16 June 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I am *so* far behind on book reviews. I've got notes scribbled down for the last 7 books here, so I guess I really should at least try to catch up before Tex gets here... these may be short, but I hope to get them done.

First up, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. As so many of us did, I had heard about this book long before I actually read it. The excerpt published in the Wall Street Journal back in January inspired strong emotions, many along the lines of outrage at a mother who would be so unyielding with her daughters as to refuse them playdates or a say in their own extracurricular activites. The scuttlebutt was that Ms. Chua was flouting the success of "the Chinese Way" of raising children as far superior to "the Western" (read: the American) way, but that her way included attitudes and actions that many "Western" parents would find unpalatable, if not downright abusive.

So, long before I had the book in my hands, I was somewhat prepared to dislike it. I also knew that I had to read it to form my own opinions, not let my opinions be handed to me...

What I found was not really what I expected at all. Yes, Ms. Chua does do things I cannot really imagine (for example, in one memorable scene, she refuses a hastily scrawled birthday card her younger daughter made for her as unacceptable: "I deserve better than this," she said, "So I reject this."). However, in my opinion, she also raises some valid points about how, in general, many parents value self-esteem above all else.

This is not to say that a child's self-esteem is not important. Of course it is. However, life is tough. Sometimes we lose. And, frankly, we do our children no favors by pretending they are the absolute best at something when they are only putting in a half-assed effort. It's okay to tell them we know they can do better than half-hearted efforts might yield.

One passage in particular spoke to me:

“Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches,” she writes. “Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility [emphasis mine], and as a result they behave very differently….That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child."

Now, do I believe that the solution to a substandard performance is to excoriate a child? No. But neither do I believe it's useful to tell a child, "that's okay, Sweetie, you did a great job," when he hasn't done his best. I have seen so many people excuse children from completing tasks because "he doesn't feel like it" instead of demanding excellence from their children. By excellence, I do not mean that every single child is capable of bringing home straight As and performing flawlessly on the violin. Rather, that any endeavor undertaken is given the full measure of a child's effort.

And maybe it's time for some of us to start being the grown-ups again. Maybe it's time for us to assume that our children are capable and demand they do their part, even with something as simple as helping around the house. How many times have we heard a parent ask a child to do some chore - maybe set the table or pick up their toys or help with the shoveling - and when the child ignores the parent or whines that he doesn't want to, the parent sighs and completes the task herself? What does that help? There are a lot of things I don't want to do, but life is tough. Instead of whining and dilly-dallying, how about completing the task, doing it well, and having it out of the way?

I know I am gettng a bit rambly and unfocused here. It's true it's been a little while since I finished the book. I guess my bottom line opinion is that while Ms. Chua may reach levels of demand upon her children to which most of us do not aspire, there is value to be found in considering her side of things. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is worth the read for anyone who is a parent, hopes to be a parent, has worked with children or has any opinion on the "best" way to raise children (if such a thing even exists).

And, if nothing else, if you are one of the "Western" parents she dismisses as too permissive, at least you can read her and feel superior for being nicer than she.

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