What motivates a John M. Duffy, Jr. Yale Law School professor, with two highly touted, best-selling books on global power, economics and international politics, to suddenly veer off the ivory-towered academic track and, some might say, “crash and burn” in a national smack-down of highly public, if not epic, proportions?
Since its publication in January, Amy Chua, whose white-hot controversial book, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, has been the embattled subject of derision, disgust, vitriol and death threats from coast to coast, on national TV, in major newspapers, magazines, blogs and tweets. Quick-stepping through an onslaught of verbal lynchings, the 48 year-old mother of two is quick to defend her third book as a “memoir” on how she was raised, how she has chosen to raise her children, and what she has learned in the process.
The book is a quick read, both entertaining and, for some, a raised eyebrow shocker, with elements of an appealing novel: strong, well-defined characters, an intriguing storyline, foreshadows of generational decline, unbridled ambition, racial tension, conflict, humor, love, passion and pathos. It is alternately repulsive and compelling — an ethnic family soap powered by Asian ambition. Like a witness to a fire, train wreck or shoot out, it draws your attention. You can’t believe your eyes, but it’s so hard to turn away.
For those who have read “Tiger Mother”, the “upset” factor, if translated into a “heated debate” metric, is High Noon noteworthy. The book has had an explosive impact, re-igniting a long-continuing national dialogue regarding how best to raise children, a nation’s most precious resource and key to the lock on a country’s success. The morph from child rearing practices into global competitiveness is the burr in the side of our national psyche. It is a goading reminder of our vulnerability — reflected in the decline of test scores, economic outlook, global leadership — and registers among one of our greatest fears.
Not since American pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock revolutionized Western child rearing practices, going against conventional wisdom of the time, has the topic caused such furor and angst. His book, “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care”, published in 1946, has since sold well over 50 million copies and been translated into 39 languages. At the time, Spock’s views were considered out of the mainstream. He was often blamed for the over-pampering and corruption of entire generations of Americans.
Chua, championing extreme, harsh and abusive methods of Chinese/Eastern parenting, is the anti-Spock. She’s not the first to examine whether or not the Chinese have set a high bar worthy of reaching. Google “Child Rearing Practices” and over two thousand citations dealing with Chinese rearing practices pop up. Although the book may feel like an Eastern finger poke in the Western eye, it may not have been the intent; but there are many who, after reading Tiger Mother, are standing around with smarting eyes. And they have not been silent.
Maureen Corrigan of NPR stated, “(she) may well be nuts.” The Boston Globe’s Frank Chi called the novel a “massive publicity stunt to sell a book.” David Brooks, of the New York Times, wrote, “ . . . a large slice of educated America decided that Amy Chua is a menace to Society.” From Lac Su, psychologist and TalentSmart executive, “I would trade every last bit of my success in life to live without the deep wounds given to me by (my) Tiger Mother.” Others, incensed by Chinese-style child rearing techniques Chua espouses, describe the practices as void of compassion, the techniques “wrong and disturbing,” the book “a nightmare.”
Those, less critical, chimed in, too. Some found the book “refreshingly honest.” Amy Gutman, in the Huffington Post wrote, “. . . Chua offers plenty of food for thought . . . .” From Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute: “. . . large numbers of talented children would profit from this approach.” Two-thirds of respondents to a Wall Street Journal website poll agreed that, regarding parenting, “Eastern” is better than “Western.”
Chua’s response to the viral uproar? “I hope when people get over their anger, they can read it with an open mind. . . . I like my book.”
The key to examining Tiger Mother resides in two questions: Why did she write it? and What’s the message?
Why Did She Write it?
It may have been the rumored high six-figure advance or a case of an obstinate stand against advice from friends and family, but Chua chose perdition’s road.
If so, it was a high stakes game of “chicken” on which the tiger mama may have gambled her professional standing in academe.
On morning, noon and night (live and canned) interview shows, as well as during a local book tour in Seattle, the hard-charging author of boundless energy reiterated what she had already stated in her book regarding the reasons behind the writing of Tiger Mother. These included her meandering career path from an applied math major at Harvard (to please her parents), to a switch to economics (when her father noted math was over her head) and boredom of her own thesis, to entering law school, followed by a job on Wall Street (because it was the path of least resistance), to her desire to “write an epic novel” (abandoned because ‘Woman Warrior’, ‘Joy Luck Club’ and ‘Wild Swans’ “had already usurped her ambitions”), and finally to a series of teaching positions (Duke Law School, NYU School of Law, Yale Law School).
It wasn’t until after the slight, just-over-five-foot-high professor had published two highly acclaimed books, “World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (2003)” followed by “Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance – And Why They Fall (2007)” that Chua turned her energy to the writing of a memoir. Following a horrific family crises, her youngest daughter in rebellion, she retreated, she says, aware that “something had gone terribly wrong” and as a result, the loss to her of a daughter was at stake. In a child-trumps-cultural values decision, she looked inward and began to seriously examine her deeply treasured core parenting philosophy and practices.
“The next day, I went to my computer and wrote almost the whole book within two months.” It became, she states, a type of family therapy, in which all of the members of the household took part reading and critiquing the book. The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is an eyes-wide-open, blatant and honest account of the reasons behind how she raised her children and the results. “I’m not proud of every moment,” she has said, and vehemently contends, it is not a prescriptive book on “how to parent,” but a biographic novel, a memoir and “a cautionary tale.”
What’s the Message?
Stereotypes are society’s way of communicating in shorthand. Like it or not, when we hear words or phrases like, “conservative“ or “knee-jerk liberal,” there isn’t much else required to complete the picture for most of us. So, when Chua hit the keys of her computer to pound out a personal tale of Eastern (Chinese) vs. Western parenting, every closeted, hostile feeling regarding Asia and the U.S. tumbled into view, dragging along with it a wide load of hostility-laden baggage of comparisons, xenophobic rivalries, national honor, global power, race and ethnicity.
While Chua’s Tiger Mother waves the flag of “model minority” and über Asian achievement, she simultaneously uncovers its costs. Her mantra, “the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish, bully and shame the child,” is the book’s overriding theme in multiple variations. She glories in the application of rigorous, unflinching discipline, long hours of tedious practice, authoritarian rule, uncompromising standards, pressure to succeed – all staple methods guaranteed, she says, to result in the highest rates of achievement success. Unapologetic, she documents her practices of criticism, coercion, bribery, sarcasm, extortion, threats, insults, and exacting punishment. “An A-minus is a bad grade” she writes, “You must never compliment your children in public . . . The only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and . . . that medal must be gold.”
Western parents, Chua claims, “are concerned about their children’s psyches” and “struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement.” She continues, “Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight A’s. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best.” They “produce entitled children who aren’t forced to live up to their abilities.”
Born in the year of the tiger, Chua epitomizes Panthera tigris, an apex predator that reigns supreme at the top of its food chain, with no predatory challenger in sight. According to her, the tiger is “passionate and rash, inspires fear and respect.” Those born under the sign of the tiger are “a living symbol of strength and power.” They are “tense, like being obeyed, but pay the price of solitude for their position of authority.” Armed with unflinching child-rearing beliefs, reinforced by her Zodiac sign, the book charts a predictable journey of her motivations and actions.
Following a climactic clash with her youngest daughter, in which her shrill “my- way-or-the-highway” libretto is finally drowned out by her equally strong-willed, defiant daughter, Chua has modulated the austerity of her child rearing voice, retrofitting the framework of Eastern parenting with an acknowledgement of its limits. In the end, she concludes that however strongly she might believe in the Chinese parenting methods of her own upbringing, what she has learned from using them to raise her children “has not been a one hundred percent success.”
Interviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle, Chua stated, “I’m not going to retract my statements about Chinese parenting. But . . . I’m aware now of the limitations of that model . . . .” The lesson learned, she says, is that one must also take in account the personalities and temperaments of one’s children by listening, with ears as well as heart, paying close attention to each child’s individual needs. A combination of Eastern and Western paradigms may be the answer to raising children.
When the dust of the extreme parenting wars has settled, the tiger mom doesn’t appear to be ready to change her stripes, but for now she may have been (somewhat) tamed by her cub.