I just read Amy Chua's article ("Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," which is excerpted from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) in The Wall Street Journal, and I'm still gasping for air. A law professor at Yale Law School, Chua (pictured right) is an überachiever who's hell-bent on raising her kids to be at least as accomplished as she is.
Chua seems to delight in playing up to the stereotype of the pushy, academically obsessed Asian mom. So much so that I thought (for a moment) that she was pulling our legs. But she's serious. She starts by listing "some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa (Lulu), were never allowed to do":
• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the number one student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.
Wow. I thought my Chinese parents stressed academic achievement, but they were wimps compared to Chua. For one thing, they allowed me to watch TV (I emigrated from Taiwan, and learned English by watching sitcoms). The only time they curtailed my TV viewing was when I failed math in fourth grade, and my father (who was a mathematician) cut the wire to our TV set. It was a traumatic moment.
By seventh grade, I became an A student (okay, A-minus) and eventually went to college and law school. I have a respectable resume, but nothing like Chua's. And maybe that's because my parents didn't adopt Chua's draconian ways.
Chua would probably say that my parents got lazy--and caved in to Western influences. She cites a study of American mothers and Chinese immigrant mothers, in which almost "70 percent of the Western mothers said either that 'stressing academic success is not good for children' or that 'parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.'" But "roughly 0 percent" of the Chinese moms shared those sentiments. Moreover, Chinese mothers thought "academic achievement reflects successful parenting," says Chua, noting that they faulted parents for "not doing their job" if their kids didn't excel.
Chua's article has ignited countless debates about child-rearing methods. Asian Americans, in particular, are dredging up stories of their own pressured childhoods. The blogger of Every Six Minutes, a Chinese American who recently quit her associate job at Davis Polk, told me that she felt sorry for Chua's daughters because they were being raised like "two dolphins confined in a kiddie pool." Most of my Asian American friends think Chua will drive her kids nuts.
Everyone is worried about the kids, but what about the poor parents? Really, do working parents--especially the moms--need any more pressure on the homefront? Isn't it enough to make sure your kids are clothed, fed, and nurtured while holding on to an outside job, without having to whip them into mini-geniuses?
The type of parenting that Chua advocates is exhausting and emotionally draining. Take the time her 7-year-old-daughter Lulu struggled with playing "The Little White Donkey " on the piano. Frustrated, Lulu threw a series of temper tantrums, pleading to quit. After threatening to take Lulu's dollhouse "piece by piece" to the Salvation Army unless she mastered the piece, and fighting with her husband about the ordeal, Chua says:
I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.
Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.
Chua calls the Donkey episode "a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style."
Whatever. All I can say is that Chua's gig at Yale Law must be pretty cushy. How else would she have the energy and time to micromanage her kids? (Her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, is also a tenured professor at Yale Law; he was named as a faculty "hottie" by Above the Law in 2006.)
Personally, I am getting in touch with my inner lazy American. Which reminds me: It's time to park my daughter in front of the TV, then arrange her sleepover--not at my place, but at her friend's house--so that I can get a break.
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Photo: Larry D. Moore