Diary of a mean mommy

If you’ve been listening to your NPR lately or browsing online, you’ve probably come across mention of the hottest new thing in parental navel gazing: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Yale Law Professor Amy Chua, daughter of Chinese immigrant to the U.S., a highly successful author and academic and self-professed “tiger mother.”

Chua’s book, which was released by Penguin Press this week, and the self-penned Wall Street Journal opinion piece that launched it have set tongues flapping coast to coast about the pros- and cons of what Chua describes as the “Chinese way” of mothering (though allowing that its not unique to Chinese women), as compared with what she loosely terms the “Western” model of parenting.

What’s the Chinese method of mothering? According to Chua, its a kind of maternal totalitarianism that encompasses a numbing collection of do’s and even more don’ts. As in “Don’t…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 (your) 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 AND not play the piano or violin.” These are her words, mind you, not mine.

Mothering the Chinese way also involves a push not just to participate in activities, but to perfect them. Chua talks of forcing her two daughters to practice their instruments for three hours a day. (Her oldest daughter is a piano prodigy, her youngest an accomplished violinist.) “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.”

“The Chinese strategy,” Chua argues, “produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun.”

Its hard to argue with that. My kids should definitely be practicing their instruments for more than the 20 to 30 minutes they give us. And – yes – success breeds self confidence and more success. I like her notion that parents should operate from the assumption that their children are strong and resilient, not weak and vulnerable – expect them to succeed and to triumph over adversity, not be upended by it. Note to self.

What’s hard to swallow are the kinds of bullying parenting techniques that Chua recognizes are  scandalous by Western standards, but seems to believe are really quaint and effective. These include calling her daughters “garbage” when they’re disrespectful, “fatty” when they put on too much weight and “lazy” when their kids fail to get straight A’s. (A- doesn’t count.)

Even harder to stomach is Chua’s blinkered understanding of “success” and her transparently desperate need to make us accept her vision of a world divided neatly into “winners” (mostly driven Chinese kids and a few enlightened Westerners who go to Ivy League schools) and “losers” (everyone else).

What’s going on here? A couple things, I think. For one, everyone loves self help parenting books, and Chua’s (which, let’s face it, is more than a little tongue-in-cheek) seems to offer an easy answer to vexing problems: be meaner to your kids and expect more of them.

Second, Chua’s book is coming out at what I hope will be the apex of a wave of Sinophilia that’s sweeping the U.S. Our economy’s in the crapper, while China’s is growing at double digits. In Washington, our elected leaders dither while tens of millions of Americans are out of work. Over there, factories are humming and the government is pouring billions into the kind of job rich infrastructure investment we only dream about here: new cities, roads, bridges, apartment buildings and thousands of miles of high speed rail lines. China’s lean and hungry. We in the U.S. are fat and lazy. And why? Well, Chua suggests, its probably because of the way we were brought up. Its a seductive argument – but way too simple.

Of course, the data Chua uses to support her “extreme mothering” mantra is spotty at best. She, after all, is working with an “n of 2” – her daughters – as evidence that her approach works. Sure, the Tigress and her laid-back Jewish husband seem to have had good results with their two daughters. Chua poses imperiously in front of her high achieving daughters in the Journal piece and seems to want to take all the credit. But who’s to say that it was mom’s strict parenting, dad’s loving, nurturing parenting, or some combination of both (and some genetics) that deserve the credit?

Beyond that, its ludicrous to assume that Chua’s approach to mothering is universal within Chinese culture, or even the Chinese American community. I don’t have any data on this, but I’d like to think that loving, nurturing mothers (and their opposite) are evenly distributed across the globe. And its not like the Chinese are the only immigrant group in the U.S. to land upon the realization that hard work, education, discipline and attentive parenting produce results. Indian, Irish, Jewish, Jamaican and Korean families have followed a similar path to professional achievement in fields like law, business, science, technology and medicine.

In fact, if you’re looking for a model of mothering to adopt that will produce results, you might do better to kibitz with Chua’s Jewish mother in law than with the Tiger mom herself. After all, Chinese folks make up 29% of the world’s population but have earned just 11 Nobel Prizes, 9 of them in basic science. Jews, on the other hand, with just 0.2% of the world’s population (and a well earned reputation for turning out warm, nurturing moms) count fully 181 Nobel Prize winners, including 42% of the world’s Nobel Prizes in economics, 20% of the Nobel prizes in Chemistry, 25% of the Nobel Prizes in Physics, 27% in Medicine and 12% of the world’s Nobel Prizes in literature.

And we let our kids go to summer camp, too!