Raised in the US by Indian parents, I wasn’t allowed to attend sleepovers, school dances, or the prom; I almost always aced my exams and brought home A’s at the end of the year, the result of hours of diligent study, often with my father by my side, patiently tutoring me. Though mild-mannered and gentle in their child-rearing, my parents had high expectations of their children. Even though they were never actually spoken, we clearly understood those tacit expectations. And it worked. How many families have graduated all four kids as valedictorian of their (albeit small) graduating class? Followed, four years later, with four more summa cum laude college grads?
Clearly, my parents did something right.
Perhaps that’s why I’m not outraged by what is perhaps the first book of 2011 to unleash a firestorm of condemnation. In “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” Yale law professor Amy Chua recounts her experience raising her two daughters “the Chinese way:” no play dates, no sleepovers, no school plays, no TV or computer games, no grades lower than A, no class ranking less than No. 1 (except for gym and drama).
Ms. Chua makes the case that Western parents, with their emphasis on self-esteem, free expression, and individuality, produce soft, coddled children with substandard achievements. Chinese parents (as well as others who parent with Asian or “old world” values), Chua argues, understand that a strong foundation can help guarantee their children’s success, and therefore take on the weighty responsibility of ensuring their children’s academic and extracurricular achievement – whatever it takes.
“Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches,” she writes. “Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently….That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child,” Chua writes.
All of which Chua’s two daughters experienced. Chua recounts the time her then-seven-year-old daughter Louisa couldn’t master a piano piece and tore the score to shreds when Chua forced her back for more practice. “I taped the score back together and encased in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then 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…. I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hannukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years…. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent, and pathetic.”
But in the end, Lulu did it, snuggling with and hugging her mother afterward, and wowing other parents at a piano recital a few weeks later.
Chua’s lesson: “[A]s a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't.”
Undoubtedly, many readers will find Chua’s approach to self-esteem-building and parenting a bit unorthodox, to say the least.
For example, she recalls the time she called daughter Sophia “garbage” when she was acting “extremely disrespectful.” Chua was immediately shunned when she mentioned this at a dinner party, upsetting one guest so much she broke down in tears and left early.
Predictably, many readers will be horrified upon reading Chua’s methods. Not a parent myself and longing for a second opinion, I called up my older sister, a pediatrician and mother of two little girls.
Raising children this way is a matter of fact, the norm, even, for Chua and parents of different cultures around the globe, my sister reasoned.
“Kids can tell the difference between someone who’s truly mean and someone who says ‘Hey, I think you’re smart and that’s why I’m pushing you.’
“I don’t 100 percent agree with the way she does things, particularly the name calling” said my sister, one of the gentlest mothers I’ve ever known, “…But it’s a good reminder that in some ways we can be too soft with our children – that in itself sends a message that your child is fragile, entitled. [If you push your children a bit, you send the message,] ‘I think highly of you, of your potential.’”
Of course, the line is quickly crossed when parenting becomes abusive, or when children exhibit signs of anxiety or depression, but even there the line is fuzzy. Even within the US, a good spanking in one house is abuse in another.
What’s universal is the importance of recognizing that children, indeed all of us, have value apart from our accomplishments. Whether I brought home an A (or, later, secured a coveted fellowship, internship, or job) or not – and there were times I didn’t – I knew my self worth.
I wish Chua’s children as much and more.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.