Earlier this winter, Yale Law Professor Amy Chua published Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother, a memoir about her strict parenting style rooted in her Chinese upbringing. A “Chinese mother” is a broad term to describe a sub-set of strict parents who expect excellence from their children and force them to both study and rehearse instruments for hours a day. Chua’s two kids were not allowed play dates or sleepovers; she harshly admonished them and punished them throughout their childhood for not devoting themselves to schoolwork and musical study. The book — and her Wall Street Journal op-ed excerpted from it — unsurprisingly caused a huge kerfluffle among parents. Many thought she was was downright abusive.
But consider this: earlier in the week, Amy Chua’s elder daughter, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, learned that she was accepted to Harvard University‘s class of 2015, and plans to attend. It begs the question, was growing up with a “tiger mother” worth it?If the characterizations of daughters’ Sophia and Lulu Chua in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother are to be believed — and don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything here — the girls think their mom is slightly insane, but they know she loves them deeply and believes in their abilities. They understood their mom pushed them because she believed they could do anything if only they practiced violin/drilled vocab words/memorized multiplication tables enough. Sure enough, throughout the book, the girls get excellent grades, are praised by master musicians, and Sophia even makes her debut at Carnegie Hall at age 14. Even though a lot of the family’s arguments seemed upsetting in the thick of the moment (the husband, by the way, is a white Jewish guy who went along with his wife’s parenting style but wasn’t as strict himself), at the end of the day everyone seemed to love, care for, and respect each other. Obviously, only Sophia and Lulu can judge whether the way they were raised was “worth it” (and let’s not forget that something being “worth it” is a nuanced concept). Only time will tell if the Chua girls have been harmed more than helped.
But, of course, we can speculate.
This actually may come as a surprise considering how hippie-dippie I am about other topics, but when I read Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother, I found the strict parenting completely refreshing.
I may be biased because my own parents were old-fashioned and a bit strict. At the time, I knew and hated the fact that they were stricter than nearly all of my friends’ parents. I wasn’t exactly afraid of my parents, but I never wanted to find out what would happen if they got really angry or disappointed. I can’t explain why, but I just didn’t. Now that I’m a grown woman of 27, I can look back and see that Mom and Dad did a decent job at parenting me: convincing me that I will always be safe and cared for by them, instilling the right values in me, and teaching me proper etiquette.
I don’t always feel like other parents I see are doing such a great job, though. I know it’s all-to-easy to judge strangers and that one little incident in public (say, a a mom who ignores her toddler’s screaming meltdown in the aisles of Target) shouldn’t characterize a parents’ entire ability. However, among the parents whom I see regularly with their children, I find myself rolling my eyes (to myself, in my head) a lot. My general impression is that a lot of parents — parents’ of middle-class or upper-middle-class white, able-bodied children — think their kids are being horribly victimized by life.
I’ve witnessed many, many, many parents apologize to their children when the child exhibits bad behavior, like “I’m sorry you threw your Cheerios across the room because you wanted Fruity Pebbles instead. Mommy will get you Fruity Pebbles.” What kind of BS is that?! I also see children — even young children — talk to their parents in a snide tone of voice that I wouldn’t have dreamed of using around my parents. And the parents don’t say “boo” about it. I cannot imagine having a child or children and allowing them to disrespect me day in and day out. (To be fair, this may be exclusive to the metropolitan New York/suburban New Jersey and Connecticut area where I’ve lived nearly all of my life.)
Mostly, I wonder what book it is that is advising parents to talk to their three-year-old toddlers like they are fully-formed, reasonable, rational adults who give a s**t. I’m no child development expert, but I’ve been babysitting since I was 11, I have four nieces and nephews who are all under the age of 7, and I’ve taken psychology classes that touch on issues of child development. It’s my understanding — and correct me if I’m wrong — that really little kids tend to be very self-centered and self-focused. They’re just too little to understand there’s a whole world of other people out there and their actions, like screaming inside Target, are unpleasant to other people. They don’t have impulse control and they don’t necessarily care if they’re inconveniencing you. I’ve always assumed that one should communicate with small children in firm and uncomplicated ways: like saying “No, you cannot scream indoors,” not apologetically saying, “Mommy is sorry you want a toy right now.” (What does that even mean?) Are these parents afraid of “parenting” their own children or what? The fact that the Tiger Mother wasn’t afraid of her own kids and wasn’t afraid to act like a parent (for example, insisting that her daughters not speak rudely to her) was very refreshing.
While I question whether the intensity of the Tiger Mother’s parenting style when it comes to academics will really work for all children — achieving a goal at age 17 or 18 should not be the be-all, end-all of someone’s life; plus, some kids are just naturally brighter than others and it seems humiliating and potentially damaging to force a kid to do something he or she is terrible at — I still found her focus on education refreshing. I know of way too many parents who think their children are being horribly impugned by having to sit still at school and do homework and/or study flash cards at home. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people complain that their kids have homework or they don’t like to do homework. Certainly some homework can be busywork, but for the most part, don’t parents understand homework is part of a child’s education, i.e. it’s good for them? While I’m enormously supportive of “different” learning styles — I know many people who did homeschooling or went to alternative schools — I sometimes get the sense parents think the behavior required of school and schoolwork is “victimizing” their kids. I find it incredibly frustrating that there are parts of the world where girls are killed or maimed trying to get to school and halfway around the world, we have parents’ whining that their seven-year-old doesn’t want to have to review 20 vocab words on flashcards before she is allowed to watch cartoons. If that makes you want to call DCPS on the eggs in my womb, so be it.
Amy Chua’s parenting style regarding academics was far more intense than I could ever be as a parent. (Also, it should be noted, her upper-middle-class career as a Yale Law School professor allowed her a flexible work schedule to be able to devote this kind of time to her own kids.) But I appreciated and respected her no BS, “education is good for you” attitude. Given how her elder daughter, Sophia, was accepted into Harvard, I would imagine the Tiger Mother is pleased with herself right now. To her, it was probably all worth it. I’ll be curious to see, as the daughters grow up, if they’ll agree.