Amy Chua, a Yale law professor and mother of two, was unknown to most of the world until two weeks ago. On Jan. 8, the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from her then-forthcoming, now-bestselling book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Part memoir and part manifesto, the excerpt was titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” and led with a list of activities and behaviors that Chua’s two daughters, now teenagers, have never been allowed to engage in. These include “attend a sleepover,” “have a play date,” “be in a school play,” “complain about not being in a school play” and “get anything less than an A.”
That wasn’t all. Chua’s stratospherically demanding parenting technique, a carryover from her own Chinese immigrant parents, required playing violin or piano and practicing several hours a day, even if that meant rising before dawn. In a particularly harrowing passage, Chua forces her 7-year-old into learning a difficult piano piece. When the child screamed and kicked and tore up the music score, Chua hauled the girl’s dollhouse to the car and threatened to donate it to the Salvation Army.
“I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it,” Chua writes. “I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.” She also denied the girl a bathroom break as they worked on the piece well into the evening.
Needless to say, the excerpt went viral. Though many readers were appalled by her methods, others praised her for bucking the trend of parents wanting to be their kids’ best friend.
But Chua, who’s reportedly received death threats, now appears to be trying to soften her message. At Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena on Tuesday night, she was in defense mode and even a bit flustered, saying repeatedly that the excerpt had been misleading and that the book, which “poured” out of her over eight weeks, was meant to be funny in places. But even as she backed away from the deadpan, inflammatory tone of the book — and chose to read from the ending so we could see she’d changed her ways — Chua stood her ground about the effectiveness (if not necessarily the superiority) of her parenting philosophy.
“We talk about giving our kids freedom,” she said, “but the way to be free is to be able to get a good job and have the opportunities that come from hard work.”
I can’t argue with that. And, yes, I feel her pain that the Wall Street Journal went for the most incendiary stuff in “Tiger Mother” and topped it with a headline she didn’t write. But once I read the book — this can be done, cover to cover, in a few hours — it became painfully clear that Chua’s image problem isn’t really due to her mothering style. It’s due to her inability as a writer to handle the provocative tone of her book, particularly the ostensibly self-parodying aspects. (I think the dollhouse bit was an attempt to make fun of herself.) Where in real life she might be endearingly wacky, she comes across in the book as possibly crazy. For all her controlling impulses, as a writer she lacks the wit, pacing and emotional honesty to effectively control her own material.
Which is a shame really, because Chua has important things to say. Her book raises necessary questions about how permissive parenting affects not just children but society. She talks unflinchingly about the anxieties of the immigrant experience and the way the attendant work ethic feeds the myth that Asians are simply genetically smarter than Westerners.
In the end, though, I have to wonder if her lack of sensitivity to the tone and impact of her words doesn’t in fact deliver a judgment about the very upbringing she espouses.
Chua’s parenting method might garner perfect grades and test scores and multiple Harvard degrees (which she has, thank you very much). But maybe what gets sacrificed along the way is the ability to genuinely laugh at yourself, to recognize the absurd and to weave it into your existence — in other words, to hone the tools necessary for effectively seeing yourself in full, so that you can make others understand where you’re coming from.
That’s less a skill that can be learned than a gift that can come from only one source: the experience of failure. Surely no kid should be denied that.