I’m not a Chinese mother. If there was any doubt about that, it’s definitively been obliterated by a mirror and a book I just finished called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. You may have heard of it.
Written by Amy Chua, a first generation Chinese-American law professor and mother of two, this book got a huge blast of press when an excerpt ran in the Wall St Journal earlier this year, listing some of the things a Chinese mother would never allow her kids to do. These included:
- 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
After that excerpt ran, poor Amy Chua copped it. There was much strenuous flapping from those who disagreed with the Chinese Mother approach. Chua was accused of being a child abuser and even received death threats.
Since I’m drawn to anything that causes so much fuss, I immediately downloaded the book on my Kindle but I was reluctant to begin reading it. I’m not big on parenting books, you see. My shelves are full of them but they always seem like homework and make me feel like a failure.
A few pages in, I was relieved to realise it’s not a manifesto or even a parenting book. It’s a funny, self-deprecating memoir about how you totally know what kind of parent you’ll be until you actually have a non-imaginary child.
Amy Chua knew she’d be a Chinese Mother. It’s how she was raised and something she never questioned. Neither did her husband who isn’t Chinese and who occasionally expresses surprise at his wife’s intense approach but tacitly supported it.
Chua has spent years pondering the philosophical difference between Chinese and Western parents and concludes that it comes down to this: self-esteem.
Western parents are obsessed with their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. But it’s not because they don’t care. As Chua explains, Chinese parents assume mental strength, not fragility, and as a result, they’re able to push their children far harder to achieve great things.
“Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment,” she writes. “By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.” Even if it means up to six hours of violin practice a day. More before a performance.
So are high standards, scrupulous consistency and extreme discipline the key to child rearing? If so, I’ve stuffed it.