Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hunting the Tiger

Note: I ran out of time to finish up everything I wanted to write for this, so I decided to split it into two. I’ll finish up part two for next week.

            Why are you reading that book written by that horrible mom? – Ava

            In graduate school we read lots of papers examining the trends and phases of social science investigation. Most of these were considered to be some of the best pieces of scholarship written during their various time periods. We would read them, pick them apart, and discuss their strengths and flaws. What I always found interesting was how subtle or innocuous so many of the ideas we were criticizing appeared at first. They often felt like small oversights or just ill-defined thoughts that could have used more attention. Then as we would talk further about them, the larger consequences of these perspectives would become clearer.
            With that thought in mind, I always thought it would be an interesting idea to read some of the worst papers of an era, the papers that were so blatantly hackneyed and grossly off-track that it was easy to see how concepts could go awry when their long-range consequences are not well understood. I always felt it would give us another angle of insight into the topics we were studying, insight into how things fall apart. This insight would be useful in thinking more broadly about our own arguments and the different ways we should question, challenge, and bolster them. It’s important to know both what you want to be and what you do not.
            I find this strategy to be a useful approach to parenting as well. I watch other parents a good deal, looking to see what works for them and what does not. Oftentimes this consists of watching a situation play out poorly between a parent and a child and then paying regular attention to them over the coming days to see if I can identify the source of the problem.
            It was in that spirit that I recently picked up Amy Chua’s parenting memoir, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. You may remember when this came out a couple of years ago because Chua created a big stink by publishing an excerpt in the Wall Street Journal that essential called American (or really white, upper class) parents wussies. It set everyone on fire and provided a good month’s worth of material for people like me to write about (I wrote this about her soon after). Interestingly, I, like many people I imagine, never got around to reading the book itself. The Wall Street Journal excerpt sufficiently established her position, and I didn’t feel inclined to support her or her publisher with my money.
At the same time, I’ve always felt that not reading the book itself to be something of a disservice. Perhaps there was more sophistication in her full text than was revealed in the Journal excerpt. As such, about a month ago, I checked it out of the library. It took me about a week of light reading to finish, but a good bit longer to clear my head. I still don’t yet have a single, coherent take. Instead, I’m left trying to configure all these different and conflicting ideas.

  1. First off, let’s do a quick summary. The book basically tells the story of how Chua worked to turn her two daughters into professionally skilled, concert musicians. Using a range of tactics that she characterizes as ‘Tiger Mother’ parenting, she maniacally worked her older daughter on the piano and younger daughter on the violin, demanding long hours of practice and a complete commitment to mastering their instruments. She spent tons of money on elite teachers and sought out intensely competitive environments to test them. She berated them when they complained and celebrated them when they succeeded. The older daughter eventually won a piano competition and got to play a concert at Carneige Hall in New York City. The younger daughter fought back against her mother and at thirteen quit the violin to play tennis instead.

  1. Now before going any further let’s just dispense with the whole Tiger Mom premise as it’s just as xenophobic, racist, and tone deaf as the Wall Street Journal essay made it sound. Just because a representative of a historically disempowered population is the one flipping the stereotypes around doesn’t make blatant insults and ridiculous presumptions any less offensive. I would have expected better of a professor at an Ivy League school. At the same time, the best way to sell anything is to grab attention, and no one gets attention by being nice. After reading the book, I don’t think Chua is actually that savvy, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. Either way, the book is much easier to engage if we just throw the gross ‘Chinese parenting’ statements out the window and just approach Chua as a parent with her own particular style.

  1. Chua possesses a kind of frantic charisma that must be invigorating in short bursts but has to be exhausting over time. Her personal style contains a mixture of high-energy OCD competitiveness and a blunt, shock-and-awe approach to social interactions. I got the feeling she likes playing the ridiculous autocrat as it makes her different and unusual in her social circles. She mentioned more than once describing one of her tirades to people at a party and having the host try unsuccessfully to soften her story. In many respects, this personality trait may be her biggest motivation for writing this book. Chua seems to get a kick out of rustling people’s feathers when it comes to the ways children should be raised.

  1. For her xenophobia and manic personality quirks, Chua’s main premise in the book is correct: that you can get kids to do incredible things if you push them hard enough. They will learn to perform intricate musical pieces. They will dribble cleanly with either hand. They will read and write and doing mathematics at levels far beyond the general public’s level of expectation. But, this requires that the parent/coach/guiding adult impose their will upon the child. The kind of skill necessary to do any of these things well enough to win prizes and compete at the highest levels does not come to a child spontaneously. It is developed through intensely focused teaching and hours and hours of repetitive and monotonous practice. Children may have some talent, but it takes the ferocious will of the parent to develop that talent into world-class skill.

  1. Chua is also right that most parents don’t possess this will or are hesitant to subject their children to such training. These children will not achieve as much as the children who are pushed.

  1. Chua is also right on one more thing: It is more fun to do something when you can do it well. Usually I tend to think of this as going the other way in that “I like to do this so I will do it enough to get good at it.” However, this is not generally how it works. People like doing things that make them feel good. Early success at something often breeds a willingness to do the work necessary to get more success. Early failure often leads to disinterest. This is, of course, not writ in stone but it is a reasonable enough rule.

More to come next week…


  1. When I read this book, the author's self-deprecating style belied the sparks flying in the media. The furor did do a lot to help sell books, I'm guessing! And now I'm wondering how much she had to do with that. Anyway. I think it is no secret that many "culturally Asian" people have a work ethic and drive beyond their "white American" counterparts and their kids ARE successful. As usual, it's about balance. As a "Suzuki mom" with some potential Tiger moms around me, I wonder what the cost is for a first grader who is practicing 2 hours a day with (possibly Draconian) nudges from his parents. OTOH, is there a loss (for selves and society) for kids who spend the lion's share of their down time watching TV?

    I do see a tendency for kids to be overbooked because there are so many opportunities and pressures.

    I'd also note that one great divider I observe between parents and grandparents is that the latter feel relaxed and understanding because they are content to let their grandchildren "be" where the parents want their children to "become". A lot of that is appropriate: we teach them to brush their teeth independently and discipline them to complete their tasks until they can discipline themselves. To what end and to what degree is where the balance comes in?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Tara. I agree the question of balance is critical. I find myself wondering frequently exactly how far to push Polly and Pip and how much to let go. I have to remember that 'success' has many definitions and that our family's overall happiness is a prominent component of our definition. I think Chua is particularly interesting because she seems unable to let much of anything go when it comes to her children and this leads her entire family to some fairly dramatic extremes.