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The Firestorm Surrounding Amy Chua

Call me cynical, but something doesn’t seem quite right here.

For those unfamiliar with the firestorm of the past week, Yale Law School professor Amy Chua wrote a Wall Street Journal Saturday Essay titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior: Can a regimen of no playdates, no TV, no computer games and hours of music practice create happy kids? And what happens when they fight back?”

The essay is an excerpt from her new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”

I read the Journal Essay and shrugged, finding it preachy, self-serving, and un-nuanced.  After all, her book was about to hit stores and she wants to sell books.
Ms. Chua claims to be shocked; shocked I tell you at the virulent response to authoritarian parenting.  Uh, she expected a warm fuzzy?

Chua’s Provocations

Chua’s essay reads as though designed to touch nerves provoke.   If you’ve read Chua’s essay, feel free to skip down to the “Questions and Issues” section.  A few tidbits that have American parents in a dither:

“…Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

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…

“…Here’s a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style. Lulu was about 7, still playing two instruments, and working on a piano piece called ‘The Little White Donkey’ by the French composer Jacques Ibert. The piece is really cute—you can just imagine a little donkey ambling along a country road with its master—but it’s also incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms.

Lulu couldn’t do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off.

‘Get back to the piano now,’ I ordered.

‘You can’t make me.’

‘Oh yes, I can.’

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have ‘The Little White Donkey’ perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, ‘I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?’ I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.

Jed [Chua’s husband] took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu—which I wasn’t even doing, I was just motivating her—and that he didn’t think threatening Lulu was helpful. Also, he said, maybe Lulu really just couldn’t do the technique—perhaps she didn’t have the coordination yet—had I considered that possibility?

‘You just don’t believe in her,’ I accused.

‘That’s ridiculous,” Jed said scornfully. “Of course I do.’

‘Sophia could play the piece when she was this age.’

‘But Lulu and Sophia are different people,” Jed pointed out.

‘Oh no, not this,’ I said, rolling my eyes. ‘Everyone is special in their special own way,’ I mimicked sarcastically. ‘Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don’t worry, you don’t have to lift a finger. I’m willing to put in as long as it takes, and I’m happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games.’” (WSJ)

Questions and Issues
Chua’s telling provokes questions and comments from so many angles?  A few of mine:

Asian parent sterotypes?

Blunt force isn’t motivation; it may be/work for some but certainly not all.  The best leaders have a quiver full of methods, carrots and sticks, to cajole the best out of their charges.

Remarkably self righteous tone.

It’s interesting to note that Ms. Chua twistingly calls American parents children in this construction:

“…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. 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…”(WSJ)

As a parent, if you do not always impose your will over the child’s, then you too, must be a child.  Really?

Ms. Chua doesn’t seem to recognize or value the plurality of America- in parenting, in education, and in definitions of success.

Chua’s one dimensional definition of success- desiring to be something other than a doctor, lawyer, or, engineer somehow marks and makes one inferior.  She attacks the American notion of instilling and valuing self esteem, but I think that’s a smokescreen to hide behind.  She counters the self-esteem movement with her authoritarian bent as though the self esteem movement must be beaten into submission.

I suspect her real issue would surface with child wanting to pursue success outside one of her rigidly defined areas.  God forbid, one of her girls pursue a trade- becoming a chef?

I wonder how Ms. Chua responds to American students who achieve as highly as her daughters?

Book deal smell- I can’t help but see the past week’s firestorm as calculated publicity designed to sell books.  Nothing sells more easily and faster than outlandish positions and statements that shock an audience; it’s cheap easy public relations.

Ms. Chua is clearly a smart, articulate woman who knows herself and her goals.  Maybe she’s as un-nuanced as her book excerpts and media persona.   Maybe Ms. Chua is as extreme in her personal dealings as she seems.  Maybe she’s not.

Maybe, just maybe, the book, its excerpt, and Ms. Chua’s subsequent media appearances are nothing more than a well calculated public relations campaign designed to start a fire and make Ms. Chua and her publisher a few bucks.

I’m betting somewhere in between.

On the book sales front though, I bet much of Ms. Chua’s preaching and extreme positioning result from her desire to sell books.  In this way, she’s not a lot different from say- Ann Coulter.

  • There is no doubt in my mind that Chua did what she did because she firmly believed her daughters would benefit. I have read the book, and it is reassuring to know she eventually came to understand the limitations of her “controversial” methods.

    I do not begrudge Chua’s right to make money off her “AHA” moment, but I do resent the way she has further propagated the stereotypical image of the “pushy” Asian parent.

    I am Chinese, and a mother, and that makes me a Chinese mother which is not the same as a Tiger Mother. I have my own ideas of what constitutes good parenting, and they are very different from those of the Tiger Mother’s.

    I am truly fortunate to have an academically successful daughter who achieved near perfect SAT scores, and received offers from all of the top Ivy colleges. I will take credit for having given her a whole lot of support, but I am certain my parenting skills had nothing to do with her college acceptances. In truth, I suspect race and gender played major roles.

    And yet, I was always perceived as the pushy Asian mother by her teachers, and her counselors, and by other parents as well, Asian and non-Asian alike.

    Her counselor, the person who supposedly knew her well enough to write her college recommendation letters, asked if mother was pushing her to only apply to Ivy colleges.

    It did not matter that I initially refused to let her take advanced language classes for fear of overworking her, and only relented after I had secured a promise from her teachers that she be allowed to switch to lower level classes at any time.

    It did not matter that I insisted on eight hours of sleep every night, and that I valued health above everything else.

    I feel that most people, including Asians, simply refuse to believe that a young Asian woman can be extremely motivated on her own.

    Chua and her publishers have every right to publicize her book, and they did a very good job, but it came at the expense of all the academically successful Asians who will have an even harder time of shaking off the image they could not have accomplished much without their Tiger mothers pushing them.

    • Bfisher

      I certainly don’t begrudge Ms. Chua’s publicizing her book and the (hopefully) profit that will come from the book’s sales. But, knowing just enough about how a book is voiced/edited and how articles, reviews, and interviews are scheduled and promoted in concert with a book’s publication, I merely wanted to point out that her extreme voice, media omnipresence, and positioning seem calculated to offend and drive book sales.

      The hoopla surrounding the book results from a designed plan, not accidentally and that should make readers/viewers/listeners skeptical.

      I agree with skepticism you brought to Ms. Chua’s work in your last line.

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

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