Amy Chua’s 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother sparked much angry reaction. Actually, a few articles about the book upset people, including me, a trained journalist and a parent. Like other parents, I bandied about the term “Tiger Mom” pejoratively, until I finally read the book. I couldn’t put it down, and I found a lot of myself in it. For rushing to judgment, I apologize to Chua. Maybe I will tell her in person during her 2012 paperback book tour.
One snippet from the book with which people took aim at Chua was her banishing TV, the America pastime. Chua believes, and I agree, that many TV shows aimed primarily at kids depict children who speak to their parents saucily at best, rudely at worst. This is supposed to be funny, but it too easily turns into disrespectful kids at home. So, Chua simply decided to turn the darned thing off.
As far back as the early 1960s, Federal Communications Commission chair Newton Minow linked children’s television with anxieties related to child-rearing. Minow challenged television executives to “sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you—and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.” Indeed, most children’s TV shows put me in a coma. Chua also banned sleepovers, which many consider a rite of passage. She once caved in to her daughter’s plea for one. Her daughter came home the next morning cranky, sleep-deprived, and unable to function. I have experienced the same thing with my kids. Sleepovers don’t teach any social skill that can’t be learned in daylight. So, why not ban them?
Despite not being Chinese, I agree with Chua about a lot of things. I, too, believe that if kids “choose” what to do, most will not study harder, or practice the piano. They will, however, spend hours watching TV or playing video games. They will not challenge themselves. Challenging them is our job.
When my older son was little, he often tried to get out of going to his Tae Kwon Do class. I rarely let him “off the hook.” At age 9, he earned his Black Belt. He has dyslexia and trouble memorizing, so learning all those moves was hard for him. He now has learned that hard work pays off. I knew he could succeed even when he didn’t.
Other kids proudly announce that they are, for example, “great at football” when all they’ve ever done is played the Madden 12 video game. My son can announce that he earned his Black Belt. Like Chua, I believe that the more hard-fought victories my sons have the more true self-esteem they’ll have.
I adopted my boys from Eastern Europe. I’ll never be able to truly make up for the neglect they endured. So, like Chua, I push, prod, and coax my boys so they can become whatever their genetics and early deprivations will allow. Chua says she was “humbled” by her 13-year-old daughter who required a completely different parenting style from her own and her elder daughter’s. I am humbled daily. Similarly, consequences that worked for me as a kid don’t with my sons. I improvise.
Like Chua, I always rethink my approach. I have my share of days when I feel overwhelmed, and on those days I say to myself, my kids, started their lives in orphanages. The fact that they are going to outstanding schools with extremely privileged kids is astounding. I will never know how they would have turned out had their birth mothers had decent prenatal care and not spent their first 16 months crib-bound. But with hard work – theirs and mine – I can teach them that they matter, and that they are strong.
It’s true that Chua believes fervently in “Chinese parenting” (parents are extraordinarily strict, children unquestioningly do as they’re told). I don’t engage in “Chinese parenting,” but I can learn from Chua’s description of it. It’s been in place for thousands of years. We Americans don’t have a parenting model. I have flitted from one parenting book to another, unsure of myself every time I pick one up. Of course, Chua’s book is a memoir, not a how-to book, but it does give one plenty of room to think, as long as you read the book first.