Mean Mom Meets Tiger Mom: I Read the Book

Since I wrote my post last week on The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the parenting memoir by Yale University Law professor and writer Amy Chua, it’s gotten even more press — good, bad, backpedaling, explaining. I’ve read a lot of it, not all of it — but I did read the book, as promised.

One superficial observation: Wow. It’s short. Some of the chapters are only a few pages long. She claims she wrote the whole thing, save the last chapter or two, in a lightening-fast 6 or 8 weeks. Um, it shows. Not that it isn’t technically well-written, and it even has a few flashes of humor. But what it doesn’t have a whole lot of is insight.

In my previous post, my thoughts were based on that one Wall Street Journal excerpt, which triggered the kind of response newspapers kill themselves for (well, kill themselves if they weren’t already dying. Ba da bum! I made a journalism joke!). It was also the kind of response — a gajillion online comments, thousands of blog posts (mine included), and, within a few more days, many more articles — that authors and their editors and publicists dream about, the kind that sticks what might have been a kind of “eh” book onto the New York Times bestseller list (where it now sits).

Having now read the book (did I mention it’s short? With narrow pages with even narrower margins? Didn’t take me long, and I was in the middle of reading another book at the same time), I can say this with certainty:

  • The WSJ, or Chua, or likely the both of them together, chose the most incendiary portion of the book to excerpt. Duh.
  • The WSJ editor wrote a title — “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” — he or she knew would provoke even more reaction. I know this; I used to write article heads for a living. You want people to read the piece.
  • Chua is justified in claiming that her book is not a how-to parenting book, but is instead a memoir. (Despite the fact that articles about it (and, okay, its own back jacket copy) detail “how to be a Chinese Mother.”
  • Methinks Chua may not be 100% clear on what makes the most satisfying memoir, which is true, palpable personal transformation. She never really, truly transforms. It’s more like she gives in — wisely, and not even cynically — when she realizes her choices are either to remain hyper-tough with her obstinate younger daughter, Lulu; or to lose the girl entirely.

I still maintain, though, that at root Chua’s approach can be a good one. I think being in control of what your children do, for example, is a good thing. I also think that saying to your kids, sometimes, in certain situations, things like “because I said so” is smart. It’s undervalued, not said enough anymore.

The battles Chua describes with Lulu over the violin were awful in some scenes. There were times I was shaking my head, such as the story of visiting Budapest, where Lulu and her older sister Sophia would play in a concert, billed as “prodigies from America.” I’m sure the girls would have killed no matter what, so it seemed way over the top that Chua insisted on hours of practice, with a local, hard-ass teacher, no less, right after they landed. What about jet lag? What about just hanging out in a foreign city for a while?

But those cringe-worthy scenes overshadow the fact that Chua knew — the way a mother just knows — that Lulu loved the violin. Loved it, but would have quit simply because she is a stubborn child. Surprise! Children can be stubborn! So what’s wrong with a mother saying, “listen, I’m not letting you quit. You can hate me now, and thank me later, ‘K?” Of course, as the Budapest story illustrates, she goes overboard. Like, by a lot. But I still (throw tomatoes if you like) don’t think she’s a bad mother. She’s the mother she is, and if what she’s said in the interviews is true (that her daughters and husband approved every word she wrote), her family probably also thinks she’s simply the mother she is, the one they have, and love.

I’ve been thinking about choices lately, the choices we make for our children, the choices I continue — in typical hard-ass mean-mom fashion — to make for my sons, in the firm belief that they’re just not all that good at making choices for themselves. Isn’t that obvious? Isn’t it clear as day that a 6- and and 8-year old boy are going to choose hot dogs for dinner and SpongeBob on TV all day (with regular breaks for Wii Sports) if the choice were all theirs? Yes, I see that there’s a long stretch between a parent choosing dinner fare and TV access for their kids, and compelling a child to practice piano or violin 5 hours a day.

But in another sense, it’s perhaps not so long a stretch, because it’s an attitude.

Some years back, I caught an episode of a thankfully short-lived parenting reality show on TV. The premise was that a parent would present a vexing parenting issue to the cameras, and then a coffee-klatch gaggle of fellow-parents, plus an “expert,” would offer advice. On this one show I watched a mom of three young girls was aaaaallll about giving her children choice. About everything. All the time. It was so ridiculous I naturally suspected that her tactics were exaggerated for the reality-show cameras. (Ya think?) Her days were a mess — she was preparing three different breakfasts, down to the girls choosing what plates they wanted. And it was all, she said, in an effort to plump up her children’s self esteem. She wanted to know, if she was so sincere and careful about giving her daughters their own choice, why her house was in near total chaos most of the time? Why weren’t they happy that way?

It was crystal clear to me, though, that these three girls were crazed and disrespectful and holy terrors not because they were bad kids, but because they were at a loss for what else to do, how else to react. It was clear that they were dying to be told what to do, to be told that they had to wear their winter coats that day, or finish their homework now, not later, or that while they could choose if they wanted their waffles plain or with syrup, breakfast on this busy morning was going to be waffles.

Not that they would have said it was limits and rules they wanted. No self-respecting under-21-year-old would admit, or even cognitively apprehend, that they want and need their parents’ guidance. But they do.

The Tiger Mom knows that. She knows it like crazy (with several meanings of “crazy” implied), but she knows it.

Have you read the book?