Last week, an article in the Wall Street Journal caused a major stir in the parenting world. Amy Chua, a law professor, author, and mother just published a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and the blogosphere is having spasms over her and her stories of forcing her daughters to practice piano for hours on end, bending their little fingers to her will, or so it would seem; of banning such normal American pastimes as playdates, sleepovers and school plays; of commanding (demanding?) nothing less than ideal grades.
Yeah, let’s just say that she’s generating a lot of horror and hand-wringing, a lot of discussion on what she may be squelching in her daughters, such as self-esteem and creativity. Love her, hate her, agree a little bit, secretly, while also feeling more than a little squeamish … seems everyone has an opinion.
Want to know mine? Me, I think I’m a little bit in love with Ms. Chua. For a few reasons. But first, a few facts some might not be aware of. First, she does not mean her book to be prescriptive; it’s not “How to Be a Chinese Mother and Raise A+ Kids.” Instead, it’s a memoir of her own parenting journey, and like all journeys, there are ups and downs along the way, and she changes and grows as time passes. Second, she’s really quite funny. And also, she loves her children, believes in them, an awful lot. I’ve heard a couple of radio interviews with her, and I have to say, I kind of want to meet her for lunch, and not to throw tomatoes at her.
She talks about being a Chinese mother as, she says, a broad term for the kind of parent (often immigrant parents) who expect her children to succeed. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with, as she says, assuming your child’s strength, rather than tiptoeing around his vulnerability? Now, that’s right the heck up my alley; assuming that your child is competent and smart means you expect him to act that way, to live up to that belief. Meanwhile, presuming vulnerability (his self-esteem is so fragile that he needs you to cheerlead his every effort and post his every scribble on the fridge and give him an ice cream sundae as a reward for a B grade) is what leads, or is one of the things that leads, to coddling. To creating children who, when they are well past the age of sleepovers and playdates, can’t make their inflated dreams match the harsh reality of the world.
The Wall Street Journal piece got a lot of negative comments and reactions thanks to a story Chua relates about her younger daughter, Lulu, and her love/hate relationship with the piano. In a story that can be tough to read for parents steeped in the belief that your child should lead the way while you clap for him on the sidelines, Chua describes sitting for hours with her 7-year-old, compelling her, without a break, to work on a tough piano piece until she gets it right.
What a lot of people missed in that story, in my opinion, is the fact that Chua loves her children deeply and emotionally (she’s far from cold or unfeeling); and that she understands them, what motivates them, what works and what doesn’t. She knew this approach would work, that her daughter would get to the point where she loved the piece she was playing precisely because she had worked so damned hard to master it. She also knew that if she didn’t push that hard, her child would have never felt that rush of mastery.
During a recent radio interview, Chua pointed out that if she had been that strict with Lulu and was also a cold, unfeeling, abusive parent, her efforts would quite obviously have backfired. But she’s not. She simply expects a lot.
When did it happen that expecting a lot — and not backing down on that — became awful?
Chua described, in a recent radio interview, how her husband (raised in a liberal Jewish household) laments not having learned to play a musical instrument. His parents, he said, gave him a choice: do you want to take piano lessons, or play with your friends? What do you think a 7-year-old will say? Yes, yes, piano! Make me practice! Or will he go out and play with his friends and only regret that his parents didn’t sit his butt on the bench when he’s deep in his 40s?
To me, it simply doesn’t come down to the choice between showing your child unconditional love on the one hand, and pushing them hard to reach their potential on the other. I love my children unconditionally, but that doesn’t mean I’ll let them slack off for the sake of their self-esteem.
Sometimes kids have to be pushed hard. If I let them, my kids would bargain their way out of piano practice (both take lessons), or only do it every few days, or only for the absolute minimum. I don’t have future prodigies on my hands, I know that already. But I compel them, absolutely, to sit down and play their pieces and do their scales over and over because otherwise, as I tell them, they are wasting their own time and my money by taking lessons. Harsh? Thanks.
What do you think?