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Parenting is Personal: "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua

You and Tiger mom are a lot alike. It was an unexpected comment that my 10-year-old son made after reading Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." The book as well as her essay "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" in the Wall Street Journal not only shocked quite a few critics but raised the eyebrows of some parents about the non-negotiable Chinese mother's way of raising prodigies. In fact, according to The Wall Street Journal.com, Chua's essay has generated more than 5,700 comments on the Journal's website, more than any other article in the history of WSJ.com.

To demonstrate "my way or the highway" of Chinese parenting, Chua lists some of the things she didn't allow her two daughters, Sophia and Lulu, 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 No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin

Looking above, there is no question that I would fall under the category of Western parents according to Chua's loosely termed Chinese mothers vs. Western parents.*1 Besides, I've never intended to raise a stereotypically successful kid. Then, what made my son say that we are alike? His answer turns out to be "because Tiger Mom*2 loves her daughters and cares for them as much as you love me and care for me." He hit the nail on the head.


About the author and the book

Apart from being Tiger Mom, Amy Chua is a U.S. born oldest of four daughters of Chinese immigrants to the States, and high-profile professional. Both she and her Jewish husband are the professors of Yale Law University.

While the book reveals the Chinese way of authoritative parenting and the enormous energy and discipline required to raise prodigies, it is more a memoir filled with wit, humor and humaneness, as Chua allows us to look behind the closed door without any reservation. It also unfolds the way parenting, especially raising her second daughter Lulu, forced a determined parent like Chua to compromise "my way." The following is the introduction of the book by Chua proceeding Chapter One.

"This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. It's also about Mozart and Mendelssohn, the piano and the violin, and how we made it to Carnegie Hall.

This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.

But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old."

Her words well summarize what the book is all about.


My son's views on Tiger Mom and Western moms

While I was into the story, my son, an avid reader, also became curious about Tiger Mom. Having explained the features of this non-fiction character, we often joked around that I should turn into a Tiger mom when I was too easy on him. When my son voiced his interests in reading the entire book, however, I was bewildered. After all, it's not a children's book, and my parenting principle is quite different from that of hers. Having confirmed with his fifth grade homeroom teacher at American School here in New Delhi about the book's appropriateness, I let him borrow my book. As it turns out, not only did my son enjoy reading the book, but he got out the essence of the story far more than I was expecting.


   The Chinese mom's way vs. the Western mom's way

When I joked with my son, "So which way of parenting do you think is better, the Western way or the Chinese way?" another unexpected answer came back. "I don't really know. Maybe the Chinese mom's way, though it may hurt children's self-esteem." "What makes you say that?" "Well, even though these children have a tough time as children, they can be intellectual and successful when they become adults. We only have about 20 years before becoming an adult. But the grown-up's life can be over 40 years or even 60 years. A Western mom's children can have fun life for 20 years, but may have a bad life afterwards." His point is well-taken.

Put differently, the main difference between the two parenting approaches stems from the contrastive ways each parent perceives childhood, albeit both parents sharing the common ultimate motives and visions: they love their children and they want their children to get the most of their lives and be happy. However, Chinese parents believe in the orthodox paradigm that parents as authority figures know what's best for their children. Further, their happiness is closely related to stereotypical success or achievement in an ever competitive world, which can be earned only through hard work. In turn, childhood is seen as a preparation period for adulthood to instill the virtue of hard work and respect for the authority figures, and should not be wasted by engaging in the activities that would be of no use. Western mothers or Western literature on the subject, on the other hand, believe in the importance of childhood in itself and the process of learning, while recognizing the purpose in free play and other developmentally appropriate activities. Only then, children will be able to have a strong foundation to become an independent person who can think out-of-box to thrive in an ever-changing future world.


   What about self-esteem? Being called garbage/scum?

"What about the self-esteem that you brought up?" I continued. "Well, the Tiger mom's way of building their children's self-esteem is by destroying their self-esteem. If the children are used to it, like her daughters, it may work. But I won't be able to take it if you suddenly change into a Tiger mom. Also, I wouldn't want to be called garbage like Sophia was, because I cannot help imagining myself turning into real garbage and thrown into a garbage bin, feeling unwanted and useless."

My son sometimes amazes me with his intuitiveness, far better than these critics who take up the issue of self-esteem and achievement as bipolar chicken-or-egg controversy while comparing Western and Chinese ways of parenting. Pertaining to the self-esteem argument, I also found it interesting that my son picked up one of the notorious anecdotes of Chua's calling her daughter garbage, because I almost called my son garbage in Japanese when he was in the first grade here at American School. About five years ago upon finding out that my son told his classmate, an adopted Asian child of a respected American family, "you don't even have your real parents," I went pale shouting at my son, "only human trash (ningen-no-kuzu) could say such a thing!" As I asked if he recalls the incident, my son instantly replies me back with bitter face, "Right. At that time, being called ningen-no-kuzu (human trash) was nothing about feeling unwanted or unloved, but it made me feel 'what have I done!' But Mom, let's not even talk about it! I'm too ashamed."

In retrospect, calling my son garbage was not about his feeling unloved or my destroying his self-esteem, but a tool to make him realize the gravity of the words that he spit out to outsmart his friend. Even though I didn't forget to have "we need to talk" session, and the phrase ningen no kuzu (human trash) in Japanese is commonly used and its translation may be closer to the English term "scum," I could have avoided name-calling or resorted to another way of teaching ethics. Looking at the treatment that Chua got by sharing the episode, I start to wonder if what I said could be also seen as abusive depending on their cultural backgrounds or where they stand.


Parenting is personal

In sum, there is no magic formula or manual to raise one's child right or to boost a child's self-esteem, as parents have a different set of definitions or beliefs for their children's happiness or success. Furthermore, the environment such as social, cultural, economic or political context imposes different expectations towards parenting. In the end, the parents are forced to parent each child through trial-and-error, like Chua learnt to adjust her parenting style. Let's face it. We all have done something we wish we would have done differently when the matter comes down to parenting.

In response to the overwhelming reaction to her essay and the book, Chua made the following comments in her interview with TIME, "Parenting is such a personal topic. Everyone is reacting or in favor of the way they were parented or defending the way they're parenting now. It's so emotional." I cannot agree more. The majority of parenting happens in a domestic sphere, not in a public sphere with deep feelings attached to it. In addition, it involves everyone as each one of us at least has an experience of being parented. In fact, whereas I was not shocked by Chua's parenting style, I was stunned by Chua's courage to come forward to share her parenting experiences inside out as she holds a prestigious and prominent status in academia. My son also mentioned the book was fun to read because he could peek in the dynamics of another family. As to me, telling about my parenting as vividly as Chua would be as embarrassing as being naked; it reveals who I really am.

After I became a parent, I have come to learn how difficult it is to walk the talk: I don't know how many times that I wished that I could put my son back to my belly while I had to nurse him every 2-3 hours throughout the night; I frequently vented my frustration on my son while I juggled with work and childcare; I let the DVD or TV babysit my son so that I could finish reading my book; I wrote on the importance of father involvement in children's lives for my Master's thesis prior to our becoming parents, only to realize my husband didn't buy the same idea since the nature of his work forced him to live out of a suitcase. My confession can go on forever. In fact, feeling inadequate as a parent, I didn't have the guts to reveal my profession to my mom friends until I realized that there was no such thing called right or impeccable parenting.


The book is one of a kind. Enjoy reading!

Though my parenting principle and approach are different from those of Chinese mothers, I respect Chua's parenting in its own right.

Foremost, I admire her determination to stick to her principle and her consistency in her parenting style, as she strives to live up to her own expectations and aspirations as Tiger Mom. Second, I am awed by her energy, time and efforts that she pours into her daughters while she works as a professional. Third, Chua has genuine faith in her daughters' potentials and possibilities and allowed them to stretch as much as she could push. Fourth, not only does she expect her daughters to excel, but she works hard to be the person who she wants to be. Lastly, she is a committed parent who tries to do the best for her daughters, as she loves them and cares for them, and her daughters' side of the story confirms that they are aware of it, as I read Sophia's letter to Tiger Mom in an article titled "The Tiger Cub Roars" of the Wall Street Journal.

The truth of the matter is that we, as parents, can learn how our parenting has worked only when our children live through their life. Or even then, it may not be clear. All we can do is what we think is the best for our children, and Chua seems to have done it. Apart from heated discussions on her parenting, Chua comments that she wrote the book to make fun of herself and I take it at face value although there is definitely more to it. My son finds the book to be hilarious and I find it to be one of a kind. If you haven't read it yet, enjoy reading!

*1
As to Chinese mothers, Chua writes "I know Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers by choice or otherwise." As to Western parents, she writes "Western mothers come in all varieties... Some Western parents are strict; others are lax... so when I use the term "Western" parents, of course I'm not referring to all Western parents--just as "Chinese mother" doesn't refer to all Chinese mothers." I also follow the same definition when I use the term "Chinese mothers" and "Western mothers/parents" in my essay.

*2
Chua refers herself as Tiger Mother as she was born in the Year of the Tiger according to the Chinese Zodiac calendar. She also writes that the people born in the Year of the Tiger are known to be noble, fearless, powerful, authoritative and magnetic.



References:

"Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua (2011)

Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior by Amy Chua in The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 8, 2011)
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111504576059713528698754.html

Tiger Moms: Is Tough Parenting Really the Answer? By Annie Murphy Paul in TIME (Jan.20, 2011)
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2043477,00.html

The Tiger Cub Roars by Sophia in The Wall Street Journal (Jan.18, 2011)
http://blogs.wsj.com/ideas-market/2011/01/18/the-tiger-cub-roars/

Chinese vs Western Mothers: Q&A with Amy Chua by Belinda Luscombe in TIME (Jan. 11, 2011)
http://healthland.time.com/2011/01/11/chinese-vs-western-mothers-q-a-with-amy-chua/

In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom in The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 16, 2011)
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703333504576080422577800488.html?mod=WSJAsia__LEFTTopStories

America's Top Parent: What's behind the "Tiger Mother" craze? By Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker (Jan. 31, 2011).
http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2011/01/31/110131crbo_books_kolbert#ixzz1nDCuiY6H

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