Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Episode 1)

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.)


leah said...

I was planning on getting Chua's book for our trip out to Park City (I still have to verify it is available on the kindle - it probably is).

I have read a few editorials - in the Economist, Business Week, and Time - most were unflattering and did emphasize the name calling and throwing a birthday card back into her daughter's face. I wanted to read the entire book so I could know the "whole story," as it were.

I think the topic has made a lot of parents uncomfortable, as the "helicopter parent" that typifies modern parenting in the US is obviously failing children. Rescuing kids from life's consequences and doing everything for kids is not a help - it is a hindrance to personal growth.

There are lessons to be learned from the Tiger Mom - insisting that children work hard and do work before play. On the other hand, free play has the benefit of encouraging imagination and the ability to entertain oneself. One of the articles I read indicated that China is currently looking to change their education methods to allow for more "out-of-the-box" thinking.

I'm off to check amazon to see if it is available on the kindle!

Julia said...

You probably already found out, but yes, it's on Kindle -- that's how I read it. Enjoy!

And you're right. I had a lot of time for free play as a kid -- in part because the TV was rarely on, but also because my parents didn't "overschedule" me.

A lot of the actual incidents that Chua describes sound extreme, and they're not the way I would do things. But when they're put in context, many of them make more sense -- especially if you're willing to take the idea and tone it down considerably. For example, the other day Ben was coloring on some valentines to give his teachers. He wasn't into it, and he was basically giving a little token scrawl on each. Okay, he's only three, but I did insist that he put a little more care into each one, explaining that giving someone something that we worked hard on makes them feel good. That's pretty much the lesson behind the birthday card incident, if you take out the extreme drama and make it age-appropriate.

Elsie Hickey Wilson said...

OH, my, The Tiger Mama is commenting!
I am Julia's Tiger MOM!
Oh, yes, there were those times and yes, it was not joyful to say "No." to your sweet little girl. But....
As Julia points out, she had lots of free play time, tons of art materials, dress-up pretend box of clothes etc. But, both her father and I felt we had grown up in homes where we could trust our parents to say "yes" as often as they could, but also, could count on our parents saying "no", where it was needed.
Besides being a MOM, I was an elementary teacher for 43 years. The saddest children I taught were the children of the parents who just wanted them to be "happy" all the time, and who would buy them everything, and let them do whatever they wanted. Children are very wise, they know when they should be doing differently. Turning things around for those children was difficult. But, a few weeks into the school year when they knew they could trust me to say "no", they would start to change. Often the most difficult thing was getting the parents to see what was needed. LOL!
I have not read this book...must do so. But, I'm sure there is a "too tough" love as there is a "too easy" love. Maybe the full Tiger MOM is too strong, but much of the joys of life come out of those things that were insisted upon by our parents.
My Mama was something to behold...Full Tiger MOM! I can still hear her say, "Name me 5 'everybody'!" I usually could not. But, if I could, I knew her next answer was always, "Well, we're not everybody!"
Julia's MOM,

leah said...

Striving to make kids "happy" all the time is the surest way to make them miserable! Kids need and want boundaries, even if they seem to balk when limits are given. We're big fans of responsibility, too - both kids have to take care of their own belongings (to an age appropriate degree, of course) and help set the table, put the silverware away, etc. Matthew had a "100 Days of School" project, and he had to help me with the ideas, and then he did the project himself (which was basically stickers on a grid, but he's only in Pre-K).

How old do children need to be for music lessons? We were looking into piano lessons for Matt, but they told us that he should be 7 before we start piano...

PinkLAM said...

I've been following this with interest. I really would like to read the book, as I feel that many of the articles take the quotes out of context (and some of the sarcasm/humor also gets lost). That being said, I'm pretty sure my mother silently cheered when she read the "In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom" article. My parents have always been along the lines of "as long as you tried your best". It's very much possible that they do it solely because they know the pressure my sister and I put on ourselves is far greater than any of their pushing is, and they just don't want to push us over the edge. :P I do see that being a problem in children who aren't as motivated. My parents aren't free spirits by any means, and made certain that we had manners, morals, and motivation. My mom has always been more overprotective (especially towards me, being the younger one and having hearing loss), but I do feel that by letting us explore our own interests (to an extent), my sister and I been able to discover what we're truly passionate about and enjoy as opposed to what my parents want us to do.

Leah- As for the piano lessons, I was able to start them when I was four. (And yes, my parents let me quit to play volleyball! I somehow don't think it ruined my life :)) But seriously, I do think you should to start kids in the toddler years, as long as the teacher has experience with younger kids.

Julia said...

I hadn't heard about that article, PinkLam (the defense one) -- I'll have to look for that. You mentioned letting kids discover their own interests, and I think that's a key point, and one where I disagree with Chua, who basically said to her daughters, "You shall play the piano, and you shall play the violin, and you're going to do it all on my terms." I think there's some merit in getting a child started early, when he or she is probably too young to choose an instrument, but you need to stay flexible and alert to clues that the child has preferences (real preferences, as opposed to "I'm sick of violin (because I'm sick of practicing)"). My sister switched from violin to viola for awhile, and in fact she started out on cello. I got Ben a violin for Christmas, but he's showing such enthusiasm for the piano these days that we might end up starting with that when it comes time for lessons. As for when to start, again I'm going to take my cue from Ben, but I'm hoping to start this summer or next fall, if he seems ready. An advantage to the violin is that you can get a really small one; pianos only come in one (big) size. But they're not going to learn to use the pedals for a few years anyway, so I think a preschooler could start on the piano. Guitar lessons might also be in the picture at some point.

I wish Ben were showing more interest in art (another one of my passions), but so far, no real spark. Well, we'll keep putting the materials out there, and see if something develops. Actions speak louder than words, so if he sees me painting and playing the violin regularly, he's more likely to follow my lead than if I simply require him to do it. And it's a good kick in the pants to keep me practicing.

leah said...

Nolan will occasionally color or paint, but he's not a huge art fan yet. Matt really started to draw and love art when he hit the age of 4 years, 8 months... it will be interesting to see if Nolan finds interest at the same age!

I was never given musical lessons, which was a detriment. Dennis learned how to play the trumpet, though it has been quite some time since he has played. I'm thinking of trying to find someone to teach him in kindergarten, because he'll be nearly six then. On the other hand, Matthew has a lot of attention/impulsive behavior difficulties, so it may be better to wait another couple of years.