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Amy Gutman

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Rousing the Tiger Mother Inside Me

Posted: 01/18/11 03:17 PM ET

I am hardly the target demographic for "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," Yale Law Professor Amy Chua's wildly controversial memoir of extreme parenting, Chinese-style. Single with no kids, I do spend a lot of time with friends' offspring, but given one child's recent observation that I seem more like an overgrown teenager than one of their parents' peers, I think it's safe to say that my authority is limited. Besides, my young friends all have devoted mamas of their own -- most of whom would sooner eat nails than follow Chua's example.

My initial interest in Chua's memoir -- and it is a memoir, as she's taken to stressing, not a child-rearing guide -- stemmed from the fact that we share a mutual friend, which is how I came to be in New Haven on Friday for her reading at The Study at Yale Hotel. But as I listened to Chua describe how she's raised two strong-willed and accomplished daughters, I found myself caught up in her story -- and intrigued by its implications for life beyond the parenting zone.

Long after we've grown and left home, we continue, in a sense, to act as our own moms and dads, exhorting, challenging, urging on as we strive to meet our goals. How we talk to ourselves really does matter, and rafts of self-help books admonish us to quiet the so-called "inner critic" and be kinder to ourselves. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all for kindness, for compassionate self-regard. Harsh self-judgments can be crippling, and those of us who struggle with such voices must find ways to surmount them. But that leaves open the question of how we go about this. What strategies should we use? What strategies are most effective?

Thanks in large part to a Wall Street Journal excerpt that went viral on the Internet, Chua's book became instantly notorious for its most provocative sections -- and in truth, they are many. (As a side note, the misleading Journal headline "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" really is "The Gift That Keeps on Giving," prompting follow-up leads such as "Amy Chua Backs Away from Controversial Claims" -- a statement true only to the extent that Chua can recant a claim that she never made.) Chua prohibited play dates, sleepovers and any grade less than an A. She rejected her young daughters' handmade birthday cards, demanding better ones. (She got them.) She once called her older daughter "garbage" for behaving disrespectfully.

But these examples reflect where Chua started, not who she is today, and passing judgment on her based on them strikes me as a bit akin to passing judgment on Jane Austen's Emma for her churlish behavior to Miss Bates. Like Emma's, Chua's narrative has an arc. It's a coming-of-age story -- where the one to come of age is the parent, as she put it Friday night.

Somewhat lost in all the tumult is the fact that, controversy aside, Chua offers plenty of food for thought, and not just for those with kids. None of it is rocket science -- or even really new terrain -- but at least for me, her message came as a welcome shot in the arm.

One especially timely reminder, as I wrestle with my own book proposal: Mastery leads to fun and enjoyment, not the other way around. For Chinese mothers of Chua's ilk, effort is everything. Chua calls this phenomenon a "virtuous circle," going on to explain that "[t]o 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."

Children and, ahem, more than a few adults.

Reading this, I couldn't help but think that I might push myself a bit harder, try "writing through" more tough spots instead of taking a break. I'm pretty sure this isn't always the answer -- often a time-out works wonders -- but I'm curious to see what happens when I give it a try.

I also found inspiration in Chua's breezy acknowledgment that life is hard and in her conviction that resistance alone isn't a reason to stop going -- which is also, incidentally, the underpinning of Scott Peck's quintessentially American mega-bestseller "The Road Less Traveled." Significantly, Chua's message that success requires effort is coupled with the message that the child has what it takes. "Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches. Chinese parents aren't. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently," she writes in one much-discussed passage.

In other words, it's not that feelings are meaningful but disregarded -- rather they're ephemeral and in many ways irrelevant. In the Buddhist vipassana tradition that I've spent some time studying, emotions are often described as being like "weather." We're urged to watch them come and go without acting on them. Similarly, Chua suggests, our resistance to forging ahead towards goals can simply be set aside. For me, this perspective is liberating, one well-worth striving to maintain.

Yet helpful insights notwithstanding, I'd still likely have had scant interest if Chua weren't so all-out funny (often at her own expense). Describing a post-violin lesson session "helping" her daughter practice, she writes, "'RELAX!' I screamed at home. 'Mr. Shugart said RAG DOLL!'" Recalling a conversation with her husband about how to raise their dog, an affable Samoyed named Coco, she recounts, "The more Jed gently pointed out that she did not have an overachieving personality, and that the point of a pet is not necessarily to take them to the highest level, the more I was convinced that Coco had hidden talent." Chua has been accused of promoting a parenting style designed to produce humorless automatons, but here she's her own best rebuttal -- as well as a reminder of the healing and life-affirming powers of humor. "'Humor is everything,' I once said to a friend." And while this is doubtless an exaggeration, Chua's book served to remind me that it's not entirely false.

None of this is to say that the parenting model described by Chua should be adopted wholesale. (Indeed, the night I heard her speak, the Tiger Mother was preparing to host a birthday party sleepover, ironic given that one of her most-cited "rules" is no sleepovers, ever.) Moreover, some adults -- as well as some kids -- simply don't do well with tough love. In a startling twist late in the book, Chua discloses that her own father hated his family and was barely on speaking terms with his mother at the time she died. It also didn't work with Chua's younger daughter, whose rebellion sparked the book.

Still, knowing myself as I do -- and who knows me better? -- I think I could use a little more of Chua's rigorous discipline. "High expectations coupled with love" is how she describes the best aspects of Chinese parenting. It sounds pretty good to me. Whether Chinese parenting works with kids is a debate I'll now leave to the parents. As for me, this week I'll be working to channel my Inner Tiger Mother.

 
 
 

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