You overhear a lot when you’re the only Dad at the playground. Even when I pull up with all the right gear – the stroller, the whiffle ball set, the baggies of organic dried-fruit snacks – the regulars peg me as a non-professional. An unserious person, mommy-wise. As a result, they look right through me as if I were just a tallish plush toy, and they say the most amazing things. For instance, a few months ago before the weather turned cold, I overheard two moms discussing how to get their two year olds into Ivy League schools. While their tots played with shovels in the filthy sandbox, one mom was trying to sell the other on the virtues of off-beat sports. She’d heard, she said, that schools like Harvard give scholarships for sports like fencing and lacrosse that not many kids play, which means that those lucky kids not only get free tuition but their grades don’t need to be as high as other applicants. “Hey, you gotta work with everything you’ve got,” she said.
Those two moms embody everything Amy Chua, author of the best-selling parenting book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, hates about American parents: they want the end-results – the acceptance letters from Harvard, the prestigious awards, the envy of their neighbors – but they don’t want to work for them. Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past month – or, perhaps, you’re just not an overanxious yuppie American parent – you already know all about the national temper tantrum that has accompanied the publication of Tiger Mother. You know that Chua, a Yale law professor and second-generation Chinese immigrant, takes pride in never letting her two daughters go on a playdate or sleep over at a friend’s house, much less date a boy. You know that she regularly made them practice piano and violin dozens of hours a week. You know that she called one of her daughters “garbage” to her face and once rejected the pair’s handmade birthday cards because, in her view, they hadn’t put enough care into making them.
And it’s all true, every cringe-inducing, eyebrow-raising detail. The tone of the book is self-mocking, and there’s bound to be some exaggeration in there, but on the page Chua comes off as a tad unhinged. She feels free to say the most awful things to her children (“Hey, fatty – lose some weight.”). She is so freakishly controlling she at one point tells her daughters that if they step off the front porch of the lakeside summer cabin her husband’s family owns, they will be kidnapped. Chua is a professor at one of the nation’s top law schools and has published two influential books on the spread of Western-style democracy in the developing world, and yet she somehow finds time to sit in on hundreds of hours of her two daughters’ music practice, relentlessly criticizing them for their laziness and lack of musicality.
Chua claims this bullying insistence on excellence not only teaches Chinese kids how to be good at things, but gives them the self-confidence to believe they can succeed at whatever they try:
Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with the skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.
In her defense, Chua seems to have turned out some pretty terrific kids: a little on the sheltered side, perhaps, but still smart and thoughtful and just plain nice. And while Chua is in many ways monstrous, she has more energy than any ten American moms I know, and, at least on her terms, she is genuinely trying to do the best she can for her children.
But it is Chua’s terms of reference that trouble me. The further one gets into the book, the more it becomes clear how uncomfortably close her style of parenting mimics the top-down, success-at-any-cost, authoritarian political systems of, well, modern China. And what really, really bothers her about what she calls Western parenting is that, like modern America, it is A.) lazy and indulgent; and B.) democratic to a fault. In other words, Amy Chua, whose first book is called World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, has, intentionally or not, produced a treatise on authoritarian vs. democratic political systems cleverly disguised as a parenting memoir. What’s more, in the book’s final section, she confronts the problem that afflicts all authoritarian regimes: the highly motivated dissident.
As Chua tells it, her eldest daughter, Sophia, is the perfect Chinese daughter: quiet, obedient, perfectionist, and, above all, respectful of her mother. On the other hand, her younger daughter, Lulu, is, as befits her name, a bit of a hellion. She is, ironically, more naturally talented at the violin than Sophia is at the piano, but she hates to practice and her fights with her mother are particularly vicious – until, suddenly, miraculously, she wins.
It all comes down to a sturgeon’s egg. The family is on vacation in Moscow and Mom buys a tiny, expensive thimbleful of genuine Russian caviar. Lulu, predictably, takes one look at the slimy lump of fish eggs on her plate and says, “Eww, gross!”
Chua flies into a Tiger Mom rage:
“Do you know how sad and ashamed my parents would be if they saw this, Lulu – you publicly disobeying me? …We’re in Russia, and you refuse to try caviar! You’re like a barbarian. And in case you think you’re a big rebel, you are completely ordinary. There is nothing more typical, more common and low, than an American teenager who won’t try things. You’re boring, Lulu – boring.”
“Shut up,” said Lulu angrily.
If you’re seeing a thirteen-year-old girl standing in front of a Chinese tank about now, you’re on the right track. Except in this case, instead of the army swarming in to crush the rebellion, Tiger Mom gives in. Like that, Tiananmen Square becomes Tahrir Square, and the dictator is forced to negotiate terms with her subjects: Not only does Lulu not have to try caviar, but she can give up violin and play tennis sometimes if she wants to.
Like any good American, I cheered for little Lulu, and Chua is savvy enough – and Western enough – to play the conclusion off as a happy ending, though even in the last pages she still sees most Western parenting as little more than a lazy cop-out.
I disagree with her, but then I would. I was raised in a culture that places value on success, but places even more value on equality and individual choice. Chua’s critique of American parenting as lazy and indulgent is dead right, but those flaws flow directly, as do all the choices we make as parents, from the culture we were raised in. This is, after all, a nation that bails out billionaire bankers when they break the economy and twice elected a man president because he seemed like the kind of guy you could have a beer with. Clearly, we have a long way to go.
But I wouldn’t trade it for all the violin prodigies in China. I may be a guy, but I’m an American mom to my fingertips. I want my son to be successful at whatever he does, but more than that I want him to like himself and care, deeply, about what he’s doing with his life. If that means he doesn’t get into Harvard, not even on a lacrosse scholarship, I can live with that. I hear there are some other good schools in this country.