January 24, 2011 at 11:33 am , by Tom Claire
Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale and hardworking mother of two teenage daughters (her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, also teaches law at Yale and writes suspense novels), has sparked a giant controversy in publishing her memoir-cum-parenting book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (The Penguin Press; $25.95; 2011). The crux of the brouhaha: Which parenting paradigm works better, the traditional American model, which proposes that parents let their children discover what they naturally excel at and then help them achieve success at it while preserving the kids’ all-important “self esteem,” or Chua’s “Asian” model, in which parents push their children to perform tasks that the parents decide are worthwhile with 110 percent of their ability to the exclusion of seemingly self-indulgent activities such as sleepovers and after-school drama clubs? Chua asserts that her Chinese parenting methods work better, and that the United States is on the road to failure because we don’t push our children hard enough, far enough, fast enough. The numbers seem to support her: According to a report from the U.S. Department of Labor, Asian-American high school graduates have the highest college enrollment rate, at 92.2 percent.
But let’s step back for a moment and look at her book not as a parenting guide or manifesto but as an engaging read. Reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a joy, a pleasure and an eye-opener. First, it is so engagingly written you hate to see it end; when you do finally close it you hope that a sequel will arrive—soon. Second, it is provocative. How do mothers anticipate their daughters’ reactions to suggestions, suppositions, successes and failures? How many moves in advance in a game of childrearing chess must a parent think in order to effect an outcome in a child that the parent will find acceptable and the child achievable? What can parents and children do together to foster favorable outcomes? Third, Chua explores the definition of family life today. How does a parent pursue his or her interests, hold down a full-time job and set aside enough time for family? How much time should children be given to play, to interact with other children, to partake in family pursuits? And fourth (but by no means last) and central to Chua’s analysis, she tackles the most fundamental question of all: What is the goal of childrearing? Do parents exist for children or do children exist for parents? (This question runs as a motif throughout Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Chua and Rubenfeld do not agree on its answer.)
It is also important to look at these questions in the context of today’s education debate. First, to what extent do children’s teachers play a role in their upbringing? Chua touches on this question but does not dredge deeply enough for me. Second, what about the one-quarter (a percentage that is still rising) of American kids today who do not belong to a nuclear family? How can they succeed without the total parental commitment Chua’s method entails? And what about these kids’ parents? How are they supposed to help their children excel in situations where they may already be at a disadvantage? What hope do these youngsters have when resources are stretched or nonexistent?
A single book can’t hope to address the myriad social problems America’s children face, but when considering Amy Chua’s sparkling book and her childrearing methodology from a child’s viewpoint, I daresay no youngster would voluntarily forego total parental commitment to his or her well-being and education—even if the child bridles against a particular method (as Chua’s younger daughter eventually did). Who would? What could be better evidence of a mother’s love than knowing that she has such high expectations for you that she will give everything to see you fulfill them? A tiger mother might be tough, but even the most rebellious child is unlikely not to feel at least a grudging appreciation for all that devotion.
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