I was a very lucky woman this last Christmas as a dear (and incredibly generous) friend gave me a Kindle. Despite my original scepticism, it has been an absolute godsend.
In early January I read an online piece in the Wall Street Journal by Amy Chua, in which she précised the subject of her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The article enraged me, but at the same time it intrigued me. So you can imagine my delight when I discovered I could download the book onto my Kindle and read it here in Beijing before it had even been published in the UK.
Amy Chua is a Chinese American, born in the USA to middle-class Chinese parents who had immigrated to the US from China via the Philippines. A very attractive, intellectually bright, hard working young woman she studied at Harvard Law School. She broke with her family’s expectations when she married a Jewish American who was also a lawyer (Jed Rubenfield, author of the run-away best seller ‘The Interpretation of Murder). Both she and her husband are Professors of Law at Yale. They have two daughters, Sophia and Lulu (Louisa), and this book is about her views on parenting and how she has brought them up.
She opens by declaring herself a ‘Chinese’ mother, and by that she means someone who is extremely strict with her children, who demands academic success from them and will make them work for hours on end to achieve it. Second place is never an option, getting an A- is not good enough, straight As are the only thing that counts. Western parents, she says, even when they think they are strict, never come close and as a result their children never achieve their full potential and become super-successful.
From the moment her daughters were born, she had mapped out a parenting style from which she did not waiver until the girls had reached the targets she had set for them. She had determined that both girls would play musical instruments, Sophia the piano and Lulu the violin, and what is more, they would be the best at it, and would win awards and accolades. Simultaneously they had to be top in all academic subjects, no excuses would be tolerated. This meant a punishingly hard schedule, not just for Sophia and Lulu, but for Amy herself, as she juggled her career as a full time lawyer holding seminars, flying all over the USA, writing legal books, then as an academic, whilst driving the girls for hours from teacher to teacher and then standing over them as they practiced late into the night. Any of the normal aspects of modern childhood in an affluent western society were ruthlessly jettisoned. No sleepovers, no play dates, no TV, no video-games, no joining after-school clubs, Girl Scouts, ballet or drama classes. No participation in the school play or in sports of any kind – all these were considered rubbish by Amy.
To achieve what were essentially HER goals, she subjected her daughters to hours and hours of practice.
My own daughter played both the piano and clarinet, and yes, she did have to practice, and there were times where persuading her to do half-an-hour of scales was an up-hill task; but in the first place she had chosen to learn those instruments herself (I don’t have any musical ability and wouldn’t have cared less if she had not wanted to learn either instrument) and in the second place I would never have forced her to practice for up to five hours at a time, as Amy Chua did – on one occasion refusing to let her daughter go to the loo until she had got through her practice piece without a single wrong note. She threatened to burn all the fluffy stuffed toys belonging to Sophia if she didn’t get a particular section of music absolutely perfect. When the family went out to a restaurant to celebrate Amy’s birthday, both girls produced homemade birthday cards for their mother, who took one look at them and threw them back at the girls saying they weren’t good enough and that the girls had not spent enough time and effort making them so she refused to accept them.
And as far as Amy Chua is concerned her methods succeeded. Sophia played a concert at Carnegie Hall when only in her early teens, and Amy was able to show-off about it to all and sundry. The girls also gave a joint concert at the Old Music Academy in Budapest one of a series presented by the Franz Liszt Academy of Music.
Her view is that “Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t.” Her role as mother was to prepare the girls for the future, not to make them like her. On the other hand Amy demanded – as she says all Chinese mothers do – absolute respect from them. I find it hard to understand how such an intelligent woman, brought up in the US, working in the top echelons of the law and academia, could not have realised that personal respect cannot be demanded, it has to be earned.
It is a very open book – in fact there were moments were I wondered whether Amy Chua realised just what she was doing to her own public image by writing it. She certainly comes across as a neurotically competitive and controlling woman. When her daughter Lulu finally rebels, their relationship which was always stormy becomes very strained; at one point Lulu screams at her in public “ Everything you say you do for me is actually for yourself”. Lulu refuses to play the violin any more, deciding to learn to play tennis for pleasure, where upon Amy Chua becomes hell-bent on finding the top tennis coaches for her and planning a strategy that would no doubt have demanded that Lulu win the Women’s Singles Championship at Wimbledon. Lulu firmly tells her mother to back off, and leave her to live her own life.
Whilst all this was going on, the family acquires two dogs, Samoyeds, and Amy instantly dives into intensive dog training, and wants to have them enrolled in a special ‘Dog Kindergarten’! you get the picture … driven is too soft a word to describe this woman.
I suspect Amy Chua is a shrewd operator who knew just how this book would be received, and doesn’t care a damn about what people may think of her, she is so convinced that she is right about all things. Suffice to say, in the media coverage which has come since mid-late January she has been subject to a barrage of criticism in the Western press, and from outraged western mothers, most of whom have not read the book. I also notice that there has been a distinct lack of criticism of Jed Rubenfeld (should we call him ‘the Tiger father’?) for not having stepped in and saved his daughters from some of the emotionally abusive behaviour their mother was dishing out.
There have been countless column-inches about her book here in the Chinese press (by the way the Chinese edition of the book is titled Being a Mom in America which is an interesting change), and I have had some fascinating conversations about it with Chinese women friends who have children of various ages. Some of them think there is a grain of truth in what Amy Chua says about Chinese mothers, certainly they all place a very high premium on academic success, but most of them reacted with horror at how extreme she was and how she never let her daughters make any choices for themselves.
It will be fascinating to hear in years to come what her daughters made of the way they were parented; will they have needed therapy? would they emulate their mother’s methods when they become parents?
Both my children are now well into adulthood, but looking back as to how I was as a mother I can only think Amy Chua would consider me a wimp, despite the fact that like her I was born in the Year of the Tiger – so technically could be called a Tiger Mother. As a family we had house rules, expected certain standards of behaviour, enforced table manners, insisted thank you letters were written promptly and yelled at our kids from time to time when they appeared to be really slacking at school. But our main goal (not that my husband and I thought of it as a goal per se) was – to use a clichéd phrase – to give them roots and give them wings. Without any pressure from me, our daughter attained a PhD in Science and Engineering from one of the most famous universities in the world, without my having stood over her making her practice chemical formulae for hours on end. SHE chose what she wanted to do – and that is as it should be. I probably made lots of mistakes as a mother – hell, I know I did, all parents do. Amy Chua’s method of parenting strikes me as warped, obsessional and potentially damaging. She might benefit from reading the famous poem:
This be the Verse by Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to but they do,
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
This book would make an excellent Book Club choice as there is plenty of scope for discussion – it could get quite heated!