One tiger that should be extinct

A little foreword: In high school, I knew of a Chinese boy who was always among the top three in maths and sciences, in our  entire class of over 300. In every other subject, he usually placed among the top five. It seemed to me that he consistently took home top-ten honours nation-wide in math competitions, to the delight of proud math teachers who patted themselves on the back and take credit for their students’ successes. In the unspoken race among us students who desired (or were pressured) to bring home high academic results, he almost always finished as #1 or #2. Armed with impressive scholarships, he went on to a very highly-regarded U.S. institute known for its science and engineering programmes, not to mention its Nobel laureates. And yes, this young man played the violin and piano. But as I understand it, his career now is as a pastor; his life-calling lies in guiding people to find God in their life. He is not an engineer, rocket scientist, brain surgeon, or world-renowned pianist/violinist. He is not wealthy. He is simply following his own true passion. Somehow, I imagine that this would make him a failure in Amy Chua’s eyes.

In recent weeks, several friends have sent to me excerpts, articles, links, and radio discussions about Ms. Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (I can’t bear to provide a link to the book from here; it would pain me to send any readers over there, so I’m sure that anyone who wants to find it will be able to do so). To reduce it to its most basic premise, this is a book that promotes the suppression of a child’s personal desires and abilities; praises the art of pushing, bullying, and verbally abusing a child for his/her own good; and (of course) pooh-poohs the need to praise a child to success. This book says that the “Chinese mother” way of raising children is far superior to the Western way (which is understood to mean a coddling, indulgent way which promotes a child’s self-esteem and personal desires). And by the way, “Chinese” is meant to be a broader term to include any ethnic group that pushes for high academic achievement over a child’s personal wants.

People who know me know that I would be interested in this topic, since I was an Asian (though not Chinese) child who was semi-raised by a tiger mother. I say “semi-raised” because although my mother certainly seemed to follow the model drawn by Ms. Chua, I rebelled highly and never turned out the way I should have, under the reign of a tiger mother. That being said, as an Asian, a mother, and the child of an Asian mother, I can find absolutely nothing positive to say about Ms. Chua’s exhortations.

Reading about this woman and this book is like passing by a gruesome accident: You don’t want to look, but you know you have to, to see how it turns out. And as I had predicted, sure enough, she’s now making the rounds of talk shows to promote her tome and get as much fame and money out of this before her 15 minutes (hopefully) run out. And yes, I had to watch. I caught a bit of her on the Colbert Report tonight, and the little that I could stomach revealed to me a simple thing: Ms. Chua roars her way through parenting because she seems to lack common sense and confidence as a mother.

Why do I say this? Consider these two statements that she made to Mr. Colbert:

1- Children should not be allowed to choose what they want to do because then “all five- and eight-year-olds would play video games all day.”

Huh. I happen to have two kids who are pretty much at those ages that she stated. They both have access to video games. They both express the desire to play video games. You know what? They don’t play video games all day. Why not? Because I have enough common sense as a parent to not let my children play all day, and to say to them, “It’s nice that you’re enjoying yourself. You have a right to, from time to time. Now it’s time to stop.” And I have enough firmness as a parent to have them do as I ask, without resorting to calling them names or physically forcing them to do or not do what I want. (Oh, and by the way: I played puh-lenty of video games as a kid. And I’m pretty sure that I turned out all right.)

2- Immigrant parents want the best for their children because of their background of poverty. Her father, Ms. Chua boo-hoos, had a pair of shoes that he wore for eight years. That explained his behaviour.

Wow. Owning and wearing a pair of shoes for eight years is, in Ms. Chua’s eyes, reason enough to push and force your children to the successes that you want? I myself have had shoes that I’ve worn for at least eight years, with one particular pair of sneakers that I loved for over 12 years. This wasn’t because I was mired in poverty at that time in my life; I just loved my shoes and took care of them, and didn’t feel the need to constantly follow new fashion or consumer trends. Sometimes a pair of shoes is just a pair of shoes. Long-time ownership of footwear did not, and should not, make me a candidate for Pushy Parent of the Year. If Ms. Chua believes this to be the case, she is drawing a correlation that I don’t think should exist. And even if I were living in squalor at this point, I wouldn’t think that this would give me the right to call my children “garbage”, or push them to play piano instead of pursuing drama, or impress upon them the need to bring home nothing but As on their report card. While I’m certain that no parent who has had to struggle through poverty would wish the same on their children, I also don’t think that owning a pair of shoes for eight years makes it acceptable to act the way Ms. Chua describes. None of this should be the launching pad for a lifetime of bullying.

At the close of the interview, the one thing that Ms. Chua said that made sense to me and with which I wholeheartedly agree, was that she did not wish for parents to see this as a how-to parenting manual. Amen to that. I hope, instead, that anybody who reads this book will take it as a farcical, exaggerated piece of writing meant by the author to gain fame and riches. I hope that the world will continue to be filled with people who no longer have to pursue high marks or sit through piano lessons against their will, and instead, choose a career that they themselves wish to pursue (the adult equivalent, I suppose, to being allowed to choose their own extracurricular activities).

While I’m sure that the “Chinese mother” will continue to exist for centuries to come, I would shed not a tear if this book and this breed of tiger went into extinction.

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The only link that I will pass on are these CBC radio interviews, in French, involving a “Chinese” mother and one who is not:

http://www.radio-canada.ca/emissions/christiane_charette/2010-2011/chronique.asp?idchronique=132396

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