Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In Defense of the Tiger Mom

****Though I don't discuss specifics of the book, I do discuss my conclusion to Amy Chua's conclusion in her memoir. So, if you don't want a spoiler of any kind then you probably shouldn't read this post.*****

There's been a lot of buzz surrounding Amy Chua's memoir, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Most of it is not positive. I would even dare say contemptuous. Amy Chua has now become the new face of the Mom- -That-Everyone-Loves-To-Hate.

I read her "essay", Why Chinese Mothers are Superior in the Wall Street Journal before her book was released. And I have to admit that my first reaction was, OMG. Doesn't this woman realize that this kind of parenting is precisely why Asian American girls have such a high rate of suicide? Doesn't she know that, while Western parents are too concerned with self-esteem, the incredibly high demand for nothing less than an A is one reason why Asian teenagers kill themselves? Because they feel they have shamed their family with their sub-standard academic performance by getting only a 'B'? And then I put it out of my mind cuz I have my own kids to take care of. By the way, apparently she does realize this, as it is briefly mentioned in the first few chapters of her book.

But then the firestorm began, and I was interested. Readers called her abusive and accused her of having Borderline Personality Disorder (which may or may not be true, but I don't really think its relevant). And then Amy Chua began making the rounds to promote her book, which only enticed her critics to now accuse her of "back peddling" when she pointed out that her book was never meant to be a parenting how-to guide. It's a memoir- her experience with this particular style of parenting which she threw herself into head first thinking it was in the best interests of her children. I became even more compelled to read it. Not necessarily because it's so controversial, but because I began to see that maybe there was something in this book that the noise makers were failing to see, and I had to know what that was.

So I bought the book, I'm reading the book (60 pages from the end). And this is the conclusion I have come to.

First of all, the "essay" posted by the WSJ is not really an essay. It is a compilation of excerpts taken from different parts of Chua's book and then pasted together to look like an essay. It's an excerpt. Period.

Second, the title "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" is misleading. Sensationalist? You bet'cha! But of course, that's probably how they got so many sucked into reading it and fueling the controversy. If it were title something more appropriate like, How a Tiger Mom Learned to Bend Before Her Kids Broke or How a 13 year old Girl Brought a Tiger Mom To Her Knees, most people probably wouldn't have been as interested. But this whole my-tiger-mom's-better-than-yours taunt just sounds more interesting. Besides, who can resist shouting back, "nu-uh!"

I think it's necessary to point out that I am not a Tiger Mom, although I could relate to Chua's battles with her youngest daughter from the very beginning. My kids are by no means over-scheduled. They don't play a musical instrument as of yet and our schedule is not jam packed with after-school activities. In fact, they are probably the most under-scheduled kids I know. I do this for two reasons.

I am cursed (or to some, blessed) with an incredibly meandering mind. It rarely wanders when and where I need it to. I'm so busy managing and redirecting what goes on in my head that most days I feel like an air traffic controller for my thoughts and its exhausting. This also tends to make me flakey and forgetful, even when I write things down in several different places and put it on my phone calendar with an email reminder. Therefore, I've learned to be very careful about unnecessary commitments for all of us. Because let's face it, the girls are not going to drive themselves to their lessons or remember the necessary equipment all on their own. That's another job that, right now, I just don't want to take on. The extra curricular activities they do participate in are taken once a week right after school at their school. So all I have to remember is what day I'm picking them up later than usual. Easy peasy.

The other reason I avoid over-scheduling them is simply because I don't want them to be so used to having their time filled with activities that they don't know what to do with themselves when they don't have any place they need to be. Of course, I still occasionally hear the "mom, I'm bored" complaint. And of course my reply is always, "well, you have books to read, toys to play, roller skates to skate with and a playground in the back yard. I'm sure you can find something you want to do." And then they disappear to find their own way out of their boredom. But this is just me. If I weren't so exhausted just keeping up with their care and feeding and keeping track of homework I might be more inclined to sign them up for something more regular but for now, this works for us.

I think Chua has touched a nerve because as parents, most of us are extremely sensitive to our perceived failures as parents. Hell, even if we haven't failed (yet), there it is looming over us- the fear that we'll cause irreparable damage to our kids which they will never get over without spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours talking to a shrink about how they're all fucked up because their parents were too strict/not strict enough, did/didn't breastfeed, did/didn't make us play a musical instrument or did/didn't let them quit little league when they didn't want to play anymore.

When someone comes out and says that they have The Answers to raising academically successful kids, we're sucked in. When we realize how extreme The Answers are, we're repelled. But then also a little part of us may wonder, but what-if she's right? This is what seems to be happening over Chua's book.

But I have to say that, as I read the book, I don't get the impression Chua is trying to say that her way is better than everyone else's at all. What she does is say how she approached parenting her children and why. Was she hard core, balls to the wall intense in how she went about it. Yes. Because she believed this to be the best way for her and her family. So, yeah. She comes off as cocky and self-assured for most of the book. Don't we all do that when we start out with anything? And did she stick to her guns to impose this philosophy on her daughters, even when it seemed counter productive? Yep. But then towards the end of the book she reveals that *gasp* she realized that perhaps her rigid Tiger Mom method isn't the best method for her children after all. And she begins to bend. But don't tell that to the critics who probably didn't even read past the first chapter. And that's if they even got past the WSJ article and decided to read the book at all.

One thing Chua does that makes it very easy for critics to completely ignore her conclusion is that her book is written chronologically, and not from an omniscient point of view. The reader doesn't know that Chua has had a change of heart until the event where her "ah-ha! moment" occurs. Which doesn't happen until the last half of the book. So if you're turned off by her strategy in the beginning and quit reading then you'll never discover Chua's realization that her Tiger Mom ways aren't quite working with her second daughter, and that someone (namely, Chua) needed to give.

Personally, I admire Chua's ability to claw down the curtain of pretense and let the world see her at even her (admittedly) ugliest moments. I actually enjoy reading this book and think it's a very well done memoir. If you've considered reading it, I think you should. I found the book to a very good testament to how different children respond to different methods. Being the Tiger Mother seemed to work for her eldest daughter. Not so much the youngest, who inspired the memoir.

At the very least you'll be entertained and reassured that it's okay to not be afraid to be hated by your children when you're motivated by their best interests. But perhaps, that's just me, too.

1 comment:

  1. I hadn't heard of the Tiger Mom until Joe mentioned it in passing last weekend. I am now interested in reading the book, though. Can't help but to be Sinologist now, I guess. Thanks for forging through, and giving us a non-sensationalized review of the book. I'm adding it to my Kindle next chance I get.