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“Super-parenting or abuse?” How about neither?

Anne Kingston on her interview with Amy Chua and the furor surrounding Chua’s book


 

Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has elicited the sort of fury properly summoned by war crimes. No surprise there. The Yale Law School professor’s memoir about her attempt to raise her two daughters with strict “Chinese parenting” techniques combines two highly charged topics—ethnicity and child-rearing. Combustion was inevitable. As Chua tells it, she was a Type A Mom to the max, obsessive about her two daughters succeeding on her terms, believing that the regimented way she was raised by her immigrant parents gave her the tools to make choices that made her happy later in life. She was Draconian in setting goals for her girls, to whom she was endlessly devoted, refusing to praise results she saw as mediocre. She forced them to practice classical music for hours every day and deprived them of rites of modern childhood—sleepovers, play dates and computer games. Then her younger daughter rebelled and she was forced to recalibrate her approach dramatically.

Since its publication a week ago, both the book and Chua have been obsessively scrutinized—and trashed—in the media and online. The Wall Street Journal’s excerpt, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” (the paper’s title, not Chua’s), generated more than 7,000 comments on its website. The New York Times ran two features on Chua on Sunday, one gleefully titled “Retreat of the ‘Tiger Mother’.” Novelist Ayelet Waldman, who coined the term “sanctimommy” years ago to describe the smug judgment privileged mothers lay on one another, wrote a bombastic rebuttal in the WSJ: “In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom.”

Maclean’s Q&A with Chua also generated rabid comments and letters to the editor; some went so far as to suggest Chua be prosecuted for child abuse. Chua herself has been deluged with emails—even death threats.

Child abuse? Death threats? Really? Not that the unhinged reaction is surprising given the black-and-white treatment the book has received, evident on the CBC radio show Day 6. Trying to stoke listener response after an interview with Chua this weekend, they asked: “Is it super-parenting or abuse?”

Well, how about neither? What the Chua controversy does represent, however, is a classic example of how context can be utterly lost when a topic goes viral. It’s evident few weighing in to the debate, including many columnists, have actually read Chua’s book; they’re relying on the WSJ excerpt and other reportage—which creates an circular, reaffirming, increasingly inflamed Möbius strip of commentary.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is an engaging, thought-provoking read. Chua, whose previous books include the brilliant (and prescient) World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, is a smart, wry writer who assumes her audience will get the jokes and the subtle nuances—hence throwaway lines like “drums leading to drugs” that have come back to haunt her.

Chua’s sense of humour is often self-deprecating, particularly when accounting how off-the-wall ferocious she was making her daughters practice. But it’s clear that when she tells the now infamous story about a stand-off with her daughter Lulu in which the girl was sent outside in cold weather, and then refused to come back in, to Chua’s horror, it’s about Lulu’s stubbornness not cruelty on her part.

The book is candid about the weaknesses of “Chinese parenting”—that it leaves no room for failure. Nor does it always engender loyalty: Chua writes of her own father’s estrangement from his strict mother. Chua’s hardly shocking takeaway: Parenting is an evolving process, one that requires flexibility and listening to and knowing your children.

It’s rare to see someone wading into such a charged topic with candor and bravery. Western parents don’t take well to any criticism. I also liked the narrative arc of the book in which her certainty is upended without her original beliefs being totally extinguished and looked forward to talking to her for Maclean’s. But by the time I spoke with her, four days after the WSJ excerpt ran, she was on the defensive—not back-peddling exactly, but close to it.

Her fondness for rote memorization came in handy: many of her comments felt cautious, even canned. The humour and irreverent attitude evident in the book were notably AWOL. She repeatedly offered how proud she was of her daughters, of how “confident” and “independent” they are. Somehow conversation turned to novels with “unreliable narrators” and how that’s how she’d written the book—and hoped readers would get it, which was optimistic on her part . She says her next book is not about parenting. Here’s betting she’ll return to global insurrection and genocide, far more peaceful topics.


 

“Super-parenting or abuse?” How about neither?

  1. If excellence is the ultimate goal, there has to be better methods than hysterics and threats. I have read Chua's book, and it is reassuring to know she eventually came to understand that, and has resolved to forge a middle ground.

    I am extremely fortunate. I understood from the start.

    I am Chinese, with parents who raised me in the so-called Chinese way. I grew up envying the easy friendship Western between Western mother and daughters, and seeing American teenagers express their opinions, I yearned to be heard by my parents.

    And that led me to vow not to parent like my parents.

    I never said, “I am right and you will obey me because I am your mother”.

    I taught myself to say, “Mother does not know,” and “I am sorry. Mother is wrong.”

    I encouraged my daughter to enjoy all the things my parents thought were wrong, and would not allow, sleepovers, school plays, and yes, dating.

    I treated her like an adult even when she was a mere toddler, with respect and honesty. I gave her the freedom of choice. I did not always agree with her choices, but I let her make them. Her happiness was very important to me.

    My parents and I argued about my parenting skills, but I stood my ground because I loved my daughter.

    And yes, she turned out all right. Near-perfect test scores, and offers of admission from Harvard, Yale and Princeton. I am proud of her academic achievements, but what really matters to me is that she grew up to be warm and kind, with an easygoing, unassuming demeanor.

    I did not push. I encouraged. And I loved unconditionally.
    <a href="http://www.thegoodchinesemother.wordpress.com” target=”_blank”>www.thegoodchinesemother.wordpress.com

  2. If excellence is the ultimate goal, there has to be better methods than hysterics and threats. I have read Chua's book, and it is reassuring to know she eventually came to understand that, and has resolved to forge a middle ground.

    I am extremely fortunate. I understood from the start.

    I am Chinese, with parents who raised me in the so-called Chinese way. I grew up envying the easy friendship Western between Western mother and daughters, and seeing American teenagers express their opinions, I yearned to be heard by my parents.

    And that led me to vow not to parent like my parents.

    I never said, “I am right and you will obey me because I am your mother”.

    I taught myself to say, “Mother does not know,” and “I am sorry. Mother is wrong.”

    I encouraged my daughter to enjoy all the things my parents thought were wrong, and would not allow, sleepovers, school plays, and yes, dating.

    I treated her like an adult even when she was a mere toddler, with respect and honesty. I gave her the freedom of choice. I did not always agree with her choices, but I let her make them. Her happiness was very important to me.

    My parents and I argued about my parenting skills, but I stood my ground because I loved my daughter.

    And yes, she turned out all right. Near-perfect test scores, and offers of admission from Harvard, Yale and Princeton. I am proud of her academic achievements, but what really matters to me is that she grew up to be warm and kind, with an easygoing, unassuming demeanor.

    I did not push. I encouraged. And I loved unconditionally.
    http://www.thegoodchinesemother.wordpress.com

  3. Everyone is just mad that Mrs. Chua pointed out that for quite some time western parents have overbabied, ubercoddled, spoiled their kids to the point of uselessness and they hate hearing it. It points out why western society is failing, parents get bossed around by their children on this side of the pond and it HAS to stop. Mrs. Chua’s approach is perhaps harsh to western standards where parents shower their kids in car keys, iPods, iPhones, iPads, laptops, flat screen tv’s, cell phones, unlimited everything for nothing to work for it and we’re wondering why Asian students are excelling in univesities and Asian countries are doing very well in both the macroeconomic and microeconomic sense. Western parents have failed in many ways across the board. I keep hearing shameful stories of kids spoiled through their lives to the point of being almost mentally unstable because they have had everything handed on a golden plate. I may not agree with everything Mrs. Chua said but I agree with her intentions. Parents, you ARE NOT your child’s friend, you are there to make the tough decisions that a child cannot make. You are there to make your child better, not to make your child a lazy, entitled, obese, spoiled princess or prince.

  4. Everyone is just mad that Mrs. Chua pointed out that for quite some time western parents have overbabied, ubercoddled, spoiled their kids to the point of uselessness and they hate hearing it. It points out why western society is failing, parents get bossed around by their children on this side of the pond and it HAS to stop. Mrs. Chua’s approach is perhaps harsh to western standards where parents shower their kids in car keys, iPods, iPhones, iPads, laptops, flat screen tv’s, cell phones, unlimited everything for nothing to work for it and we’re wondering why Asian students are excelling in univesities and Asian countries are doing very well in both the macroeconomic and microeconomic sense. Western parents have failed in many ways across the board. I keep hearing shameful stories of kids spoiled through their lives to the point of being almost mentally unstable because they have had everything handed on a golden plate. I may not agree with everything Mrs. Chua said but I agree with her intentions. Parents, you ARE NOT your child’s friend, you are there to make the tough decisions that a child cannot make. You are there to make your child better, not to make your child a lazy, entitled, obese, spoiled princess or prince.

    • I completely agree with you that we are not our children's friends — we are so much more important in their lives than that. However, if Amy Chua is so smart, she knew full well her book would raise the ire of many and from the excerpts I read of her book, it was hard to see she was trying to be humourous– she just seems smug, condescending and frankly extremely racist herself.

      That Anne Kingston feels the need to do an entire new column defending her, trying to change our minds about her parenting, is strange indeed.

      And Amy — your kids are 14 and 18 — kinda soon to be deciding if they "turned out" or not. Seriously, people — just love, encourage and support your kids, even if they like things that you don't or didn't as a child. You are raising people, not automatons — I think it comes down to how one defines "success." Here's a hint: it's not about the degree, or the income. It's just not.

  5. I completely agree with you that we are not our children's friends — we are so much more important in their lives than that. However, if Amy Chua is so smart, she knew full well her book would raise the ire of many and from the excerpts I read of her book, it was hard to see she was trying to be humourous– she just seems smug, condescending and frankly extremely racist herself.

    That Anne Kingston feels the need to do an entire new column defending her, trying to change our minds about her parenting, is strange indeed.

    And Amy — your kids are 14 and 18 — kinda soon to be deciding if they "turned out" or not. Seriously, people — just love, encourage and support your kids, even if they like things that you don't or didn't as a child. You are raising people, not automatons — I think it comes down to how one defines "success." Here's a hint: it's not about the degree, or the income. It's just not.

  6. I was brought up by parents that believed in the wooden spoon method. Many people would believe that to be wrong . As a parent of 3 kids under 8 I just want to now how they found the time. Hours each night on music?? As a law professor when did she find the time to do this all? Did they have nannies and tutors?

  7. I was brought up by parents that believed in the wooden spoon method. Many people would believe that to be wrong . As a parent of 3 kids under 8 I just want to now how they found the time. Hours each night on music?? As a law professor when did she find the time to do this all? Did they have nannies and tutors?

  8. As a parent of 3 teenagers I can agree with many of the comments in the article. I do, however take exception to the negative light painted on drumming being the last resort for kids who can't master any other instruments. Both my sons are orchestral quality percussionists who began to study percussion after surpassing the rest of their class in their chosen brass and wind instruments and needing to find something to do with their time while waiting for the group to catch up. They both ended up falling in love with percussion and kept with it. Music as a subject requires dedication and commitment whether you are playing violin or bass drum. In fact the rhythm section is responsible for keeping time for the rest of the group. I do understand the point she was trying to make about kids not being expected to stick with anything but I wish she'd found another example to use without debasing another group of musicians.

  9. As a parent of 3 teenagers I can agree with many of the comments in the article. I do, however take exception to the negative light painted on drumming being the last resort for kids who can't master any other instruments. Both my sons are orchestral quality percussionists who began to study percussion after surpassing the rest of their class in their chosen brass and wind instruments and needing to find something to do with their time while waiting for the group to catch up. They both ended up falling in love with percussion and kept with it. Music as a subject requires dedication and commitment whether you are playing violin or bass drum. In fact the rhythm section is responsible for keeping time for the rest of the group. I do understand the point she was trying to make about kids not being expected to stick with anything but I wish she'd found another example to use without debasing another group of musicians.

  10. As a parent of 3 teenagers I can agree with many of the comments in the article. I do, however take exception to the negative light painted on drumming being the last resort for kids who can't master any other instruments. Both my sons are orchestral quality percussionists who began to study percussion after surpassing the rest of their class in their chosen brass and wind instruments and needing to find something to do with their time while waiting for the group to catch up. They both ended up falling in love with percussion and kept with it. Music as a subject requires dedication and commitment whether you are playing violin or bass drum. In fact the rhythm section is responsible for keeping time for the rest of the group. I do understand the point she was trying to make about kids not being expected to stick with anything but I wish she'd found another example to use without debasing another group of musicians.

  11. As a parent of 3 teenagers I can agree with many of the comments in the article. I do, however take exception to the negative light painted on drumming being the last resort for kids who can't master any other instruments. Both my sons are orchestral quality percussionists who began to study percussion after surpassing the rest of their class in their chosen brass and wind instruments and needing to find something to do with their time while waiting for the group to catch up. They both ended up falling in love with percussion and kept with it. Music as a subject requires dedication and commitment whether you are playing violin or bass drum. In fact the rhythm section is responsible for keeping time for the rest of the group. I do understand the point she was trying to make about kids not being expected to stick with anything but I wish she'd found another example to use without debasing another group of musicians.

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