Mother Superior: Ancient Chinese Secret?
Yale prof and mom-of-two Amy Chua set the Internets aflutter this weekend when the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she castigates American parents as weak-kneed failures who fret about their offspring’s self-esteem, whereas her two daughters have never attended a sleepover, never had a playdate, never watch TV or play computer games, never play organized sports, never get grades less than A’s, and practice their musical instruments for three hours on weekdays and six hours on weekends. As a result, she concludes triumphantly, her Sophia and Louisa are happy and successful—and, ergo, my kids are duds. She proudly lays out the regimen she follows and the methods she uses to enforce it, which include belittlement, brute force, inhumane threats, and not allowing her girls to use the bathroom, to list just a few.
Chua extrapolates from her experience to that of her fellow Asian matriarchs; this is why they’re able to raise “so many math whizzes and musical prodigies.” She scolds her husband when he ventures that just because Sophia could play a certain piano piece by age three didn’t mean Louisa should be able to: “‘Oh no, not this,’ I said, rolling my eyes. “Everyone is special in their own special way. … Even losers are special in their own special way.’” Her solution to less than perfection “is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child.”
Thousands of commenters have weighed in on the article at WSJ.com, about evenly divided between advocates of Chua’s method (“It works. Believe me. I’m Chinese and extremely capable and confident. … I have no self-doubts in anything—ever”) and critics (“You are truly a disgusting human being and are in need of counseling. Free those children now”). Many commenters veer cheerily into rampant racism: “Chua’s culture may produce ‘gifted’ kids, but from what I’ve seen, they are personally meek and socially retarded.” What’s striking about both sides is their absolute stone conviction.
I lack the laser focus that drives Chua to spend entire days coercing Louisa into playing piano; I can’t even get my son to do his dishes. Worse, some of the most uplifting moments in my life have come while watching my kids play sports. What I’ve learned in 20-odd years of being a parent, though, is that the moment I succumb to schadenfreude—that I allow myself to feel superior because someone else’s kid has been arrested or become bulimic or dropped out of school—something worse happens to one of mine. I’m not religious, but I’ve been moved to awe by the exquisite precision of this payback system. Karma really is a bitch.
We all want so badly to be good parents. We’re all so scared we’re not. Chua’s child-rearing screed and the responses from her readers remind me: It’s fear that makes us so adamant our way is the right way. We can’t bear to think we might be wrong.