Sunday, 5 February 2012

Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother appears to be a fairly honest selective autobiography, focussed on Amy Chua's mothering of her two daughters under very strict expectations. Frankly, I think the mother was too strict and demanding, and I'm not surprised it backfired on her in a culture which doesn't 100% back up submission to parental authority.

I was extremely disappointed to continually read of Chua's unwillingness to follow or submit to her husband's direction in parenting. Towards the end of the book she recalled many arguments she had with her husband over her mothering. And despite the fact that they had earlier made an agreement to follow her parent-raising method of choice, I was very disappointed to read that she never considered reassessing this earlier choice, and her husband never required her to either, despite clear problems with the chosen method. For me, Chua's unwillingness to submit to her husband was an even bigger problem than the way she dealt with her daughter.

I did find some of the author's reflections and explanations helpful in thinking about the height of my own expectations for our kids. This is what I was looking to get out of the book. I know I'll never be a "Tiger Mother" and I don't want to be one, but I can use some inspiration to reach higher than I do at present. In particular, Chua wrote (p29):

"What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences."

I vaguely remember reading something similar in a homeschooling book or two several years ago. In general, this does apply to education, but also to life skills. What child enjoys dressing themself before they can do it competently? It is a daily struggle. But once they master the skill of getting those little arms and legs through the right gaps, they're eager to dive into and out of three changes of clothes a day, not to mention several trips to the dress-up drawers, in my experience!

Continuing the quote:

"This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something - whether it's math, piano, pitching, or ballet - he or she gets praise, admiration, and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more."

Chua argues that Western parents often give up too early, and I agree with that. But from the rest of the book we see that the problems of resistance are not "always hardest" at the beginning. The book chronicles the increasing resistance of Chua's daughter Lulu to the increasingly extreme demands of her mother, until the mother is finally "humbled" and forced to give up. I think Chua would have done far better to decrease her demands earlier (once she saw the warning signs of rebellion) instead of increasing them. She might have ended up with a more desirable result, according to her own desires, had she done this. But she was unwilling to settle for anything less than the best, even when the requirements of extracting the best from her daughter meant her daughter was forced into open and outright rebellion, and that's a clear flaw in the Chinese method.

The Bible says parents are not to exasperate their children. Yes, often Western parents give up long before the point of exasperation is reached because they misunderstand or misinterpret the behavioural responses exhibited as part of their child's testing of, or searching for, appropriate boundaries. There is a middle ground, where the parent doesn't exasperate the child but also doesn't fail to bring them up properly. It's a tricky ground to find, and I'm not sure I know exactly where it falls in every situation. But applying a parenting method that you expect to push your children to the point of exasperation is wrong, without doubt.

Furthermore, this quote seems to describe Chinese-style parenting as a method which aims at fun as its end point, or at least a major benefit. I did not see that reflected in Chua's description of her ambitions for her daughters. The book describes how Chua continually pushed her daughters to play harder musical pieces and achieve better musical honours (the right to play at Carnegie hall, a position of Concertmaster, etc). However, she only rarely comments on her daughters' enjoyment of playing, and almost always in the context of providing a justification for her demanding parenting in particular cases. The daughters' joy in playing their musical instruments is never a main goal, according to Chua's own recount of her choices.

This brings me to question Chua's choice of focus in her parenting. She has chosen musical excellence as the focus of her Tiger Mother efforts. For the first-born daughter Sophia, this meant excellence in playing the piano. Of the second-born daughter Lulu, Chua required excellence in playing the violin. Numerous times throughout the book Chua makes the point that offspring of "Chinese parents" (a generalising term, which does, Chua admits, include parents of other racial backgrounds, most of whom are Asian) are very over-represented among programs for musical excellence in the young. I seriously question the worth of this choice of musical excellence as a standard to aspire to. Spelling, yes, it is important to spell correctly - that's why I'm going to accept Chua's point about pushing past the initial recalcitrance and require Joshua to knuckle under and work hard at excelling in spelling this year. Reading, yes, it is essential to be able to read fluently and enormously enjoyable to be able to read with verve and expression - that's why I plan to require Abigail to practice her reading more with me this year. Bible study, yes, this is a beneficial discipline - that's why I get up early to do it and Jeff is training the kids to do it. But I don't see why music is chosen as the arena of excellence by so many Asian parents. What is its inherent value and utility, given that "fun" is clearly not the goal? Chua admits at one point that she chose violin for Lulu because it was inherently difficult. Is that all this parenting method boils down to, requiring excellence in a manifestly difficult endeavour purely for the sake of its difficulty? Disappointingly, it appears so.

Now, I have to admit, I do think learning a musical instrument is a worthwhile endeavour. For me, however, its worth is in its utility, not in its difficulty. This year, Jeff and I have decided to encourage and challenge Anna in her playing of the recorder, as a lead in to piano lessons, because Anna aspires to be involved in music ministry with a church in the future. She loves singing and dancing and already is involved in our school's junior choir, but we can't afford private singing lessons. I'm not even sure how we'll afford piano lessons; I'm hoping she'll be able to practice on our church's piano, and we'll be able to barter for piano lessons with someone we know through church. So, given Anna's interest in music, I can see that lessons and drill and diligent practice for her are worthwhile. But for Joshua, who needs to focus his energies on learning to spell, and for Abigail, who needs to focus her efforts on learning to read fluently, neither of whom have significant interest in music playing or singing, requiring musical excellence would be a source of unnecessary conflict and exasperation, without the benefit of utility.

Chua has neglected to reflect upon this aspect of her choice of such a demanding parenting style. And in doing so, she has also failed to consider how such a demanding parenting style has influenced her own life, although she clearly chronicles her lack of enjoyment of her chosen academic studies and profession, despite her admirable success in those arenas. Given that Chua describes herself as experiencing little joy and fun in her adult life, which she entered as a direct result of her own experience being parented under the Chinese model, I wonder why she chose to inflict it upon her own children. There is no answer to this in the book, except Chua's fear that her children might succumb to a typical third-generation immigrant slide into an "average" life. Is fear a good basis for parenting choices? I don't think so.

So what is a better basis? Is it reasonable to go all Tiger Mother on even one aspect of child rearing? It has to come down to the goal that God sets for us: to do all for the glory of God. Realistically, I don't think Tiger Mothering can be done to the glory of God, because the glory of the child and the glory of the parent get in the way. However, I think those of us with very relaxed "Western" attitudes to our parenting, like - at times - myself, can learn a bit from Chua's determination and Type A personality focus.

Tenacity and diligence in overseeing the teaching of life or academic skills are good things. But the lesson Chua herself learned, that Tiger-style Extreme Mothering is not always a good thing, needs to be kept in mind.

1 comment:

Mrs. Edwards said...

Great review. I would not want to be a Tiger Mother, but there are certainly times I need a kick the pants to up my expectations a bit! I really appreciated your conclusion that tiger mothering doesn't really fit the mission of living to God's glory, and that is what really counts.