Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hunting the Tiger - part two

Note: This is the second part of a two-part reflection on Amy Chua’s book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The first part can be found here.

  1. So with all that is right with the intellectual structure of Chua’s parenting ideology, where is the “horrible” moment? Where is the failure to learn from? At a visceral level, it comes from the meanness with which she pursues these principles. It just feels wrong to yell at and insult your children in the way she describes doing. It’s abusive. It’s inhuman. It’s an exercise of power and domination that is uncomfortable to witness and debilitating to be a part of.
  2. One of the things that is frustrating to me about Chua’s book is that we don’t get to see what her rough treatment really does to her children. We get some glimpse of how they feel near the end of Chua’s narrative - both when her younger daughter finally revolts, giving up the instrument she loves playing and with it her hard won positions as concert master in the youth orchestra and as a pupil with a prestigious teacher, in order to get out from under her mother’s pressure and when Chua’s older daughter describes how isolated and lonely she feels because she literally runs home from school each day to practice so as not to anger her mother. But I want to know more about what Chua’s treatment has meant to their lives. Do they lash out at others the way their mother does at them? Do they have any close friends? Are they sullen when they are out of the house or happy? Who else is important in shaping their lives? Chua only really talks about them in two places – at practice and on stage. Maybe that’s the only place we really see our children once they are school-aged, but I still want to know what’s happening out of her sight. What kind of work is taking place when Chua is not around?
  3. The second failure of Chua’s parenting comes from her competitiveness. Chua’s drive her ambition, overwhelms everything else when it comes to her children. In this she is a Tragic figure in the grand literary sense where a character epitomizes a principle and cannot relinquish that principle regardless of the human consequences. She is like Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons or Javert in Hugo’s Les Miserables, both of whom cause themselves incredible misery rather than admit that their principle does not always hold true. They would rather be right than happy. Or they don’t know how to be anything else. Chua’s description of herself follows the same prescription. She talks about how hard it is to keep her children going, how miserable she feels, how she’s come to love the dogs that she has stopped trying to train and how she can’t do this with her children. She is stuck in the kind of tragic condition that Sophocles and Euripides use to write plays about.
  4. This may be part of my fascination with her as well. The Tragic figure usually ends the story miserable, alone, and/or dead. There is a catharsis in that resolution, one that allows the audience to see the consequences of the character’s idealism. Either that or the character finally has a change of heart and everyone lives happily ever after. Chua doesn’t really give us either. She tells the story as if, following her sister’s medical difficulties and her younger daughter’s revolt, she has experienced a change of heart. But after she tells of all the surreptitious effort she’s putting in to guide and coach her younger daughter’s efforts at tennis, that change remains uncertain. The final conclusion of the story remains up in the air.
  5. I wonder what effect Chua’s intellectual environment has had in creating her attitude toward her children. She was educated in, and continues to exist in, the world of elite business schools. In that world, competition – the scoreboard of profit and loss – is the one axiomatic truth. Everything is judged according that scoreboard. Every action contributes to winning or losing, adding value or reducing it. It has to be hard for someone engulfed in such an environment to imagine a world where that scoreboard doesn’t exist or to see the ineffable value in things that cannot be scored.
  6. Chua demonstrates her difficulty with this in the way she approaches musical choices for her children. When a piano teacher suggests a delicate piece by Prokofiev, Chua cannot see its value. It doesn’t look hard enough to her. It doesn’t possess enough technical difficulty for her taste. That it is an excellent piece for her daughter to perform is something she only comes to understand later.
  7. I don’t know what this perspective on the world means for her children. Chua is pushing her daughters to figure out all the technical edges to a piece and practice them until they are honed to a razor sharpness. This is all well and good, but there is an absence of humanity in her training that makes it feel empty. They are not working to create things that make the world a better place. They are not learning to use these talents to help people or bring life to new ideas. Chua’s goal isn’t even perfection. It’s impressing others.  It’s winning the competition. It’s beating everyone else.
  8. From time to time I listen to how professional athletes talk about what it feels like to play a sport at the highest level and what drives them to continue in the face of injuries, losses, and disappointments. What has always been interesting to me about these is they tend to talk about motivation in terms of fear, fear of failure, fear of losing, fear of letting others down, fear of losing their place. Winning is not really a celebration. It’s a relief. It is the temporary release from fear.
  9. It feels to me like this is the fear Chua lives with and is the fear she is teaching her children. It pervades every endeavor of her life and seems to warp her interactions with the rest of the world.
  10. Perhaps this is the trade-off that comes with pursuing the peak of the mountain. You may get the view but only while suffering through a tremendous amount of fear. It seems like a miserable way to live a life.
  11. I think this is the lesson I’m willing to draw from Chua’s account. So much of what we think of as achievement is built upon extended misery and dysfunction. This is not the world I want my children to live in. I want them to be happy. I want them to feel good about their world and their place in it. I certainly want them to know how to work hard for something, but I also want them to know how to appreciate where they are and who they are with. I want them to value people as more than opponents to be beaten. Chua’s Tiger mothering does not do that. She practices parental love as an input of time and effort, a matter of sacrifice and discipline. But it is also a matter of showing children how to respect and appreciate the beauty of their world. Without a balance amongst all these factors, I don’t see how our children can grow up to be the adults we want them to be.

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