I didn’t expect to like _Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother_ – in fact, I expected to hate it. Instead, I found it funny, charming and moving – and give Amy Chua a lot of credit for having the ovaries to expose herself. I didn’t just like the book, I loved it.
If that seems strange, give me a minute to explain before you assume I’m secretly Mommy Dearest . I should note that I am not a Tiger parent, although Chua and I perhaps have more in common than you might think. You see, like Chua, I don’t necessarily think that that assumptions of western parenting are always right. Like Chua, I think more can be expected of children than most American parents expect. And like Chua, I think the psychological assumptions that underlie Western parenting are not unassailable. My husband jokes that we are slacker tiger parents – too lazy to invest the kind of effort that Chua does in her kids, but in broad agreement that high expectations of children are good for them. Even if they aren’t the same kind of expectations.
Now if you have only read the media coverage of this book, you probably think it is primarily a memoir of a borderline (or perhaps over the border) abusive mother, and don’t grasp why I would like it. I would encourage you to read the actual book, not the extracts.
That said, I don’t think that highly of much of her behavior. Indeed, I certainly don’t think I’d enjoy being Chua’s kid. The media coverage has focused on her rages and over-the-top behavior, and well, there’s no good excuse for those – they are awful. The only problem is that they don’t seem so strange to me – most of the parents I know are guilty of rages and bad behavior to their kids, if not so consistently as Chua. Moreover, they don’t seem to be central to the point – they are Chua’s excesses, rather than the actual necesary behavior of Tiger parents.
Chua normalizes this, seeing it as part of a model of parenting, whereas Western parents deny, deny. deny. But nothing seems to change the fact that our kids can really piss us off – this is merely a deep secret in our culture. Chua claims children of tiger parents (and she was one) hear what is really intended in the anger – not “you are bad” but “you can do better, you are capable of more.” I’m not sure that this is always true, nor that I would want to try it – I think by personality I just don’t have Chua’s investment or passion, much less the anger. But that doesn’t mean I’ve never blown it with my kids – despite not having a philosophical underpinning to do so with .
Consider what Chua says about pressuring her oldest daughter to practice:
“According to Sophia, here are three things I actually said to her at the piano as I supervised her practicing:
1. Oh my God, you’re just getting worse and worse.
2. I’m going to count to three and then I want musicality
3. If the next time’s not PERFECT, I’m going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!
In retrospect, these coaching suggestions seem a bit extreme. On the other hand, they were highly effective.” (Chua, 28)
Now this is all outrageous, and I should be outraged, I guess, except I’ve done awful things to my kids too. I wish I hadn’t, of course, but I’ve blown my stack enough times to make this not sound so unusual. And I don’t think it *is* that unusual – when I read the bit about stuffed animals, all I could think of was Annie LaMott’s wonderful essay in _Plan B_ about parent rage:
I need to put n a quick disclaimer so that when I say what I’m about to say, you will know that the truest thing in the world is that I love my son more than life itself. I would rather be with him, talk to him and watch him grow than do anything else on earth. Okay?
So: I worked up one morning not long ago and lay in bed trying to remember whether, the night before, I had actually threatened to have his pets put to sleep, or whether I had only insinuated that I would no longer intercede to keep them alive when, because of his neglect, they begin starving to death.
The thing that is both crazy and true is that both things are right – your kids and your spouse if you have one, who you love more than life itself, can make you crazy-angry faster than almost anyone on earth. The only people better at it might be one’s own parents .
I know a few people who never raise their voices at their kids, are unfailingly kind and never really lose it with their children. I do not, however, get the sense they are an overwhelming majority – one of the best parents I know once said “everyone says you are such a great Mom and you walk along thinking ‘if only they knew.’” Nearly every parent I’ve ever met has the same feeling.
My own mother recently told me a story I find funny and totally understandable now, but would have been horrified by when I was a kid. When she was a social worker, doing removals of children from abusive homes during my and my sister Rachael’s teen years, she was assigned a family in which the mother, coming home after a long day of work, had hauled off and hit her teenager who had trashed the house and left a sink full of dirty dishes for her. My mother told her supervisor not to give her this case – that she had at times been so angry at her own daughters for doing precisely the same thing that she didn’t feel that she was capable of judging this mother fairly – that she understood that urge (if not the action – my mother is incredibly opposed to physical violence of any kind) to beat the crap out children who were so disrespectful and uncaring of their parent’s hard work.
And oh, do I grasp that now that I’m a parent. I have said pretty terrible things to my kids too – I once screamed out a window, where my boys were fighting (physically) over who got to drink out of a glass of water first that if they did not stop fighting I would never, ever let them drink anything, including water, again. They burst out laughing and after a minute, so did I – but the fury that led me to say such a ridiculous thing was real. And I wasn’t necessarily wrong to try and make them feel lousy about such stupid behavior. Even though I was capable of just as stupid behavior when I was young – maybe more because I can remember it.
This does not make Chua’s actions ok – I’m not saying that her rages were appropriate, or for that matter that mine were. What I am saying is that rage is part of parenting for many of us regardless – Chua’s narrative makes it more acceptable, which might or might not be bad, and it makes it more natural, which also might or might not be bad. Our own psychological narratives make it less acceptable, but also make it secret, and erase it from the larger story.
I have little strong opinion on which is better – what I think is that her rages aren’t the center of the Tiger parenting story, but an expression of the kind of Tiger parent she is (I’m guessing there are tiger parents who do it differently) and of angry parents and parenting. Her anger isn’t something I admire, but I do identify enough with it not to see it at the center of everything.
The book could have been written by a mild mannered, or quietly manipulative or silent-treatment rendering or dispassionate, cold Tiger parent, or a sweet, loving but incredibly tough one too – but it wouldn’t have gotten the same kind of attention that Chua with her showy parent rages get. It is fun to be outraged by her – and allows us to forget that most of us behave just as outrageously at times, we are just more comfortable with it as our secret shame rather than in our faces.
At the real center, however, is this – what Chua eloquently writes about the losses caused by living in modern America – what she calls generational decline in which values of hard work, thrift and commitment to creating something multi-generational worth having start with the first immigrant generation, and are lost in the priveleged generations that follow. She writes about the decline between her parents and her children:
Well, not on my watch. From the moment Sophia was born and I looked into her cute and knowing face, I was determined not to let it happen to her, not to raise a soft, entitled child – not to let my family fail.
That’s one of the reasons I insisted Sophia and Lulu do classical music. I knew that I couldn’t artificially make them feel like poor immigrant kids. There was no getting around the fact that we lived in a large old house, owned two decent cars, and stayed in nice hotels when we vacationed. But I could make sure that Sophia and Lulu were deeper and more cultivated than my parents and I were. …To make sure that Sophia and Lulu weren’t pampered and decadent like the Romans when their empire fell, I also insisted that they do physical labor.” (Chua, 22-23)
It is probably pretty obvious that I think the Chua is in some measure shooting at the wrong targets. Her goals are intellectual achievement, and resistance to what she sees as Western intellectual decline (to be fair, Chua is actually much gentler to Western parenting choices than I would have anticipated) is couched in both terms of discipline, but also of achieving *to the standards of Western Industrial culture* – I don’t share those goals. I don’t share her goals of making my children the best – or the advocacy of competition uber alles. I think she’s wrong and too quick to conveniently shift her ground away from the economic culture of thrift and hard work that created her parents and herself.
Actually, I think she gives economics short shrift in the book – why does she think being professors, doctors and musicians is so much better than being a really good woodworker or farmer or welder? Ultimately, where she sees high achievement is also where the money is, and Chua doesn’t really acknowledge this – she doesn’t acknowledge that the things she takes as a given – the pricey house, the private programs for kids, the nice cars, the travel – aren’t themselves a goal that reinforces her overarching objectives, and in fact, they fully undermine it. She does recognize this in some measure, but doesn’t explore why her goals are so focused on financially achieving professions, and why she sees discipline wholly in these terms – here, she has allowed Western culture to takes sway.
At the same time, her fundamental recognition that we have lost something in our expectations of children, and that softer parenting hasn’t brought greater happiness, harmony or cultural benefit is right. I think she’s picked the wrong way to reduce generational decline – she’d do better to sell the lavish house (not just large, but pricey) and the nice cars and cut her family’s income – that the artificial disciplines she’s choosing aren’t as good as the structural ones of less money and more need. But I think she’s got her finger on something that is right – that we aren’t necessarily serving our children by our way of life.
At the same time I was reading _Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother_ I re-read Mildern Armstrong Kalish’s wonderful memoir of the Great Depression _Little Heathens_. In it Kalish recounts the structure of her childhood on an Iowa farm in the difficult years of the Depression, and particularly the workload and expectations of children. In one section she talks about hog butchering, remembering the job given to the “Little kids” – ie, the kids under 10, too young to do heavy work – cleaning the head of the hog for headcheese, She recalls a group of children around the dismembered head of a pig, washing it thoroughly, even brushing its teeth to make sure no dirt contaminated the later project, and asks rhetorically whether it is possible to imagine 5-10 year old children taking on this job now.
Whether you mourn the child with the skill set for pig-head cleaning or not, it is manifestly the case that historically much more discipline was expected of children than now. An 8 year old in 19th century America would be expected to wield the hatchet competently and keep the woodbox full. Kalish writes:
I never earned any money for my work until I was in sixth grade and teh lady who ran the dry goods department of the Farmer’s Store hired me to clean her big house for her. Grace was the widowed mother of three girls…For seventy-five cents an hour I did the washing and ironing, vacuumed and cleaned the floors, bathroom and refrigerator. The was a job that carried some prestige….The summer after I graduated from seventh grade I became the live-in caretaker and companion of an elderly, arthritic, cranky, devout, retired Methodist missionary….Here in addition to helping her with dressing, bathing and toileting, I did all of the washing, the marketing, the cooking, the baking and the cleaning. The discipline of my early years in building fires in teh kitchen stove, planning and cooking meals, cleaning house, washing and ironing were paying off. I knew how to run a household…Though I had no leisure time of speak of, I was finally acquiring what I craved most: the approval of the adult community and a modicum of independence…My sense of my own self worth soared right along with my finances.” (Kalish, 277-278)
Kalish spends much of her time describing the hard work and discipline that shaped her childhood, and that provided her with satisfaction. Kalish’s memories dovetailed with Chua’s narrative about Chinese parents suggest that “western parenting” assumptions may not be all that western – they are *modern,* rather. There’s more in common in Kalish’s childhood, which assumes a high degree of resilience and has little interest in inner well being than you’d think:
“…I’ve noticed that Western Parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure tehir children about how good they are not withstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. IN other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result, they behave very differently.”
This assumption of strength was true in America in Kalish’s childhood – and presumably has been normative for most of human history. Now let’s not pretend that this has no costs – the low achiever, the failing, the child that could not or would not conform met high costs. Chua talks briefly of the challenges for her parents of a youngest daughter with Down syndrome, and the way that westernization benefitted her sister – her parents emerged from a culture that offered little for the disabled and were told iniitally to insitutionalize her. At the same time, Chua’s other reference to her sister suggests that Tiger parenting can be compassionately and affectionately used to drive maximum achievement despite disabilty – and presumably some of the conformist pressures of rural Depression culture are not necessarily essential elements of high achievement.
Chua gets her finger on something really important – that an assumption that children are strong and resilient can be as truthful as an assumptiont that they are vulnerable – and that the assumptions we use about the nature of childhood shape a lot of things. Chua points out that despite the tendency of Chinese parents to criticize, while western parents validate, there is no evidence that western children and parents get along better because of the way they act, or that they love each other more. Nor is there any evidence they are happier with lower expectations.
Some people might see my family as tigerish, living a life where kids are expected to do chores, and have physical responsibilities, to live up to a certain discipline (that imposed by the farm, and by our homeschooling). In fact, we’re slacker than that – my family only looks unusually tough because the rest of the world is so different – yeah, my kids feed rabbits, goats and chickens every day, while most American kids might have to fill a dog bowl, but they don’t do anything like the kind of work that most children through history have done.
Some of that is good, of course – time for education, time for other pleasures. Indeed, what seems most missing from Chua’s stories are two things that farm families have. First, their father – Jed, her husband, is absent from the story. She says that it was somewhat natural they would use Chinese parenting because “like many mothers, I did most of the parenting.” Even though both are law professors and work, this is all Chua ever says about the fact that her husband seems to be largely absent from the story except as a dispenser of treats like pancakes and Yankees games, and occasionally offering a weak “you are too hard on them.” While Kalish’s father is explicitly absent due to criminal activity and divorce, farm and work life in rural America often involved much less separation of parents and children than we are accustomed to.
The second thing missing from the story is playtime for her children. Chua explicitly rejects some kinds of play – despite the media play her not letting her daughter go to sleepovers got, Chua’s real reason was that the only one her daughter attended was rife with factionalism, exclusion and meanness, as well as sexual discussions she didn’t think her daughter was ready for – a very ordinary reason to exclude them. But Kalish and her brothers and sister do play – they work hard, but time is allotted for them to play baseball, make up games, enjoy nature. Chua’s family never seems to have fun.
Which just brings me to where I felt I was most like Chua – ultimately, what Chua is creating to reduce generational losses is artificial, the form of the thing, without the substance. She wants the discipline poverty and ambition and hard work impose without actually living a life that requires physical labor, thrift or discipline except to please your Mom.
In a way you can make the same case for me – I’m reproducing a farm childhood for my kids – but it is facsimile, a chosen way of life that is not motivated by necessity. We could sell out, move to the ‘burbs and play soccer. Moreover, just as Chua is working constantly against a culture that does not validate her choices, so am I – and the culture often wins. She knows it and I do, which is why the story of her younger daughter’s rebellion and “victory” is part of her framing narrative, and why the media thinks the story of her losing is so much more interesting than what Chua actually has succeeded at. Even Chua sees it as more interesting – Lulu’s rebellion becomes the center point of the book.
A friend of mine wisely observed that this book must be tough for Chua’s kids to handle and that she could have waited a few years, and published it then. I think she’s right, and for more than one reason – declaring defeat or victory in a child’s adolescence seems to me a bad idea anyway. My parents looked like utter failures at instilling their values in us during our teen years – one of us got in serious trouble, another slacked off and smoked dope and ran after boys, still a third rejected everything our parents wanted from us and took off on her own path (and smoked some dope and ran after boys too ). All three of us looked like Tiger Mom despair.
Now, all in our 30s, my parents are starting to be able to rest on their laurels. They might have wanted to kill me at 13, but the thrift and discipline that seemed like they failed so miserably are back. All of us are happily married, self-supporting, achievers in our own ways. Chua might do better – or worse – than she thinks.
Living in a culture that doesn’t value hard work and discipline much, that doesn’t see kids as strong or their contributions as worthy of excellence, one that diminishes their competence and pretends we shouldn’t ever be really mad at them when they fail, Chua and I are both working on related projects with different goals. I don’t see high academic achievement in the traditional sense as having the economic value that people have invested it with – indeed, the high student debt and reduced subsidies available make the trade offs harder. At the same time, I think the day is coming when hard work and self-discipline, however achieved, may be critical to security – when we simply may have to expect more of ourselves and our kids than we are accustomed to.
Balancing this with having a childhood is important – but not, I think, impossible – hard working kids on farms and in cities have had childhoods. Chua may have gone to far, but so has our culture – finding the intellectual space between those two things to begin to think about what a right childhood might be, what good expectations might be is challenging. I’m grateful that Chua is working out one end of that spectrum of thought, even if I don’t share all her goals. The reality is that I suspect that a world facing the kinds of challenges we are facing is going to require a different kind of parenting – not Chua’s model precisely, but something not totally unrelated to it.