If Amy Chua didn’t get exactly the daughters she wanted, she certainly got her wish as a writer: to have a bestselling book and her name on everyone’s lips. The cause of her cause célèbre is her parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin, 256 pp., $25.95), which chronicles her success and failures at child-rearing by Chinese rules.
The laws she enumerates have caused all the hubbub because essentially Chua pits her parenting against a particular type of upper-middle-class-to-wealthy American brand of child-rearing. As opposed to the overindulgent, squishy, undisciplined, and too-focused-on-self-esteem model, Chua puts forth her “Chinese Mother” model, which is highly disciplined and highly demanding. Chua’s daughters were forbidden from play dates and sleepovers, there was no television and no video games, they had to get straight As, and they were expected to play an instrument (one that their mother selected), which they were forced to practice hours upon hours a day.
Chua’s idea of pushing her girls to be their best selves included rejecting self-made birthday cards that she deemed unworthy and forcing her preteen daughter to rewrite a eulogy for her grandmother because it lacked “insight.” This parenting regimen worked perfectly with elder daughter Sophia, Chua tells us—so well, in fact, that the obedient daughter made it to Carnegie Hall. The same discipline and demands for excellence worked less well with younger daughter Louisa, and are what caused Chua to be “humbled by a thirteen-year-old,” as the dust jacket asserts.
Chua says that her model is based on the upbringing she got from her immigrant Chinese parents, according to which her job as mother is not to be loved or liked by her children but to get them to be as accomplished as possible, according to Chua’s own specific definition.
When the Wall Street Journal last month published an excerpt from the book entitled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” a firestorm erupted as thousands of responses—both pro and con, but mostly con—were posted on the Journal website, along with pieces in every major newspaper and blog you can think of. Criticism of Amy Chua has covered a wide spectrum, but the piece by Ayelet Waldman (“In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent Preoccupied Western Mom”), also in the Journal, is worth highlighting.
Waldman’s retort to Chua essentially consisted of pointing out that she is a much more selfish parent than Chua (something she illustrated nearly constantly in her 2009 Bad Mother), that Asian girls have a higher rate of suicide than other young women, and (most important) that kids will inevitably evolve into who they are with or without a parent’s help. Waldman’s proof is that she has a daughter with dyslexia who decided on her own to work hard and overcome her disability and did so without any of the prodding, insulting, cajoling, etc., that characterizes Chua’s parenting. Or any happy encouragement from Waldman or her husband, novelist Michael Chabon. In the end, Waldman suggests that every form of parenting has its place.
“Amy Chua and I both understand that our job as mothers is to be the type of tigress that each of our different cubs needs,” she concludes.
But Chua and Waldman aren’t actually on two different sides of an argument about how best to raise children. Though these women may disagree about methods, they are otherwise completely in sync, since both make no place for the most basic role of any mother or father: moral guide. Whether you are strict or permissive, a parent’s role is to teach children the definition of virtue and how to be a good person, a moral citizen. Children have to learn the value of good behavior, honesty, generosity, patience, tolerance, respect for elders and authority, love of country, and, yes, hard work. Some of these concepts will come from their formal education (one hopes), but many of these ideals have to be transmitted from parent to child.
Parents are supposed to provide shelter, food, and clothing for their kids. It is also in the unwritten handbook that teaching children morality and goodness is required in order to generate a healthy, productive society. Amy Chua wants her kids to be accomplished musicians and high-performing students. But what about their moral character? She’s got nothing to say about that. Ayelet Waldman says she wants her kids to follow their bliss and be the best they can be. But if they become their best nihilistic, lawbreaking selves, will she be grateful? Since Waldman writes so often about her progressive politics and anti-Zionism, it’s worth wondering whether her most horrific nightmare might involve one of her four children moving to Israel or becoming a Republican. The same question can be asked of Amy Chua, a liberal Yale law professor married to a Jewish liberal Yale law professor.