What’s all this bother about Chinese Tiger Moms? Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has America’s female parents in a swivet. You’d have to take Sarah Palin to a NOW convention to see so many ladies mad at a fellow woman. Practically a third of the Atlantic’s April issue is taken up with Caitlin Flanagan and Sandra Tsing Loh giving Amy Chua the dickens in terms strong enough for Hillary Clinton’s private thoughts on Monica Lewinsky. My wife put it more succinctly: “This person is factory farming her kids.”
I gather Ms. Chua is a total bitch with her children, making them finish homework before it’s assigned, practice violin and piano 25 hours a day, maintain a grade point average higher than Obama budget numbers, and forbidding them from doing anything they might enjoy, such as exhale.
But being a male parent with a typical dad-like involvement in my children’s lives—I know all of their names—I thought Battle Hymn was great. That is, I thought it made me look great. Not that I read the dreadful book, but I did buy each of my children a copy and inscribed it, “So you think you’ve got it bad?” What with three editions lying around because my kids would rather fool with the Wii than read, I admit I gave in to the temptation to skim.
Here are some of the things that “unlike your typical Western overscheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes.” (By the way, Amy Chua isn’t Chinese. Her parents are Filipinos of Chinese extraction and she was born in the United States and grew up in Indiana.)
• an A-minus is a bad grade
• your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math
• if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach
• the only activities your child should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal
• that medal must be gold
You might think that Amy Chua is a fascist pig. She wrote a previous book, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, so she is. She also possesses the most unpleasant personality I’ve ever seen projected into print, and I’ve read Earth in the Balance. Some Amy Chua personality snippets:
“Sophia excelled in nursery school.”
“Sophia’s first three piano teachers were not good fits.”
“According to Sophia, here are three things I actually said to her at the piano as I supervised her practicing:
“1. Oh my God, you’re just getting worse and worse.
“2. I’m going to count to three then I want musicality!
“3. If the next time’s not PERFECT, I’m going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!”
Sophia is Amy Chua’s older daughter, the obedient child, the one with whom she has a good relationship. Lulu is Chua’s younger daughter, the rebellious child, the one with whom she has a relationship that’s not so good. Here is an exchange between Amy and Lulu on vacation in Russia:
“We’re in Russia and you refuse to try caviar! You’re like a barbarian. And in case you think you’re a big rebel, you are completely ordinary. There is nothing more typical, more predictable, more common and low, than an American teenager who won’t try things. You’re boring, Lulu—boring.”
“Shut up,” said Lulu angrily.
“Don’t you dare say shut up to me. I’m your mother . . . ”
“I hate you! I HATE YOU. . . . I hate the violin. I HATE my life. I HATE you, and I HATE this family!”
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be feeling better about yourself as a parent after that.
I loved Battle Hymn. Of course I couldn’t bear much of it. The prose, like the author, belongs in hell. But what I did read really put the Freud in my schadenfreude, so to speak. Especially loathsome fun was Chua’s notorious Tiger Mother List, currently making the rounds on the Internet and getting more outraged hits than a YouTube video of a Justin Bieber head shave:
Here are some of the things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grades less than an A
• not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin
I just wasn’t cut out to be a Chinese Tiger Mom. I’m more of an Irish Setter Dad. Here are some of the things my daughters, Muffin and Poppet, and my son, Buster, were never allowed to do:
• go to Mass naked
• attend a sleepover at Charlie Sheen’s house
• mix Daddy a martini using sweet vermouth
• play the violin within earshot of me
Have you ever heard a kid learning to play the violin? A cat in the microwave is nothing to it. And let me add an addendum to the things my children were never allowed to do—put a cat in the microwave. I’m not saying it didn’t happen; I’m just saying they weren’t allowed to do it.
Whose children are going to succeed in life, Amy Chua’s or mine? Her Lulu has that violin going for her—there’s hardly a Silicon Valley billionaire, Wall Street plutocrat, senator, four-star general, or pope who isn’t a violin virtuoso. And Sophia, who tickles the ivories, can always say, “Don’t tell Mom I work for Goldman Sachs, she thinks I play piano in a house of ill repute.” But my kids practice too, hour after hour every day. They practice being jerks. And since almost every boss I’ve ever had was a jerk, this gives them a leg up. Plus there’s the cat in the microwave. That shows an inquisitive, experimental turn of mind. You can see how electronic cat-zapping could lead directly to the invention of something like Facebook.
On the other hand, what with all the A-pluses and never being allowed to disagree with teachers, Chua’s kids are headed straight to the Ivy League. The more so since Chua is a Yale law professor. (Oooh, maybe she’s a Nazi and a Commie, making Battle Hymn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of parenting advice.) The Ivy League is supposed to be good for success. Barack Obama went to an Ivy League school, not that he’s doing very well in his career at the moment. Let’s check on the most successful people in America. Sarah Palin went to the University of Idaho. Warren Buffet went to Nebraska. John Boehner went to Xavier. Glenn Beck didn’t go to college at all. And I’m not sure whether Justin Bieber’s mother even finished high school. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates did go to Harvard but—doubtless this is somewhere on the “never allowed to do” list—they dropped out.
My kids fit the success profile. I’ll bet Muffin and Poppet are accepted at the University of Idaho, assuming Wii is a Title IX thing. And Buster will be waving goodbye to Harvard while he’s still in junior high.
Amy Chua, I’ve got bad news. “A” students work for “B” students. Or not even. A businessman friend of mine corrected me. “No, P. J.,” he said, “ ‘B’ students work for ‘C’ students. ‘A’ students teach.” Teaching in the Ivy League gives you a lot of time off, Amy—enough to write a crap book, worse than Yale prof Erich Segal’s Love Story. Maybe when you get some time off again you should come to rural New Hampshire and meet the Irish Setter Dad children.
Buster, age 7, is a master of passive resistance who can turn staying up past his bedtime into Tahrir Square. He could hire himself out as a civil disobedience coach to Mahatma -Gandhi and Martin Luther King, if they weren’t dead. Poppet, 10, is a persuasive saleswoman, not to say charming con artist, who can hand you a sheet of black construction paper with a hole in it and convince you it’s a science project on collapsed super-novas. And Muffin, 13, has her own .410 shotgun and knows how to use it.
Try your Chinese Tiger Mom stuff on my kids.
P. J. O’Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.