Much as I hoped to dodge Amy Chua and her controversial book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I ultimately decided that in a column where I often talk about parenting, I had to tackle Chua’s philosophy. If nothing else, Chua certainly knows how to attract press, and I imagine everyone reading this has heard or read something about Tiger Mothers and Chinese parenting in the last several weeks.
The media, beginning with a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” whose publication predated the release of the book, has focused on Chua’s more incendiary prescriptions such as:
• 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 story about her calling her daughter garbage when she was disrespectful is frequently repeated. Another featured episode involves her younger daughter Lulu’s attempts to learn a difficult piano piece, “The Little White Donkey.” Chua made Lulu keep playing, through dinner and without bathroom breaks, until midnight. She took her dollhouse out to the car threatening to donate it to the Salvation Army. Lulu eventually got it. That night, she and her mother snuggled together. Lulu played the piece beautifully at her recital, thus justifying Chua’s seemingly unreasonable demands.
However, I think Chua is trying to deliver a more complex—perhaps even conflicted—message than simply the superiority of her parenting methods. Indeed, the cover of the book and the frontispiece represent her story much better:
This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.
But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a 13-year-old.
Reading that, I thought, this is a very different story—“bitter clash” and “humbled” are not words of triumph. The book is very readable, and certainly as parents, her story draws us in, whether to quote ABC reporter Juju Chang, we are “repulsed or completely jealous.” While I felt conflicting emotions, I mostly wanted to know whether she was trying to be funny and self-deprecating or whether she was serious. In every interview, she insists that she meant to be funny and the book is a “self-parody.” She repeatedly maintains that her book is a memoir, not a parenting how-to guide. Read that way, the book is funny and quite touching.
Amy Chua herself is an enormously accomplished person. She graduated from both Harvard College and Harvard Law School where she made the Law Review. After law school, she went to work for a Wall Street firm but hated it. She angled for some time to get an academic job (she is married to a law school classmate who is a Yale Law School professor). Eventually, she landed a position at Duke and then joined her husband at Yale Law School. She wrote two books prior to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, one on law and ethnicity in the developing world entitled World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, a New York Times bestseller, and Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance— and Why They Fall.
But she’s not remotely arrogant about her academic and professional success; indeed, her priority is her role as a parent. This how she describes her life:
I would . . . spend half my day writing and acting like a Yale law professor, then rush back home for my daily practice sessions with my two daughters, which in Lulu’s case always involved mutual threats, blackmail, and extortion.
These practice sessions lasted hours and took place every day, even while the family was on vacation.
In fact, it’s awe inspiring all that Chua accomplishes. For example, in addition to her professional responsibilities, she studied all her girls’ music so she could coach them, leaving them detailed daily notes with measure by measure instructions.
Some people have questioned whether Chua actually pushes her daughters for them or for herself. She responds emphatically, “everything I do is unequivocally 100 percent for my daughters. My main evidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me.”
Indeed, Chua determined to write her book after a particularly explosive scene at a café in Moscow, when 13-year-old Lulu got so angry she threw a glass on the floor in front of all the other customers. After running across Red Square enraged and embarrassed, Chua returned to tell Lulu she could give up the violin if she wanted. Lulu had become so intransigent that Chua was genuinely worried she was going to lose her. Lulu had won; Chinese parenting had lost.
So granting that in fact, Chua’s parenting methods yield mixed success and that she really meant her book to amuse not to instruct, what can we learn from her?
I think the most applicable lesson is her belief that her children can do anything. In the now infamous “Little White Donkey” incident, Chua’s husband suggests that perhaps Lulu simply can’t play the difficult piece. Chua never accepts that. She has unswerving faith in Lulu, and she proves right. Lulu does master the piece. As she says, “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.” It’s not because their child isn’t innately good at something, or because the teacher is poor, or because the assessments are flawed.
You may recall Carol Dweck’s work in which she identified “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. In a fixed mindset, if you do something well, you attribute your success to natural talent. In a growth mindset, you believe that being good at something depends on effort. When those with a fixed mindset encounter a difficult task, they often give up: if you can’t do something easily, it must be because you don’t have that innate ability. By contrast, those with a growth mindset see difficulties as a challenge to overcome. Chua clearly has a growth mindset. Despite all the pressure she puts on her children to achieve, she never doubts that if they apply the proper effort they will succeed.
Chua makes an important observation:
. . . as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.
Chua never expects achievement to be handed to her children; they have to work for it. Getting to Carnegie Hall, which Sophia ultimately does, takes hours and hours and hours of practice. Which brings us to another interesting point: you may remember Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, where he argues that people who are hugely successful (outliers like Bill Gates and the Beatles) actually achieve that success because they devote at least 10,000 hours to whatever it is they do. Chua expects over-the-top achievement and knows meeting that goal requires thousands of hours of effort.
At the point that Chua relents and lets Lulu give up the violin, Lulu had already achieved a lot—studying with one of the most revered teachers in the nation and concertmaster of a competitive orchestra. When, after pulling back on her violin commitments, Lulu takes up tennis, Chua doesn’t pay much attention at first. Before long, though, Lulu was winning tournaments and moving up the ranks. Her coach observes that Lulu “has an unbelievable work ethic—I’ve never seen anyone improve so fast. . . . She never settles for less than 110 percent.” Obviously, some of the Chinese parenting rubbed off. Lulu was applying almost the same intensity to tennis that her mother taught her to apply to the violin.
In the end, at least now, Sophia and Lulu seem pretty well adjusted. They have lots of friends, and Lulu even professes appreciation for all the hours her mother made her practice the violin. Their hard work and resulting success will give them many choices in life, and as Lulu’s tennis demonstrates, they will be able to transfer focus and commitment to other aspects of their lives.
I don’t condone the way Chua has treated her children. Calling them garbage and threatening to burn their stuffed animals is simply poor parenting. The amount of yelling that occurred in that household could only have created a very tense environment, uncomfortable at best and unhealthy at worst. In addition, contrary to what Chua originally asserts, not all children are the same. She had to treat Lulu differently from Sophia. Moreover, I don’t believe that all children would bear up emotionally under her parenting approach.
That said, I think we often make excuses for our children when we shouldn’t; we don’t always give them a chance to build confidence by overcoming challenges; and some of us could do a better job of instilling the value of hard work. There are times when, as parents, we should be making decisions for our children when we abdicate, either because we believe prematurely that they are ready to make such decisions or because we lack confidence in our own judgment.
If Sophia and Lulu really are the reasonably well adjusted girls they appear it is because they know their mother loves them deeply; they know that the energy she expends on their behalf is for them. Sophia and Lulu understand that she always puts them first.
 Juju Chang interview with Amy Chua, ABC’s “Good Morning America,”
Friday February, 11, 2011 at 02:46PM