.  My landlord isn’t going to accept a “thank you for your interest, but you didn’t get the job” letter rather than rent money.  I read an article a few years ago about British school children; rather than getting Fs on report cards, teachers were marking them with “Deferred Success.”  Come on.  That’s not doing anyone any favours in the long run.  Those kids are going to grow up thinking that there are no consequences for being failures, and that’s simply not the truth.  Amy Chua learnt that lesson from her own childhood, and set out to impart it on her own children.

I can see why many people would view Chua’s parenting technique as extreme and ill-advised.  There were aspects that made me cringe, and I’m the person who advocates for fear-based parenting techniques when talking with friends who have kids.  Forcing small children to practice musical instruments for hours on end, calling them names when they disappoint you (which sounds worse than it is – you should really read the book for context, and no, I’m not saying the kid deserved it, just read the book), and rejecting home-made birthday cards because they were clearly slapped together at the last minute all seemed a little extreme and unnecessary to me.  But then I think, “Hey – Amy Chua has raised two children.  She raised them to be smart, determined, charismatic, and extremely talented.  What do I know?”

Her daughters, as depicted in the memoire, are going to be forces of nature when they’re grown women.  Sophia, the oldest, is the piano virtuoso.  But she’s much more than that.  Her mother included several passages of essays and speeches that Sophia wrote and I was blown away.  I had a fleeting thought that Chua must have edited them to make them so fantastic, but then realized that she respects her daughter too much to have done that.  Rather, Sophia has a natural talent and wit for self-expression, and I think I’ll be checking out her blog shortly!

Lulu (Louisa) proved to be her mother’s biggest challenge in life (well, that’s the impression I got).  But nothing worth having in your life isn’t worth fighting for.  Lulu comes across as obstinate, but in the best possible way; even as a young girl, she knew her own mind and never backed down from a position.  I’ve gotten flack for a similar (if not quite so fierce) mentality over the years, but in this dog-eat-dog world, it serves a woman well.  Lulu may not have taken the road her mother put her on and wanted her to take, but there’s no doubt in my mind that wherever Lulu wants her road to go, she’ll get there.  And she’ll get there in style.

Amy and her husband Jed should be (and I’m sure are) extremely proud of their girls.  What Chua’s book does is not lay out a how-to manual on raising your children in the Eastern fashion in the Western world.  Rather, the conclusion of the book finds that this is almost impossible – you can adopt the model, but the variables (i.e. the children) dictate the outcome.  

Chua was incredibly brave in writing this book – she took a lot of flack for it.  Parents who ‘raise’ their children apologetically by asking what they want to learn at school, or how they feel about breaking something, or when they want to go to bed seem to outnumber the Tiger Moms of this world.  And the apologetic parents are loud about anything that runs counter to their world view.  Chua stepped out from behind closed doors and illustrated how to do it differently (and, dare I say, better?).

Chau’s book doesn’t make me want to go out and procreate to I can try the Tiger Mom method.  If I ever do have children, I think I would try to strike a balance between my own up-bringing (which was more badger- than tiger-like) and Chua’s.  Demanding the best from kids, while also being kind and gentle seems the way to go.  But, this is Monday morning quarterbacking, and I’m sure Chau would be the first one to admit that hind-sight is 20/20, and no one, not even a Tiger Mom, can write a how-to manual on child-rearing.  

Final verdict?  Read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  It’s touching, witty, and clever in its humanity.  

1 comment:

  1. In interesting review. Even though what I've heard of her parenting style seems needlessly harsh to me, I haven't read the book, so I won't make any final judgement on it until I have (but I'll probably never read the book).

    One thing about the review I have to disagree with you on is one of your statements:"As clichéd as it is to say, kids today suck. Parenting has taken some mighty big blows in Western society over the last decades."

    I was surprised to see you make this statement (although you did acknowledge that it's a cliché). As an historian, I would have thought that you might have some inkling that pretty much every generation of parents/adults make this comment. People were making it when we were growing up about us, just like our grandparents' generation was saying it about our parents. There have always been people trying to tell other people how to parent because everyone at pretty much every period in time has had the idea that parenting skills were somehow being lost and that this was causing the downfall of civilization.

    That's not to say that historians aren't allowed to have opinions about how people parent or parenting styles. I have my own opinions, but I can't help but chuckle inside of my head when I hear people complaining about parenting and 'kids these days' without thinking that a lot of the comments that are being made today are pretty much the same comments that were being made 30, 50 or 60 years ago.

    - mathieu, former UOttawa history dept guy and one of your facebook friends (which is how I found the site)