Thursday, January 20, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

What happens when an irresistible force encounters an immovable object?  This book.

The kerfuffle over Amy Chua is starting to die out, as the actual book is available.  It is now obvious that "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" is not a parenting advice book, but more of a memoir and there is a degree to which Amy Chua "gets" that some of her parenting decisions were--how do we say this--not the Best Choices.  Arguably, some of her more obvious excesses might be excused as being her "sense of humor," which is admittedly dry.  Dry, like the topsoil of the Dust Bowl.  So dry as to have shriveled up and blown away without a trace.  Dry to the point of being not actually funny at all.

Clearly the woman is nuts, and as you read her accounts of her battles with her strong-willed daughter, you have to wonder if she likes to run head-first into brick walls as a hobby, because Sister!  She sure resists learning anything from her own experiences! 

The signs are obvious early on.  Amy Chua wants to introduce her younger daughter, Lulu, to piano when Lulu is about two years old.  Amy puts one finger on one key, plays the note three times, and then asks Lulu to do the same.  Lulu splays her hands as wide as she can, hits as many different keys as hard as she can, as fast as she can, as long as she can until Amy physically removes her from the piano.  At that point, Lulu begins thrashing and screaming and flailing.

So Amy "decides" (not clear that she's actually using any higher brain functioning at this point, but there's no word for that) to put Lulu outside into the cold to shock her into obedience.  Lulu is put outside into 20 degree weather with only light indoor clothing on. And then--did you see this coming?--refuses to come back inside, forcing her mother to self-flagellate about the fact that her tiny daughter is outside in inappropriate clothing.

At this point, it is apparent to me that the whole "Chinese mother/Western mother" thing is a distraction.  What we have is the same battle almost every family faces--when a strong-willed parent is confronted with an equally strong-willed child.  One of them is supposed to be the adult.

But Amy Chua doesn't want to learn this lesson.  As self-reported, she has a theory about the "best way to parent" and she's not going to let actual failure dissuade her from her pet theory.  Geez, this is the kind of towering intellect we want to encourage--the facts don't fit the theory, so we ignore the facts and just scream the theory louder.

Actually, that might be exactly what makes for a successful law professor at Yale Law School.

Things escalate until the inevitable moment when the child figures out the exact Perfect Storm of circumstances to humiliate her parent.  After all, the odds are in the kid's favor, since the mom has to win every argument, and the kid only has to win one.  Chua never figures out this math either.  So the stage is set for a horrible show-down in a restaurant in Moscow.  Amy orders caviar and Lulu refuses to eat any.  This is not a fight Amy can win, and most parents I know have figured this out well before our child reaches the age of 13.  In fact, this is a lesson that is often learned during the struggle to potty train.  Your kid has more control over excretion than you do.  Same with food.

So Amy tries to make Lulu eat caviar.  She orders, she threatens, she shames, and nothing works.  She stakes her entire parental authority on making Lulu eat one egg.  Who think this is ever going to work?  Only someone caught up in her need for control would fail to recognize the way she has created a zero sum situation over a single caviar egg--something that is literally the size of a pin head.  Amy is hissing at her daughter, and makes the classic novice blunder.  "People are looking at us."

Well, you might as well turn the gun on yourself and pull the trigger at that point, because if you let your kid know that you don't want people to look at you, you have given her a powerful and deadly weapon.  Which Lulu uses.  She starts to scream.  "I HATE you and I HATE being Chinese and I HATE this family and I HATE violin and if you don't leave me alone I'm going to smash this glass."  If people weren't looking before, they certainly are now.

At this point, I am trying to figure out how to get into a poker game against Amy Chua, because this woman will raise the stakes with nothing in her hand.  Because when Lulu threatens to start smashing restaurant glassware, Amy Chua says "I dare you."

So Lulu does.

And Amy Chua is the one who runs out of the restaurant in humiliation.  As she should have.  Because what she was doing wasn't parenting, it was brinksmanship, it was posturing, it was a desperate struggle for supremacy.  With a child.

Most appallingly, Amy Chua learned nothing from this experience.  Sure, she let Lulu cut back on her violin commitments and take up tennis instead, but once Lulu showed any aptitude for tennis, she started back in on her over-investedness.  And then she published this book, in which she once again exposed her bad parenting in public, and failed to realize that people would look at her and judge her, just as they did in that Moscow restaurant.  Since the publication of the excerpt in the WSJ, Amy Chua has gotten a great deal of pushback--bloggers, op-ed writers, Chinese-American parents and children, have pointed out many different ways in which Chua has perpetuated racial stereotypes and failed her children.  Apparently, she has been surprised by this.  Really?

The Mommy-sphere is a tightly wound and exquisitely sensitive environment, full of smart, articulate, successful women who worry that whatever we do is never Good Enough.  Take that group of conscientious and worried women, and surround them with contradictory and harping media about what they "should" be doing: pre-natal foreign language, Baby Einstein, breast vs bottle, cloth vs. disposable, homeschool vs. public vs. private school, daycare vs. staying at home.  Every decision, every purchase, every life choice is potentially damaging to your child's future!

Then throw in a "Tiger Mother" who comes roaring out of the pages of the WSJ to deliver a verbal bitchslap and declare her way is The Only Way.  Face it--who reads articles like this?  People (usually mothers) who care about doing a good job.  Who are then both assaulted and battered by Amy Chua's broad smear of all their efforts.  She doesn't even acknowledge that they have even tried to do right by their children.   Once again, Amy Chua has set up the perfect ingredients to create a temper tantrum.  We don't like Amy Chua and her dictums.  We don't want to be part of her family, we don't want to be like her, and we take glee in finding her weak spots and errors and tearing down her so-called "successes."

Her daughter played at Carneige Hall.  My daughter (definitely NOT raised by a Tiger Mother) has sung a requiem at Carneige Hall.  Did you know that Carneige Hall can be rented as well?

Guests at her home listened to her daughter play piano and gushed about her talent.  Well, quelle surprise!  They then went home and rolled their eyes when telling the story of the pushy woman who trotted her daughter out to perform for dinner guests.

"Tiger Mother" is not a scalable program.  If your girls were in a classroom with 20 children of Tiger Mothers, they could not all be the top of the class.

What's the logic behind pushing the music--and the dismissal of drama and gym?  Why should "be the best in everything" exclude being "the best" at a sport?  Especially since sports have things like tournaments where who is "the best" can actually be determined?

How many college applicants already have perfect GPAs and perfect SATs?  If you want your girls to actually get accepted in many of the "most elite" colleges, then they have to stand out from all the other "perfect GPA/perfect SAT" applicants.  Oh wait.  They'll get into Yale, because both their parents work there.  So I guess the whole "best in their class" thing doesn't really matter.  Cf. George W. Bush.  Legacy happens.

It's not clear to me what Amy Chua thought she was doing when she wrote this book, and what sort of reception she expected it to have.  Again, it's not clear that "thinking" is what she does.  Instead, the book reads like childbirth triggered some irrational impulse that she followed with only minimal consideration; a pattern that she repeated when she got the idea that writing it all down would be a good thing to do.  You know what Amy Chua needs?  A chill pill, and a Sassy Gay Friend.

After all, the book is selling.  But not to me.  I made the specific point of going to a bookstore and reading this specifically so there would be no financial benefit to anybody associated with this.  Plus, I'm not going to buy her husband's books either.


Yu-Ming said...

Hello. What a great read! You have a very sharp writing style!
I too, am a parent, (from Singapore!) and I agree with you 100 per cent. I've met variations of Ms Chua in Singapore--the education system here is myopic in its definition of success--and I wasn't too surprised by her extreme parenting methods. But I found her smug tone utterly detestable. Btw, I have a silly theory that her children won't apply to schmYale. Too close to Mommie Dearest.

Thank you again.

jaycbll said...

i understand why people are bitter about this, but like she said a million times to the not so smart ones..its a memoir.
u can call her crazy, its your opinion but calling her wrong is just plain ignorant. she has her own methods and they worked, her daughters achieved success and they don't detest their mother.
Also, as far as i know she never really said Chinese parenting is
'better' than western parenting. She made comparisons, criticized certain western methods but that's her opinion. i dont get why this is so hard to understand.

dia said...

what a brilliant, fun and insightful post.
Thank you for being (as we say in Italian: grazie di esistere)
Rome, Italy

p.s. jaycbill, i don't get why it is so hard to understand why people "are bitter about this". But, oh, well.