I got the memo. All Mommy Bloggers are required to comment on Amy Chua's ubiquitous parenting manifesto: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. If you have been visiting the international space station, the book is "a bracing critique of what she considers the weak, cuddling American parenting style," (David Brooks, New York Times, 1/17/11).
Chua, you see, is a self-deprecating, hardcore Chinese mom. By hardcore I mean she never let her kids watch TV, have sleepovers, play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities or get any grade less than an A ... and they had to play the violin or piano.
First of all, while I have not read the book (working mom, when do I have time to learn how to better my parenting?), I did hear an interview with Chua on NPR, and I have read several responses to it, of varying degrees of outrage and admiration. What came across loud and clear in the interview, but what people seem to miss, is that her tongue is planted quite firmly in her cheek. She is exaggerating, but to good effect - she raises some excellent points:
You can't argue with the data. Out of 34 industrial countries, the U.S. ranks 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. (USA Today, 12/07/2010) The leaders? South Korea, Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Canada. I don't believe one can extricate parenting from education and blame the schools, the teachers or the more nebulous 'system'. If children are performing well academically in other countries, they are being directed and supported by their parents to do so.
I (and several others) then conclude from the data that contemporary American parents undervalue academics. That means our kids can't be as competitive in a global market that is swiftly outpacing our graduates' skill levels. To me this is a validation of the "Chinese" approach to parenting, if it can be defined without stereotyping (for more on this, see the documentary "Waiting for Superman"; it is chilling).
Western parents obsess over their child's self-esteem, sense of worth and place, the "you are a special snowflake" drill. One Chinese critic made the point that Chinese parents just assume their child will always earn an A, will always ace the piano recital. Therefore when the child underachieves, the Chinese parent is perhaps unduly hard on him/her. But the underlying assumption is that the child is strong and capable of greatness - no vapid bolstering; in the Chua household, failure is not an option.
The longer I live, the more I value shades of grey. My personal truth, so far, is that there is no handbook on parenting because no one has written a book about my son. Good parenting is the art of knowing when to push and when to back off, and the rules change every day. Some kids can take more pushing than others. Some kids don't need it. Some kids are damaged by it. Some kids reach greatness and credit their parents for "never giving up" on them.
I really appreciated David Brooks' opinion in the New York Times. While instilling discipline and teaching kids to strive for performance excellence has tremendous value, "I wish [Chua] recognized that in some important ways the school cafeteria is more intellectually demanding than the library." There are tried and proven ways to teach kids to play the piano. But how do you teach them how to work in groups, how to lead and motivate, how to be resourceful, even audacious? How did you do when parenting demanded that you be both scientist and artist? For me, it is the greatest challenge of my life and my son is my great creative contribution.
My boss died last month. He was 49 years old. He left a wife and twins, four-and-a-half. There's no right or wrong way to raise your children, there are only moments and they go by faster than we are able to breathe them in.