I first heard of Amy Chua and Tiger moms at The Mad Momma’s blog.* The excerpt of her book in the Wall Street Journal generated a lot of debate and she responded by clarifying that the editors of the newspaper had deliberately presented it in a controversial way. Frankly, that sounded suspicious to me, particularly given that it was the WSJ and I doubted the piece would have been published without her seeing a draft of the excerpts beforehand. Anyway, she benefited from the publicity.
I was intrigued by whether there was more to the book than the polarised ethic that came through in the excerpt and so when I came across Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in the library last week, I picked it up.
I did a lot of eye-rolling through the initial pages. What I was reading didn’t seem very different to what had been published in the WSJ article. I also felt that she was deliberately being provocative which I can understand in a newspaper article or column but not in an entire book. The tone was a lot like a teenager trying to get a rise out of someone.
Despite this, I found myself hooked and I finished the book more quickly than I anticipated (leaving me bookless for the weekend, the horror!). It was a bit like watching a train wreck, hard to tear your eyes away. I am also captivated by human stories, particularly “true stories”. And Chua was forthrightly funny about herself and her neuroses.
So what did I take away from it when I stopped rolling my eyes?
One thing that Chua said struck a chord (pun serendipitous) with me. She observed how first generation immigrant families have a very strong work ethic, the second generation builds on this and often achieves great success and then the third generation kind of wastes it all away. Now, her children being the third generation is not something she could control, nor could she replicate the hardships of her own childhood (she is fond of reminding her girls how she dug a swimming pool in her parent’s backyard herself). Thus, in order to give them something which required hard work and discipline, in addition to making them to do chores, particularly chores that involved physical labour, she got them into classical music.
On a related note, she stresses the importance of practice and hard work in success. This is something a lot of us tend to overlook. The romantic idea of a genius is someone to whom achievement comes effortlessly. Not so. One study found that elite violinists had put in an average of 10,000 hours of practice, 2,000 hours more than the violinists ranked good. What seemed to differentiate the good from the excellent was not so much inherent talent but sheer hard work.
She recounts how her kids’ music teachers were always amazed at how quickly they would progress. She attributes this progress to the marathon practice sessions she insisted on at home. Even when they were on holiday, anywhere in the world, she would find a piano for her daughter to practise on. The result: her kids had performed at Carnegie Hall by the time they were teenagers.
Another thing she is adamant about is having high expectations of her kids. An incident that evoked horrified reactions from mother worldwide was the one where she rejects birthday cards her kids gave her because they were sub-standard. In the context of the book, though, it doesn’t seem that horrifying. I’m not sure I have it in me as a mother to return a card my kid made for me and say “Do better” but in her defense the cards were hastily cobbled together and all of them knew it.
The card incident is actually the backstory to another episode. She recounts how her daughters gave moving speeches at their grandmother’s funeral and how several people complimented on her on them. Those speeches, she says, were not the result of some spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion but real effort, which involved her wielding the whip (metaphorically) and drama and tears from her daughters. She believed they could and should write something beautiful for their grandmother and in the end, they did.
Again, I’m not advocating her approach but what I take away from it is that things that seem effortless usually aren’t and Chua lays that bare. My mother was one of the few parents who would blithely acknowledge that her daughters put in a lot of hard work until she began becoming disgruntled by parents who would always say “my children never study”. It seemed like parents wanted to imply that their children were so smart that they never tried and still came out on top. While once in a while this might be the case, behind consistent success there is always varying degrees of hard work. It seems like people prefer the illusion of ease though.
Overall, though I’m not convinced of the wisdom or Chua’s approach or her thesis in general. One thing she says is that people always asked her if she was doing all she did for her kids or herself and that she is clear that it’s for her kids. But from everything in this book, this does not seem so clear to me. She documents praise for her children’s achievements, which seems to me something that would gratify a parent more than motivate a child. I’m sure children love to receive compliments and praise but would that praise motivate a child enough to go through the rigours that Chua’s children went through (by her own admission, one time, practising five hours at a stretch without a toilet break)? It seems like she loved that praise and she motivated her children to get that for her (and admittedly themselves ) by threatening fire and brimstone.
When recounting how she insisted her children practice even while on holiday abroad, Chua mentions that she hopes they will remember practicing while overlooking scenic landscapes and historical monuments. But this seems to be the fulfilment of a romantic vision of an adult rather than something a child would really value – a child would remember a beautiful scene in a positive light only if the scene were associated with positive memories. I remember going to beautiful cities in Europe as a child and remembering things specifically coloured by my personal experiences (toyshops and not canals in Rotherdam, breaking my arm on a tram in Brehmen). In this, Chua seems more like a child demanding gratification.
Another glaring flaw in her thesis, even on the highly personalised ground of her own family, comes up when comparing her husband Jed and herself. Jed had exactly the free and easy upbringing she abhors and which she claims leads to underachievers. The thing, though, is that Jed seems more successful than her. So maybe we should be reading Jed’s book instead?
*That discussion was also where I was introduced to the idea that to allow your children to follow their dream when that dream won’t guarantee them a stable income is a luxury. Only when you are of an income level that you can be the back-up plan for your child’s future rather than vice versa can dream-following be encouraged. Largely, the lower end of the middle-class in most countries, but particularly countries where there is no social security, needs to be realistic.