I've never done a book review on this blog, but I've decided it's time to change all that. If it's as fun as I think it could be, perhaps I'll do more. Anything parenting/childcare related that you've been wanting to read? I'm an excellent reading buddy!
Earlier this year everyone was talking about this book. From the New York Times and NPR to Stephen Colbert and the Wall Street Journal, lots of folks were weighing in on this unusual parenting memoir.When the Tiger Mother brew-ha-ha hit in January I had left my academic career (in which research related to cultural diversity played a large role) six months before and was at home with an infant. To say that I was in the target audience for this book would be like saying that Chua's critique of what she calls"Western" parenting was scathing. Um...yeah.
So what was it that got everyone all riled up? Well, first it was the bold and aggressive voice of the author. Not two pages into the book, Chua offers a bulleted list of all of the things (attend a sleepover, get any grade less than an A, watch TV or play computer games) that her daughters (pictured above - L to R Sophia, the Tiger Mother herself, Lulu) were never allowed to do. It is evident from the outset that the author intends to demonstrate and argue for the "rightness" of Chinese parenting to her (one would assume) largely American audience. What is less clear is where the author herself truly stands with respect to the issues and family experiences that she outlines in the book.
It is the story beneath the story that I wonder about. In spite of her bravado in recounting epic piano practice sessions and seemingly heartless interactions with her children (she writes on page 103 of her response to what she believed to be a hastily created birthday card from Lulu "I don't want this," I said. "I want a better one - one that you've put some thought and effort into. I have a special box, where I keep all my cards from you and Sophia, and this one can't go in there.") there is a note of something like the need for approval in her tone. As much as she assures the reader that she knows what she's doing and she's confident that her way is the right way, it sounds like she's reassuring herself.
I enjoy reading memoirs and I especially enjoy reading books written by people who seem just a bit (how would you say it?) nutty. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother handily meets both of those criteria. So, in spite of the fact that the writing was fairly academic (read: hum drum) and the story seemed to wander around in search of itself, I'm glad I read the book and it even gave me a few interesting things to consider in my own journey as a parent. The first is that writing a book about what a great parent you are (while explicitly ridiculing your perception of the dominant parenting style in the culture in which you're writing) while your children are in their teens is just asking for trouble. I mean, hasn't some agent already got those girls under contract for the tell-all companion Battle Hymn of the Tiger Daughters?
The second (and certainly more serious) take-away from the book came the 10th chapter in which Chua outlines the three big differences between the mind-sets of Chinese and Western parents.
1. Western parents are extremely anxious about their children's self-esteem.
2. Chinese parents believe that their children owe them everything.
3. Chinese parents believe they know what it best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences.
I think that this first point is a very valid one. While as a psychologist (and a human being and a parent) I value the importance that the development of healthy self-esteem has in the lives of children, I do not believe that the "every child that fogs the mirror deserves a blue ribbon" philosophy that seems to be in vogue is one that is beneficial to anyone. Children understand what is going on around them and when they are consistently rewarded for behavior that is average or even sub-standard they begin to lose trust in their environments. I agree (can you believe it?) with Chua when she asserts that this approach to parenting and education comes from an assumption of weakness instead of strength in our children. Here are her words on the Chinese view of self-esteem:
Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough. That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.
I'm not going to rally behind the use of shaming, but with that (yes, considerable) exception there is something that rings true to me in her thinking here. It seems to me that much of the ethic behind the over-praising of children is the (perhaps unconscious) assumption that there is an inherent weakness in children that parents are called upon to strengthen through support and encouragement. I'm not going to be arranging my own battle hymn anytime soon, but I do think that Chua is on to something with this point. Leading with the expectation of strength (internal resilience, fortitude) in your children is an inspiring kind of leadership. The kind of thing that nurtures intrinsic motivation instead of the endless searching for external validation.
So, has anyone else read this? What did you think? Leave a comment and let me know, I'm eager to hear.