Wednesday, 22 February 2012
Amy Chua, the Yale professor who caused a furor last year with her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has been battling all kinds of controversy. Prof. Chua's book came at a very bad time in terms of American national self-esteem. The economy was tanking, children's standardized test scores were bottoming out, bankrupt state governments were preparing to shave public school budgets to the bone .... and meanwhile the news out of China was getting increasingly uncomfortable. China was growing stronger by the day and The Economist estimated that the Chinese economy would probably surpass the American economy by 2040...no, 2030, ... no, 2025....no... 2017. And now Prof. Chua, the coldly-beautiful Yale academic with a daughter at Harvard, seemed to stick in the knife by implying that Chinese parenting was superior to American parenting. The outcry was enormous. It has often been stated that nothing can make a woman furious like saying that she's a bad mother. Bundle that up with a knock against national pride and an overall statement concerning the weakness of the American work ethic... and you will get a massive backlash.
Part of that backlash, of course, was out of genuine concern over Prof. Chua's VERY harsh parenting skills. New York Times columnist David Brooks described a few of the scenes from Prof. Chua's memoir:
Chua didn’t let her own girls go out on play dates or sleepovers. She didn’t let them watch TV or play video games or take part in garbage activities like crafts. Once, one of her daughters came in second to a Korean kid in a math competition, so Chua made the girl do 2,000 math problems a night until she regained her supremacy. Once, her daughters gave her birthday cards of insufficient quality. Chua rejected them and demanded new cards. Once, she threatened to burn all of one of her daughter’s stuffed animals unless she played a piece of music perfect.
Other commentators were equally amazed at the unvarnished- nay, proud way this woman described the parental bullying her daughter received.
In one extreme example, Chua mentioned that she had called one of her children “garbage,” a translation of a term her own father called her on occasion in her family’s native Hokkien dialect. Particularly controversial was the ‘Little White Donkey’ anecdote, where Chua described how she got her unwilling younger daughter to learn a very difficult piano piece. In Chua’s words, “… I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have ‘The Little White Donkey’ perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, ‘I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?’ I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.” They then “work[ed] right through dinner” without letting her daughter “get up, not for water, not even for bathroom breaks.” The anecdote concludes by describing how her daughter was “beaming” after she finally mastered the piece and “wanted to play [it] over and over.”
Uh, yeah right. Or maybe the daughter merely packed away that choice little memory to be retold to a therapist fifteen years later.
The criticism was ferocious. Most people decried Prof. Chua's ridiculous, unreachable standards and violent threats when her children failed to attain the goals she set for them. Some people had more specific criticisms. Children forced to spend all their time memorizing facts and regurgitating them for tests do not tend to do well outside of school. Academic achievement needs to be mixed with good social skills for a person to succeed in the adult world... and good social skills can only be attained through what Prof. Chua described as "garbage activities:" dates, sleepovers, excursions or just simple hanging out. David Brooks described it accurately in his column Amy Chua is a Wimp:
Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.
I massively agree!
After the outcry Prof. Chua tried to do damage control. She put on a pair of high heels, slapped on a bright, flirtatious smile and made even Stephen Colbert go weak at the knees when she giggled that "the book is a memoir. It's supposed to be funny. It's a self-parody," during an interview. Not a lot of people bought that explanation. Still, in interviews Prof. Chua seems like a gracious woman who treats her questioners with a great deal more kindness than what she apparently demonstrated towards her children. When one woman said "I admire mothers like you," Prof. Chua responded "Thanks. Well, I admire mothers like you." Well done.
Still, I'm not a fan of the Tiger Mom personally. As long as a child is happy and healthy with a good sense of charity and public service I'm satisfied. Banning video games, TV on school nights and ice cream before dinner is about as far as I go in terms of restrictions for my kids.
Are you a Tiger Mom? What are your thoughts on Prof. Amy Chua? What's your own parenting philosophy?