Amy Chua’s ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ may be the story of one mother’s journey in strict parenting techniques, but today this ‘comic’ critique of what Chua considers the weak American parenting style, has created huge controversy internationally.
By Harsh A. Desai
Here’s what Amy’s own extreme Chinese parenting style was like: Not one to settle for second best, the Yale law professor made sure her elder daughter, Sophia, was never “indulging” in typical American pastimes like malling or watching TV or playing video games. The youngster followed the well-practiced drill of hours of studying followed by hours of music practice – she felt learning a musical instrument would be “civilising” for her girls. Even when the family went holidaying, like one time to
Another jaw dropping incident she recounts in her bestseller is the time she threw her younger daughter, Lulu out in the freezing cold just because the little one refused to strike the right notes on the piano. This was when Lulu was just a toddler! Lulu eventually took violin lessons and here’s one stressful practice session Chua recounts in her book: ‘…things were tough with Lulu, because my very presence made her edgy and irritable. Once, in a middle of a practice session she burst out, “Stop it, Mommy. Just stop it.”
“Lulu, I didn’t say anything,” I replied. “I didn’t say one word.”
“Your brain is annoying me,” Lulu said. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“I’m not thinking anything,” I said indignantly. Actually, I’d been thinking that Lulu’s right elbow was too high, that her dynamics were all wrong, and that she needed to shape her phrases better.
“Just turn off your brain!” Lulu ordered. “I’m not going to play any more unless you turn off your brain.”’ (From Chapter 9, ‘The Violin’)
The outcome of years of pressure and punishing schedules was that her obviously talented girls were straight A students throughout school. And today Sophia is a Harvard freshman, while Lulu is a concertmaster in an orchestra.
Does that really endorse Chua’s no-fun parenting style? Not really. Her book may have been a runaway success but it sparked off a debate on the rights and wrongs of her mothering techniques. Many Americans did wonder whether there was something special about Chinese parenting methods, something that they were missing out on, and were paying for in terms of their own “under-performing” kids.
A second generation Chinese America, Chua is a Harvard-educated lawyer married to Jed Rubenfeld, a law professor at Yale, who comes from a Jewish background. Worried that the all-American lifestyle – that believes in giving choices to children and making childhood fun – would overshadow her own Chinese identity, she adopted methods that would reverse this potential decline. Does the father ever figure in her parenting plans? No. Jed said he left the upbringing of their daughters completely to Amy and, predictably, he virtually doesn’t find any mention in the book.
But when Chua wrote ‘ Battle Hymn…’ – on her website she candidly admits that the book was product of “…a moment of crisis, when my younger daughter seemed to turn against everything I stood for and it felt like I was losing her and everything was falling apart” – she never expected such extreme reactions. Even today, she tries to underplay the tone and advice given in the book saying that she wrote it in a lighter vein; that it was meant to be a satire and not to be taken literally.
When I met Chua recently at the Jaipur Literature Festival, where she came along with her elder daughter Sophia, she said, “I never intended the book to be a parenting guide, it’s a memoir and its lighter vein has been missed completely. In fact, when I read the book to my daughters and my husband, they told me that it would not matter because ‘you are not famous so nobody is going to read it!’” Well, even to me, the humour is completely lost.
Clearly, Sophia and Lulu would never have imagined that their mother’s parenting techniques would one day create such a stir – media reports have gone as far as calling them “fascist”. Of course, Chua firmly denies this. “Fascists never took self criticism. American journalists have double standards. They seem to condone other parents [tennis star Serena William’s parents came up in our conversation. I imagine they too would have put their daughter through rigorous schedules to ensure her Grand Slam status], but they immediately pounced on me,” she said. And she certainly has reported the worst about herself and has taken all the criticism she had invited in her stride.
To be fair to Chua, when she read out some of the portions of her book at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the crowds cheered, often lustily, and it prompted her to comment that perhaps Indians have similar parenting techniques because they seemed to understand her. She added that she would not recommend “my method” to the Chinese as their parenting and schooling is too regimented already. She added, “If I could choose either happiness or success for my children, I’d be happy to choose happiness in a second. But it’s not so simple. I think having both is possible.”
In her book Chua writes: ‘Here’s a question I often get: “But Amy, let me ask you this. Who are you doing all this pushing for – your daughters, or” – and here always, the cocked head, the knowing tone – “or yourself?” I find this a very Western question to ask (because in Chinese thinking, the child is the extension of the self). But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important one. My answer, I’m pretty sure, is that everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters. My main evidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me. It’s not easy to make your kids work when they don’t want to, to put in grueling hours when your own youth is slipping away, to convince your kids they can do something when they (and maybe even you) are fearful that they can’t.’ (Chapter 22, ‘Blowout in
It seems that Chua’s parenting techniques are more her own than anything else; they are a reaction to the freedom the American system provides, with its choices, activities and fun and frolic. She readily admits that her own brand of parenting assures success – if you can survive it – but it’s certainly no fun. Today, Sophia and Lulu may say that while growing up their mother was their “best friend”, but Chua admitted that if she were to bring up a third daughter now, she would definitely make some adjustments. Ultimately, though, as she put it, “it’s about believing in your child more than anyone else – more than they believe in themselves – and helping them realise their potential, whatever it may be”.
(© Women's Feature Service)