Everybody’s going nutballs about a new parenting book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, excerpted in the Wall Street Journal last week. The WSJ piece was provocatively headlined “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” It went on to detail parenting practices such as refusing to let one’s child have playdates, be in school plays, watch TV, get a B, chose her own extracurricular activities or NOT play piano or violin. Ooh. And now the book is at #5 on Amazon. How exciting for us of the Hebraic persuasion that “Chinese mother” may soon have EVEN MORE negative cultural baggage than “Jewish Mother”!
But is author Amy Chua a good parent or a bad parent? I have no idea. What I do think is that she’s very consciously and deliberately pressing buttons, Ayeletishly.
I think she’s creating a persona, and the book’s title, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, cannily plays into that persona. It’s gong-thumpingly “ancient Chinese secret”-y mysterious-Orient-ishy playing off white Americans’ mixed anxiety about and envy of Asians and the attributes we think of being specifically Asian: brilliance, respectfulness (especially button-pushing to white American parents who see Asian kids as everything their own back-talky slutty/hip-hoppy-dressing eyeroll-y kids are not), drivenness. I think Chua knows EXACTLY what she’s doing; I refuse to believe she typed the sentence, “There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids’ true interests” without knowing that was EXACTLY what people would say about her. She eats our hate like love.
Why? Because this book has completely broken through the parenting clutter — press about it is EVERYWHERE in a way it would never be for a more reasoned, less goggle-inducing book. We can argue that Chua is abusive, but there are “Christian” parenting books all over the place that offer very similar advice. Her approach is not new. But Chua is getting attention because of the Asian-fear-desire-anxiety trigger, and hey, since she can clearly take the heat of other parents going apeshit (which she cannily tapped into by writing an “I’m Asian” parenting book rather than an “I’m strict” parenting book), I can only give props to her savvy.
It is entirely possible that her older daughter (the one who played Carnegie Hall at 14) has thrived under this kind of parenting. It is entirely possible that her younger daughter has not. But who the heck knows? (I do suspect that barking “hey, fatty — lose some weight” at ANY daughter is not such great longterm parenting strategy. If she does that. Which she might or might not.)
My point is that we have no clue what she’s really like as a parent or how her kids really feel about her parenting. This is a narrative she’s crafted — how the heck can we know what’s true and what’s exaggerated for book-sell-y effect? Memoir isn’t truth. After James Frey, Margaret B. Jones, Misha Defonseca, one gazillion fake downtrodden Indian memoirs, even a fake Holocaust memoir targeted at small children, do I really have to remind people that the stories people tell and the lives they live don’t always line up?
I do think another reason parents are so wild about Amy is that she’s touched one specific, ultra-jangling nerve. Many (book-buying) parents agree that our parenting culture has gone too far on the self-esteem tip. Chua is right that kids feel good when they’ve tackled and bested challenges instead of being perpetually bailed out. Many of us do drey that we’ve overindulged and overcoddled our offspring — the pendulum seems to be swinging back; since the dawning of the Age of Aquarius we’ve been told to praise kids for breathing and beamed that everyone’s a winner (even if they’re not), and now we worry that our kids will become entitled vunce-y little neomaxi zoom dweebies. Second-guessing your parenting choices, especially when someone else (hi, Amy!) is loudly telling you they’re crappy, and you secretly suspect that they ARE crappy, is uncomfortable.
Of course, a modestly written and quietly reasoned book about making sure your kids have the tools to face challenges would not get people shrieking in the Wall Street Journal and driving book sales through the roof. (Lo and behold, on The Today Show, Chua presented a far more nuanced view of parenting. Nuance is fine after you sell the non-nuanced book and get the resultant mega-sales and publicity tsunami. When you actually delve into Ayelet Waldman’s work, she offers nuance too. Excellent nuance, in fact.) The upshot: This is a tempest in a parenting teapot. Everybody settle.
EXCEPT OH SHIT I JUST READ THAT THE KIDS ARE BEING RAISED JEWISH. THIS IS BAD FOR THE JEWS! COME ON, FELLOW HEEBS, EVERYBODY RUN AROUND AND SCREAM, FLAILING LIKE KERMIT! AAAAAH!