Though the provocative stories in Amy Chua’s best-selling book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother have incensed many American parents and educators, the spirit of her memoir should not. In recounting how she raised her two daughters in an exaggerated and authoritarian manner, Chua assertively denounced the laissez-faire approach characterized by western parents.
“To be perfectly honest, I know that a lot of Asian parents are secretly shocked and horrified by many aspects of western parenting,” Chua admitted recently on the Today show, referring to how Americans prepare their kids for the future. Forcing her seven-year old daughter Lulu to practice playing the violin for hours on end with no breaks (for water or even the bathroom) until she was able to play “Little White Donkey” was just an extreme example of her book’s major themes:
- Chinese parents assume strength in their children, not fragility, and thus push them to be the best.
- High expectations is much more effective than constant praise.
- Practice makes perfect (i.e., effort).
The intense reaction to her story also illustrates the division of the current education reform debate: on the one side, a singular focus on results and achievement through constant practice and drilling; and on the other side, a more holistic development that is child-centered. With a concerted emphasis on accountability and standards, American education is clearly moving towards the former. So now, Chua’s memoir comes at an opportune time to reflect on what we want to accomplish with education reform and with parenting.
Do we want to create a love of learning? Do we want students to think critically? Or do we want to prepare them to ably confront problems and create solutions in life? Though it’s easy to idealize the first two, these objectives are all different sides of the same coin. The last one just seems more grounded in reality, as tends to be the case in pragmatic Confucian cultures.
What about happiness? There doesn’t appear to be a consensus as to which style provides a blueprint for a eudemonic life. For decades, despite explosive economic growth Americans bemoaned underachievement and progressive debasement of societal values. Asian countries have always treasured its culture of education and unity (thus excelling at international tests) but at the cost of individuality, creativity, and perhaps even sanity (see An Education Paradox for a peek into the South Korean education debates). Attempts to study the subjective well-being of countries (i.e. happiness studies) have yielded inconsistent findings.
In the end, Chua’s timely report from the trenches is noteworthy for precisely one reason: In light of a renewed “Sputnik moment” for our economic future (according to President Obama), it forces us to question our parenting and education practices.
Denouncing Chua for rejecting her daughter’s half-hearted birthday card effort is focusing on the minutiae, not the principles behind it. Are there indifferent behaviors we might be unconsciously reinforcing? What is the message received when parents or teachers commend children for a sub-effort performance? The same questions should be applied to all of Chua’s other startling stories.
In fact, her birthday card story reminded me of how I used to require my fifth grade students to compose a year-end teacher appreciation letter (addressed to me!) describing what they had learned most and why they were thankful. They had to read it in front of the class. The idea wasn’t about self-congratulation, but rather, teaching students the importance of reflection and appreciation. We just assume that children will know how to express appreciation if given the chance.
The spirit of Chua’s book, in this respect, is wildly successful.
Addendum: Writer Lori Gottlieb explored the detrimental effects of “helicopter parenting” in The Atlantic’s How To Land Your Kid in Therapy. It referred to the fascination with Chua’s approach that echoes my post:
“Chua’s efforts ‘not to raise a soft, entitled child’ were widely attacked on blogs and mommy listservs as abusive, yet that didn’t stop the book from spending several months on the New York Times best-seller list. Sure, some parents might have read it out of pure voyeurism, but more likely, Chua’s book resonated so powerfully because she isn’t so different from her critics. She may have been obsessed with her kids’ success at the expense of their happiness—but many of today’s parents who are obsessed with their kids’ happiness share Chua’s drive, just wrapped in a prettier package. Ours is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach, a desire for high achievement without the sacrifice and struggle that this kind of achievement often requires. When the Tiger Mom looked unsparingly at her parental contradictions, perhaps she made the rest of us squirm because we were forced to examine our own.”