Some of you might recognize that as the title of the controversial new book by Amy Chua. An excerpt was printed in the Wall Street Journal, everyone threw a hissy fit, and Chua herself received death threats, even after her older daughter published an open letter in the New York Post defending her mother.
Why? Well, the way the book has been hyped, it's an exaltation of Chinese parenting in contrast to western parenting, and full of horrifying stories of how Chua threatened to give her daughters' toys away if they didn't practice their instruments (piano and violin) for six hours a day, or how she would demean and insult them into bending to her iron will.
Except that it's not. It's actually a really good book, and I highly recommend it. I read the WSJ excerpt and was intrigued; reading between the rather sensational lines, I could see some glimmers of wisdom, and a lot of it resonated with me and reminded me of aspects of my own upbringing. Also, it goes right to the heart of some parenting issues that I've been grappling with for the last few months (more on that in Episode 2). I'm certainly not going to adopt Chua's parenting model lock stock and barrel, but reading about her experiences gives me renewed confidence to adhere to some values that my parents instilled in me, but I wasn't sure how to instill in (impose on?) Ben.
A few words of warning before you read the book. First, you have to get on board with Chua's self-deprecating style of humor. The book is hilarious; I find myself laughing out loud on just about every page. Even if it's not obvious at first, almost all of the jokes are at her own expense, as she looks back with irony at how her approach to mothering has evolved over the years. Second, the story really is about that evolution, and how she is trying to stay true to her core parenting values while adapting to the reality of her daughters' radically different personalities. Third, this is extreme parenting, folks (at least from a western point of view); feel free to take it down a few notches if you want to try implementing aspects of it yourself. For example, if you feel that six hours of piano practice is a little much, scale it back to five. After all, the kid is only three. (Just kidding. Ben is three, and I don't make him practice more than two hours a day.) (Just kidding.)
My parents started me on violin lessons when I was four. A four or five year old doesn't typically make astounding progress in a hurry. You're basically in grind and squawk mode for a few years. However, I believe it lays the groundwork for the kind of discipline and musicality required for later success, and I am eternally grateful to my parents for providing me with this opportunity. When I was about seven, I decided that I was done with the violin. I didn't enjoy it anymore, and practicing was a time-consuming chore. I'd given it a fair try. Sounds very reasonable, no? Reasonable parents would have agreed with me, and let me give it up and devote the time to something more enjoyable. My parents were not reasonable, and they absoutely refused to let me quit. I recall some rather unpleasant discussions of the matter. To make a long story short, within a few years I was back in love with the violin, and being able to play it well has enriched my life ever since. (In the interest of full disclosure, they did let me give up the flute, but only because something had to give and we all decided I should devote more time to the violin.)
Not only that, but I wasn't allowed to watch any TV until all my homework was done and I'd practiced the violin for an hour. And even then, it was only a little TV, under parental supervision. Yeah, I balked occasionally at this sort of thing, because it was more restrictive than in my friends' households (although less restrictive than Chua's), but even at the time I appreciated the value of it. Oh, and my parents insisted that I get straight A's, too. Being bright didn't get me off the hook; if I was capable of it, then I'd darn well better do it, and no whining about being "bored" or under-challenged. And if I had a lousy teacher, that was no excuse either -- it was still my job to learn the stuff and perform well. (In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't always get straight A's. And man, did I hear about it when I didn't.)
My point is that some of the most important things that my parents did when raising me are basically Tiger Mother things. Some of the key lessons they taught me, such as the value of hard work and delayed gratification, are Tiger Mother lessons. They unapologetically accepted some of the principles that Chua puts forth, such as the fact that children do not always know what's best for them, and that parents have the responsibility to override their children's short term whims and impulses in favor of their long term interests. That doesn't mean you say no all the time, or that you should squelch their budding individuality and sense of autonomy. But saying no under the right circumstances (and in the right way -- that's the part I'm still figuring out) can be the most loving thing you can do for your child. I'm not talking about easy stuff, like, "No, you can't run out into the road, even though you really want to." I'm talking about hard stuff, like, "I know this is the first school dance that you've actually been invited to by a real boy, and you've been looking forward to it for a month, and you and your mother bought a gorgeous red dress and your date is picking you up at seven, but I'm looking at this report card that you brought home today and I just don't see it happening." (Just speaking hypothetically here. Not.) (Okay, so I was bitter about that one for awhile, but I'm totally over it, and that was one pretty impressive piece of parenting, I gotta say, in retrospect.)
3 weeks ago