HONG KONG — From my writing desk in Hong Kong, I have been reading with morbid curiosity, and some distaste, the current online controversy sparked by Amy Chua’s new book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”
The title itself, excerpted in The Wall Street Journal “Why Chinese Mom’s are Superior“ is enough to outrage even the most mild mannered soccer Mom, but the truth is, this debate gets to the root of the larger national conversation about China’s growing dominance on the world stage and in the classroom.
It is not a coincidence the fury comes as President Barack Obama is “looking to assure Americans that they should not fear China’s economic rise” following Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent high-profile visit.
Chua has clearly hit a nerve by claiming her tough, immigrant “Chinese” style of parenting — no play dates, TV, computer games and to be “the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama” — yields results Western parents covet but are too “weak-willed” or “conflicted” to enforce.
“Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best,” she claims.
Envy, one of the seven deadly sins, is especially dangerous when it relates to one’s children. Claiming to be a better, more determined parent in this age of Mommy wars is just asking for a fight, which is exactly what the author now has on her hands.
Her extreme, hard knocks, black and white approach to parenting, however, lacks two critical components: balance and some common sense.
The real issue isn’t cultural or even Chinese, it’s personal and, ironically, hyper American. After all, this Tiger Mom is a Chinese-American mother recounting her experience raising two daughters, Sophia and Louisa, in New Haven not Shanghai. She is more outlier, than mainlander, though her thesis implies otherwise.
Her attitude, fueled by a certain amount of egotism, reflects those of over demanding, American parents who dedicate large amounts of time, money and energy to their children’s future success, meticulously plotting their path from private nursery school to the Ivy Leagues.
In the end, Chua loses sight of the fact that good parenting is based on a certain amount of strictness, or structure, coupled with individualism. That kind of balanced view is what is missing from her book and perhaps this greater discussion surrounding what it means to be successful in the first place.
When Chua argues “tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America” she is right on both counts.
The problem is that by emphasizing rote repetition and memorization over individual creative thinking, choice and expression, she may well be raising high achievers but not, necessarily, leaders or innovators who can “think outside the box.”
And in that sense, Chua’s children may well inherit some similar challenges many Chinese students now face competing in the global market.
She argues her two young daughters, Sophia and Louisa, will have the discipline necessary to achieve their goals, having spent hours diligently playing the piano and violin, without the frivolous distractions of, say, summer camp and school plays.
But you have to wonder, what are the chances there would even be a Microsoft or Facebook had Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg not been able to play on their computers, fail on their own terms, (that is, drop out of Harvard) or generally choose their own extracurricular activities.
I think we all know the answer.