Friday, January 21, 2011

Are Chinese Mothers Superior?

A friend posted an interesting article on her Facebook page about Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  After reading the article, I immediately downloaded the book to my Kindle and read it feverishly.  Chua's book is more memoir than parenting guide, chronicling her experience as a "Chinese mother,"  a term she uses to describe an intensive parenting model where play is discouraged and rote learning is practiced.

Her two daughters never attended sleepovers or play dates, typically spending at least three hours per day practicing piano and violin -- even on vacation.  Both daughters, Sophia and Lulu, are called prodigies, but both children also started accelerated music lessons at three years old.  And good old mom attended every music lesson and on the days that she could not be there for practice, she left comprehensive notes guiding the practice session from afar .  Many practices ended with screaming matches, but they also resulted in stellar performances.  Chua is frank with the use of bribes and downright cruelty to get her children to practice, threatening to throw out toys and once leaving her young child out on the porch in the freezing cold to motivate a perfect composition.  Chua describes a virtuous circle of tortuous hard work, yielding excellence, which in turns breeds a feeling of personal satisfaction and a desire to repeat.  Sadly, her virtuous circle imploded when her younger daughter eschewed violin, choosing to pursue tennis instead.

Absent from the Chua's treatise is the father.  He is there, but only as a background character, taking the kids to water parks and begging his wife to go easier on the kids.  He seems to be wholly unaware of the vicious cruelty inflicted on his kids or he just denies it, enjoying the adoration that comes with fathering two musical prodigies.  Chua too enjoys the notoriety that comes with her children's musical excellence, throwing a lavish catered affair at New York's St. Regis Hotel when her older daughter played at Carnegie Hall.  As if playing at Carnegie Hall was not enough, Chua critiqued the small size of the auditorium, wistfully wishing for her daughter to return to play in the larger, grander Isaac Stern Auditorium.

Chua is one part horrific stage mom, pushing her daughters to prestigious musical venues; one part drill sergeant,  demanding obedience; and one part relentless scholar, pursuing academic excellence at all costs.   She clearly loves her children, but that love is expressed not by hugs, but by her the hard work that she puts into her kids.  Chua does not say that Chinese parenting is easy, but that she often wrestled with her obsessive expectations while doing it.  Her memoir is very funny at times, but also heartbreaking.  Then again, I read it from a western perspective and the lack of play astounded me.  Even though her book is about her kids, their childhoods were notably absent.

The book inspired some self examination on my part.  What kind of mother will I be?  Definitely not Chinese, but some of her insights are valid.  Chua is active in her children's education and upbringing.  She does not  just leave it to the teachers, nor does she blame teachers if her child is having difficulty.  Although, really, I doubt her children would have any trouble in school, but her message is simple: get involved!  If your kid has difficulty with math... don't blame the teacher!  Sit down and work on the math problems together or get a tutor, but get involved.  Don't let TV and computer games raise your kids; that's your job.

Now I realize it's easy for me to say this, as my child is only nine months old.  My parenting strategy has consisted of feeding her, diapering her and loving her.  As I type this, she is struggling with crawling, collapsing onto her stomach and crying.  If I was Chinese, maybe I'd leave her to cry on her belly, but I'm not so I get up, kiss her head and lay down next to her, rallying her to try to crawl again.

Chua was born in the year of the Tiger.  Tigers are brave, competitive and unpredictable.  I was born in the year of the Goat.  Perhaps that explains my fondness for Loire Valley chevre?  Goats are intelligent, dependable and calm.  Above all else, they are caretakers.  We nurture, we snuggle, we feed; all excellent attributes of a mom.

1 comment:

  1. Joe and I have been discussing that article for days, as we each interpreted it differently. It sounds like the article doesn't really provide the whole story, maybe we should read the book-- I appreciate your review! Nurturing, snuggling and feeding sound like all someone really needs. I am the year of the snake, and have yet to figure out how that will translate to motherhood!